Watching from afar as the Gulf Coast suffers yet another devastating catastrophe, I am reminded of the two months I spent in New Orleans last year, watching the city continue to struggle for air in the lingering aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
I talked with many New Orleanians who were struggling to find meaning behind their seemingly unequal proportion of adversity. Some truly believe the region is cursed, that the citizens are being punished, and some muse that humans are not even meant to live there. However, no one even considers what many outsiders would automatically suggest: leaving the city.
New Orleans is as culturally different from Seattle as possible, and at times it truly felt like a foreign country to me. They even have their own language, Louisianan French, including words such as lagniappe, meaning "a little something extra" an idea that really epitomizes the city itself. The turquoises, sea foam greens, and coral colors of the houses channel the Caribbean, the glowing streets at night reminded me of a lazy Las Vegas, and the influences of Africa, Haiti, France, and the Canary Islands form a mix of art, music and language that have melded together to create a uniquely Louisianan culture unlike anywhere else in the world.
The locals call their hometown "The City that Care Forgot," so named during the 1930s for its laid-back attitude. The city is alive with the buzzing of artists and jazz musicians. The crawfish season, tomato harvest, or any excuse became a celebration, and these festivals seemed to occur every weekend while I was there. However, beneath all this excitement pervades a deep sadness. "Katrina," a familiar lament on every tongue, brought to light the extreme poverty of the region, as well as creating a devastation that even now, five years later, is striking. On a tour of the infamous 9th Ward, I gazed at cement stoops leading to nothing but overgrown grasses, the stark empty lots a hollow reminder of the lost homes and the lost families. The feeling of abandonment and hopelessness during Hurricane Katrina brought a new poignancy to the moniker "The City that Care Forgot."
Now there is a fresh tragedy, not as deadly, but economically and ecologically devastating nonetheless. At times it is hard to empathize because of the distance between us, but the Gulf Coast needs our support and solidarity to stay strong. There is an image circling the Internet of the oil spill superimposed over the Seattle area, attempting to inspire the thought: "what if it happened to me?" Would I leave my home and never come back? Would my brothers and sisters across the country band together and show their support? Most Seattleites would never dream of leaving the mountains, the green landscape, the salmon houses, and coffee shops; just as New Orleanians would never leave their jazz, their Gulf shrimp, their sandy beaches and art-filled plazas. Perhaps the people of The Gulf celebrate life so vivaciously because they understand the fragility of it. Through the ashes, the floodwaters and the oil slicks, the city is reborn resilient and wiser over and over. While we wish that we never have to feel their pain, we should hope to one day experience the pure joie de vivre of New Orleans.