Tuesday, August 29, 6:20 a.m., Hammond, Louisiana — It’s been a year now, one year since Hurricane Katrina destroyed people’s lives, dreams, and homes, including my home of St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year. When I was younger, years seemed slower, steadier. Time stretched longer then. Time wasn’t important. This year was different. It flew by, and unless I concentrate hard on remembering, it’s all a blur in my head.
I remember distinct things: the bathroom mirror in the hotel in Bossier City, where I first evacuated; the smell of the dorm at LSMSA; the wonderful spaghetti I ate in Provencal; the FEMA camper where I lived for nine months. Those are the things that come to mind when I think of this past year, all distorted images stuck in some twisted kaleidoscope. The only time I can remember as vividly as ever is how it all started.
I recall leaving my St. Bernard early in the morning, before the sun had even started to rise. I remember that trip, the headlights, the tears. I remember the phone call when we learned that our home was gone, the feel of the hotel comforter beneath me, the cold touch of the travel camper. There are so many memories that will never disappear, but there are others that are already fading away. Sometimes, I forget how our house used to look, used to feel. It’s part of the past now, and there aren’t many pictures left of how things once were. The reminders aren’t photographs. Instead, the reminders of the past are the piles of debris that still, even now, line the streets and the gutted homes, shells of a life that once flourished here.
We had brown carpet. It was sort of shaggy and there were designs that ran through it. I used to dig my toes into it, dig deep and feel the hard floor far below. The carpet we have in my home is tan now, not brown and rich. We don’t have furniture yet, and things seem too strange for it to be my old home. It’s different now. Everything is different.
I started college in Hammond, Louisiana, the area where I finished high school after Hurricane Katrina destroyed my own. It’s called Southeastern Louisiana University, and I am happy here. I worked very hard for my scholarship to come here, and I want to get the best experience I can. I want to learn more. I want to be better.
I am majoring in English, and hopefully one day, I will find myself in a publishing house or a literary agency, helping writers as so many people have helped me. I will always write. It’s in me, part of me. When things turn against me, words are blessings I can depend on. They’re inside of me.
Sometime during all of this, when I wasn’t looking, someone hit me with the wisdom stick. I grew up, but it had started before Katrina. When Shelby left, it started. Katrina just gave me the means to get stronger, better than I ever was before.
I am wiser than before. I feel older, more responsible. I see the bigger picture more than my friends do. I want to succeed in everything I do, and I understand that there are always sacrifices. Always. Sometimes we choose them; other times our hardships come out of nowhere and knock us down. It’s up to ourselves to push back.
I don’t give in without a fight anymore. I am determined. I am dedicated to the things I love and to the friends who have stayed by my side for so long. Because of my experiences, I learned to flow. I learned to adapt to whatever comes my way. There are things I can’t change, and I accept that. I can’t control everything, but I learned that if I work hard enough, I can make things better. It just takes time. Everything takes time. Healing takes time — healing from heartache, healing from every storm in life we are forced to endure. Forgiveness takes time. This is what I know from experience: you can’t make things happen when you want them to. Some things are beyond your power, beyond your influence. Begging doesn’t accomplish anything. If you are lucky, the friends you have hurt will forgive you when they are ready, and it’s up to you to be strong and handle that burden of guilt. I understand guilt. It weighs down on you until you want to break, but you can’t. Guilt eats at you from the inside, but time heals it. Time opens the window for you to seek forgiveness again from that friend you hurt, allows healing. Patience is hard, but no one can rush things.
I lost my mind the summer before Katrina, and I only found myself again well after the hurricane. I had to relearn happiness. I was confused, and I hurt people in that confusion, friends I loved. It’s better now. I have the forgiveness I waited months for, and I have everything I could ask for: I’m in a great college; I have friends who love me for me, no matter what; I don’t have guilt; and at night, there’s a bed waiting for me. In my little refrigerator, there’s a gallon of milk, and on my bed, the stuffed monkey I evacuated with sits on my pillow.
I am incredibly happy inside. I wish I could bottle this emotion and keep it with me for the rest of my life, but I know that there will be other hurricanes — both real ones as well as the other storms that wreck our lives — for me to overcome. But I know a little something I didn’t know before: I’m better than that. I’m stronger than anything that comes my way. I will make it through, and in the end, there’s always happiness. You just have to fight for it. It’s up to you to do that.
I changed a lot this past year. A lot of the music I used to listen to now reminds me of darker times. It’s hard to listen to some of the songs I used to love because I remember things I’ve done, the weakness I felt, the lack of control. It’s not easy. It never is.
I don’t know what this journal means to everyone who reads it. So many people have read what I’ve written and helped me. So many people have done things for me I would never have imagined possible. The kindness people showed me amazes me still today.
