Truer Words Have Never Been Said
Six things not to say to a Katrina survivor
Monday, August 28, 2006
Not too long ago, a well-intentioned fellow from somewhere else began to tell me what he thought we should do to return our city to "normal." I stopped listening immediately.
Processing the encounter later, I realized that I have reached my limit on helpful suggestions from well-meaning advisers. Outsiders may not realize how familiar residents of New Orleans are with our own failures -- before and since the storm. This list is crafted to help family members and friends avoid blunders that can kill a conversation or incite civil unrest. I've heard all of these questions and comments in one form or another over the last few months.
"Hey, why don't you guys clean up this mess?"
We're working as hard as we can. The implication that we have not been working is an insult and does not recognize the amazing expenditure of energy and time and resources in the flood zone this past year. I calculate that if every barge and train and sea-going vessel that visits the Port of New Orleans were to haul nothing but debris, it would take 18 months to clean up the destruction of our city. And that's if the debris were all neatly packaged and ready for containers. Just the ruined mattresses, lined up, would stretch from here to Chicago.
We've made a lot of progress in the first year. We fight the discouragement of knowing that we have just begun. This is going to take years.
"When my neighbor's roof sprung a leak, we all pitched in and fixed it."
No situation you have experienced in your past is anything close to the scale of this destruction. No neighbors are left to pitch in. Everyone's hammers and kitchens and garages and vehicles are gone. In fact, the neighborhood itself is gone, along with all its landmarks and stores.
"If you think this is bad, you should have seen Blanktown after the tornado."
You may believe that it will comfort us to know that you have seen worse. We just don't believe it. Multiply your tornado damage by 10,000 and you might get close to what happened to us. Every day I struggle again to fully comprehend the breadth and depth of this tragedy. It's the hardest thing I do -- experiencing the devastation visually and relationally every day.
"It's been a year. You need to get over it."
The problem is -- it's not over. Just yesterday my good friend announced his departure to Texas. An elderly couple decided they were too old to be part of this task and will move to Mississippi.
My insurance bill just arrived, and it's 80 percent more than last year. The countertops won't be here until October.
My child's friend lost her dad to suicide. Thieves stole my air conditioning unit. The parish clerk cannot find my marriage license.
No lawyer is left to render defense in a court system that's almost shut down. And 80 percent of the psychiatrists have departed permanently -- just when we needed them the most.
We are living in a continuing urban disaster of unprecedented proportions. It's living in emergency mode as a way of life. It's 12 hours of commuting and working, two hours of repairing bathrooms and kitchens, and six hours of "rest" in a FEMA trailer with the wife and kids.
I can't get over it, and I won't. What I have to do is somehow stay healthy spiritually as I integrate this into my heart and soul. So I am mustering all my faith and love and hope trying to stay positive in my upside-down world.
"God's not through. He's gonna wipe y'all out next time."
The Book of Job records that Job's friends came to see him after the disaster. They sat in silence for seven days and did not say one word. (That would be a good start for the person who made this remark.)
Then Job's friends made a mistake -- they spoke. Everybody would have been a lot happier if they had just sat in silence for seven more days -- or years.
Maybe God aimed Katrina at New Orleans. Maybe the Devil did it. Maybe it was highs and lows and prevailing winds and water temperatures in the Gulf. But one thing is for sure -- you don't know. So don't tell me you do. I don't want to hear it.
"Say, could I get your picture standing on what's left of your house?"
We're still a little sensitive about our stuff, even if it is piled out on the street. Maybe especially then. This debris represents the material accumulation of many years of hard work. It's junk now. We know that. But we're not too eager to pose with our pain yet. We haven't put on our makeup, and we look a mess. This may have been the most photographed city in America before the storm, and maybe that's still the case. But for now, I'll pass on the picture.
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David Crosby is the pastor of First Baptist Church in New Orleans. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.