My mother drove down the empty I-10 highway from New Orleans back to Dallas. The summer sky, a hazy mixture of orange and yellow, rested over our heads; night was approaching. I sat in the passenger seat of our rental car with a seven-pound bag of crawfish on my lap. That morning, my mother and I had arrived in New Orleans for the first time in almost a year and now we were leaving, again.
When we first evacuated from New Orleans, I was 10. During the first week of fifth grade, whispers buzzed amongst the adults around me: “Is it gonna be as bad as they say it is? They’re comparing it to Hurricane Betsy.” Teachers gossiped with each other while monitoring classes at recess. At home, I overheard my mom talking to her sisters on the phone about the approaching storm; they agreed that it would just be hard wind and rain. But later that week, I arrived home during the mayor’s televised public warning: “We are under a mandatory evacuation…We urge you to leave the city and find shelter.” The gravity of the mayor’s tone, and a trip to the supermarket where there was hardly any food left on the shelves, convinced my mom that we should evacuate.
My parents, my two aunts, and two of my cousins piled into two cars and left a day before the storm hit. We drove to Meridian, Mississippi, to stay with my uncle for the weekend. My cousin and I, who’d never visited more than two states, thought of evacuation as an adventure. Whenever we passed a statue or plaque in a new state, I read them through the window and pretended they were quick history lessons on a place we would probably never visit again. My uncle’s blue house was large, welcoming, and spacious, but when it was time to sleep, the seven of us made the living area look small as we shared two couches and floor.
When my family extended our stay in Mississippi by a week, I knew something was wrong. I watched CNN reports on the disaster unfolding in my home: Our “adventure” had become an escape. My eldest cousin left for Tulane University in California, to resume his studies, while my remaining cousin and I started school locally. One afternoon, my uncle took one of the couch pillows to get resown because there was a tiny hole forming in the middle. The pillow had that blemish when we arrived in Mississippi a month earlier; when he took something comfortable from beneath our heads, I knew he meant that we should find another place to sleep. I’d been taught that family should help each other in times of need, and I didn’t fully understand why my uncle acted so spitefully. We packed our bags and drove around Texas, finally deciding to stay in Dallas.
We were living in a hotel when our family received housing vouchers, which allowed New Orleanians to live rent free in an apartment for a year. We made plans to settle in a nice apartment, and my mom and aunt found a great school for my cousin and I to attend. The following week, the landlord called and cancelled our rooms. Our housing voucher had been denied, and we were left scrambling to find a place to live. The hotel was our temporary home for three months before we found an apartment complex in North Dallas, close to Richardson, TX. My parents and I stayed in one apartment, my aunt and my cousin in another, and my eldest aunt in an apartment by herself. I started a new school where I was shocked to find myself one of the few black students in my new school, especially coming from New Orleans, where people of color made up the majority of the city’s population.
Kids and teachers believed children from New Orleans were less educated and talked “funny,” they also assumed they knew our stories. One day in class, my teacher announced, “Karisma was there when the levees broke. Do you remember seeing the sandbags they put on the ground to soak up the water?” Without ever asking me, she had simply assumed that I was like the New Orleanians she had seen on her TV, that I was there when the city flooded. I never corrected her or explained the journey that my family had taken; I already felt out of place and I still hoped that this move was temporary. My assigned counselor would ask me how I was feeling and whether my family was able to afford to live in the city. The way people talked about New Orleans was as if it was a developing nation far away; I felt like a refugee in my own country. I made friends with girls also from New Orleans, and we talked about what home meant now that we no longer had one. At the same time, my family experienced more devastation when my eldest aunt died after complications with diabetes. By the time the school year ended and summer arrived, I felt like I had lived a whole lifetime. I was also thrilled: We were moving back.
When my mother and I arrived for a brief visit to survey the damage, New Orleans looked nothing like I remembered. As we drove through our old neighborhood, flooded buildings leaned as if they would crumble before our eyes; metal gates stood rusting; bricks littered the pothole-infested streets; houses were marked with large, spray “X’s” painted by the National Guard. The city was a Creole Atlantis. Our house, which was completely submerged underwater, needed to be gutted and restored before we could move back in. Most of our family photographs washed away, and what furniture remained in the house was molded and broken. Everything I cherished was gone. As we drove back up the I-10 to Dallas, the silence in the car was ghastly. I began to eat the seven pounds of Louisiana crawfish without any water, fearing the town I once loved would never truly feel like home again.
What does one do when her home becomes a memory, when her personal paradise crumbles to dust? Simple: she rebuilds.
Despite the damage, my parents and I were determined to move back home. We had never fully adjusted to life in Dallas and more and more of our former neighbours were returning to New Orleans. In order to start middle school in New Orleans that August, my mom and I packed an ample supply of clothes while my father stayed in Dallas until the lease on our apartment was up. Going home also meant saying goodbye: My younger aunt decided to stay in Dallas, since she had found a job she liked. In New Orleans, my mother and I stayed with a family friend and shared a bed in one of the rooms of their home. I started sixth grade at Lusher Charter School and reunited with many of my childhood friends: We’d exchange stories about the cities we’d been evacuated to, and talk about how long it had been since we moved back home. The school year passed faster than I expected—life wasn’t back to normal, but it was nice to be back in an increasingly familiar place. The school year came to a close, my father moved to New Orleans with us, and we lived together in a hotel in the uptown area for almost six months while our landlord began renovating our house.
In order to relearn the landscape of a city I had almost forgotten, on the weekends my mother and I would catch the streetcar to the French Quarter. As we walked down Canal Street, my mom would tell me about the buildings that used to be there—now replaced by new stores—and share stories of when she was a girl, when New Orleans was a more affordable city. With her, I got to time-travel, while we walked along the streetcar and palm trees. But still, life was nowhere near perfect.
We watched tourists assemble, marveling at a city they thought had been reborn. But, I thought, I knew better. They would never know the tuba players that paraded down the cobblestone streets, the street artists who painted your picture, the small children whose tap shoes slapped bricks as they danced for spare change—all gone. An aura of secrecy clouded the air: Only those who had lived here before the hurricane knew that this was just a replica, no city could be rebuilt so quickly. And there was something so vulgar about flaunting a repaired community when our inhabitants could not access the treatment they needed: Mental illness was on the rise and many residents are still suffering from PTSD, anxiety, and depression. What seemed intact had now begun to crack, and it looked almost impossible to repair. It wasn’t just the city that felt fractured. With my own family spread across three different states—California, Texas, and Louisiana—I knew there was work to be done to prevent creeping feelings of estrangement and separation.
My city has undergone devastating changes: The number of its residents has decreased by almost two million, neighborhoods still haven’t recovered. But I have also learned that a person’s life is like a city: it takes years to build and only moments to fall—and it can rise again. New Orleans is a constant reminder that no matter where I go—despite destruction, distance, and time—just like my city, I am strong, resilient, and moving forward. Nothing can get in the way of my restoration. My home is a tower of culture and tradition, astounding because of its inhabitants. Its legacy, and mine, is still being constructed. ♦
Karisma Price is from New Orleans, Louisiana. She is currently a junior at Columbia University double majoring in Creative Writing and Film Studies. When not stressing over exams, she enjoys listening to Michael Bublé and roaming around Barnes and Noble.