I don’t really understand why so many people have helped me, and I don’t know how many people have read my journals or why. What I do hope is that I can help you as you all have helped me.
This journal wasn’t about the hurricane. It was something more than that, at least to me. I went through a lot of pain this past year, but I made it out all right. It’s always possible. Some people say that a good night’s sleep solves everything, but that’s not always true. It’s real courage when you wake up to a world that hurts you. It’s real strength to wake up and get through each day. No matter who you are, you always have the chance to make the world better, even by the smallest action. The people I met through The Tattoo taught me that, and I will work hard to spread the kindness that was shown to me.
I will never be able to thank all the people who have helped me in this last year. From my friends in Santa Clarita to the Denver Post to Ms. Ruth-Ann, the Moulin family, and Maribeth, who are all angels. I owe everyone so much, and I hope that I will make all of you proud. I’ve grown stronger because of you.
My gypsy life hasn’t stopped. It was so strange when I moved here to the dorm on campus. My mom said I was leaving home, but it doesn’t feel that way. I feel too battle-weary to become attached to things like houses. I’ve slept in too many beds, come back to too many places at the end of the day. I was only in the house we rebuilt for a couple of short weeks. There wasn’t any furniture. I kept most of my clothes on the floor because I don’t have anywhere else to put them. When I sat with my parents to watch television, we sat on the floor. It isn’t the home I remember, and I wasn’t there long enough to make any connection with this new place. Maybe that’s why I adjusted to the dorm so easily. It’s just space. A place to stop at the end of the day, a bed to sleep in. What more could I ask for?
My home, the home I still love, is in my heart. It will always be there inside of me wherever I go, the water of the marsh and lake, the jokes at the giant family gatherings, going to school with my cousins. That place is my home, not houses, not dorm rooms, not travel campers. I lived in all, but home isn’t where the trailer stops. Home is inside of me. It goes with me everywhere I go in my memory. The St. Bernard Parish I love died this day last year, but I will always remember it. It will always — always — be with me, as will the culture that raised me. I won’t let it fade away.
Where I am from is important to me, just as important as where I’m going. I lost a lot of faith this past year, but when I think back, maybe it was God who set me on this path. The cell phone my mom wanted to give my grandparents that day we left St. Bernard a year ago was hidden in the Bible case. The waterline in my house stopped just below the frame of a picture of Jesus. It might be all coincidence, but maybe that means something.
My mom’s parents are living in a house trailer in Hammond, only ten minutes from my college. Their house was recently gutted, but they aren’t sure if they want to run the risk. Coming back is a commitment so many families are unwilling to make. I can’t blame them. Not really. The sickening part of reality is that all of this could happen again tomorrow.
My paternal grandparents are still in nursing homes, and we miss them. They are over two hours away, and my grandmother wants to come home, home to St. Bernard. I wish we could bring her back here, but there isn’t much of a house left.
Life goes on, though. We can’t stop that. My high school, Archbishop Hannan, is relocating to the North Shore, not too far from my college. It’s not home, but it’s a start. A new location was the sacrifice my school had to pay to stay alive.
Just before Hurricane Katrina destroyed my high school, we were reading Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon in English class. In the play, we’re told that “wisdom comes through suffering.” I believe in that. We have to be tested before we grow. It’s how we grow.
Everyone in this world will have to endure storms of their own. Flooded, we fall and break, tossed about, tumbling. We can’t avoid that, but we can make things better when these storms happen. It took me a long time to realize that, and my journey over this past year has taken me many places. I don’t regret it. Terrible things happened this past year, to me, to my family, to my parish, and to the Gulf Coast, but we’re tough. All of us. People. Human beings. We fight back.
Thank you all for everything you have done for me. I am grateful for having this chance to tell my story, to let the world know what really happened in St. Bernard Parish, to New Orleans. It’s not all about the cost of new levees, the logistics of building new shelters, the game of who’s to blame for this destruction. When the time of the threat comes, it’s about emotions, and that’s what matters the most. This journal was about emotions.
I will never be able to thank you enough. I hope — more than anything — that I will make everyone proud. I will continue to learn and grow and write. My journey isn’t over, and I will always be a “Katrina kid.” But maybe that’s not something others should pity. We were given an opportunity to become better, grow wiser. Every day in every life is an opportunity. All we need is the strength to make the world a better place.
This day last year, people died. Bodies lined the rivers that were streets. Homes were flooded, possessions lost. This is a dark day, but there has been so much good in the world: the volunteers who came to clean out houses, the aid of strangers who blessed so many lives, and the people across the country who took in refugees.
My name is Samantha Perez, and I am from St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, a place just southeast of New Orleans. I am now a freshman in university, studying to become an English major. I have lived many places in the past year because my home was destroyed by powerful Hurricane Katrina, which one year ago from today changed life for everyone.
Samantha Perez is a Reporter for Youth Journalism International.