What is a refugee?
Had you asked prior to August 29th, 2005, I would have painted a picture with broad, distant strokes portraying, only through imagination, a group of Cubans in a converted nautical 1951 Chevy pickup traveling at a painfully slow seven knots toward what they hoped was Florida. After Hurricane Katrina devastated and disrupted the lives of my family, friends, and community, that all began to change. Eight years later, I struggle with my need to belong and the definition of home.
The need to belong ranks third on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Right after the need to eat, breathe, sleep, be healthy, and mortality. The concept of home is essential to our need for belonging. Unless you were a military brat, we all grew up somewhere. There is a fixed point on the map that we call home. For me, that place was St. Bernard Parish. I was born in the next-door-parish of Orleans, but St. Bernard was where I learned to ride a bike, go to school, have my first kiss, and play in a garage band. I always knew that I’d leave, though — explore new places and cultures — but I never once imagined there would be no home to go back to.
I certainly never thought I’d be a refugee. That distantly vague mental picture symbolized by Cuban tragedy suddenly became personal.
Before I continue, though, I’d like to acknowledge some of the most horrific losses during Hurricane Katrina that affected tens of thousands of people, if not more. They were the neighbors and friends. The loved ones. The brothers and sisters. Cousins, aunts, and uncles. Sons and daughters. Husbands and wives. Moms and dads. Their lives will never be forgotten — I will never forget that. Neither should anyone else. Natural disasters can destroy communities, relationships, and entire cities, and many of us will have to endure that pain at some point in our lifetimes.
I was one of the fortunate. I didn’t lose anyone—just my home and my possessions. The nostalgic videos of Christmas mornings, photos of generations gone by, and personal, one-of-a-kind items were the hardest to swallow. I was able to put things in perspective because there were others who were much worse off than me—those stranded at the Superdome—those trapped in the Morial Convention Center—those trapped on their roofs waiting for help. I’ve always had a knack for internalizing the positive even in the most dire of circumstances. Although many died in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many were saved, and although the response to that disaster has been the subject of debate and criticism, the crystallized view of humanity that emerged from the stories of survivors and impacted communities was bittersweet in hope and despair in the months and years following Hurricane Katrina.
Some might say I was lucky. I moved to San Francisco, met a beautiful girl, moved to New York City to work in film, and moved back to San Francisco for the beautiful girl. All of these things were not possible if it weren’t for Katrina. Yet, each time I returned home, something was missing. Something didn’t feel right.
Eventually, I figured it out. So did a lot of people.
Like me, Steven Hoffmann was a native of St. Bernard. After graduating high school in 1997, he joined the United States Air Force. During his enlistment, he said, “I couldn’t wait to move back.” After all, it was home. If you moved away from that fixed point on the map, you might understand his feelings. Even if you didn’t love where you’re from, it’s still familiar. When you went home, you ran into familiar faces at the grocery store, ate at familiar restaurants, and maybe even felt grounded. When Steven finally returned home in 2010, everything had changed. “Things changed. People didn’t seem as nice. Going to the grocery store was different.” The close knit community of “Da’ Parish,” as its lovingly referred to locally, used to be a breathing, living thing. It was by all means its own culture.
When Katrina flooded all but 8 of the 27,000 homes in St. Bernard Parish, it acted as an indirect genocide of our hometown. The social fabric of the parish drowned. The compounded effects of a little known hurricane named Rita caused residents to be homeless for months. For some, the easiest way to cope was to move on. Homes in the surrounding parishes were being purchased for more than their worth. The northern neighbor of St. Bernard, St. Tammany Parish, was jokingly called St. Tammanard because of the newly merged population.
When the media began to refer to us as Katrina refugees, I cringed. After all, we were still Americans. We weren’t refugees from other countries. But as our family, friends, and communities began to scatter, the core of who we were was fading away. Home was growing distant in the rearview mirror of our collective exodus. Nicole Bauer LaCava lived her entire life in Chalmette and says this is what she lost the most.
“Our family, friends, and everything we needed used to be literally two minutes away. Now we can’t have a family gathering without someone traveling at least an hour.”
After I moved away, I noticed how deep my relationship with home was when I’d visit. My arrival in New Orleans would spark a frenzy of messages and phone calls—all wanting to get together and catch up. Had Katrina never happened, this would have been an easy task, but with everyone having been displaced to surrounding cities and parishes, it was a logistical nightmare. My brother was in Hammond, my parents were in Slidell, one group of friends were in Metairie, some were in St. Bernard, and others were in Covington. Each of these places was an hour or more away from one another. Add the conflicting responsibilities of kids, jobs, and other obligations then you begin to realize how getting everyone together could be considered an Olympic sport.
Some of us were determined to make it back to Da’ Parish. Folks like Tiffany Clement Andrisani.
“I was one of the people who couldn’t wait to get back to St. Bernard after the storm. We bought a fixed up house in Meraux. I lasted about two years. I just couldn’t do it. The home that I knew was no longer there. The place lacked character. In place of all the home grown businesses that we had grown up with were a bunch of generic, throw ‘em up quick places mixed with the big chains coming in with their new and shiny buildings. Nothing held memories. I can still drive down Judge Perez today and feel like I don’t know where I am.”
Tiffany now lives in Long Island, Nicole lives in Jefferson Parish, and Steven lives in St. Tammany. It took us a while to realize what we really lost in Katrina. What remains of the St. Bernard Parish we knew and loved can only be found in our hearts and souls. And if home is where the heart is, there are stories to be told.
The memories we can never show you will be our burden to carry for the rest of our lives. At least we still have those, right?
You can call us flood victims or survivors. Heck, you can even call us displaced—but without a place to call home, may as well call us the refugees. No matter what name you give us, whether you love or loathe your home — I hope you’ll be grateful that you still have one.
Eight years ago today, Katrina’s strong winds and storm surges affected the lives of many on the Gulf Coast. My story is one of many, so please find yours and tell it.
Thank you to Swede White, Tiffany Andrisani, Christopher Ard, Carlyn Leeds, Steven Hoffmann, Brandon Cressy, and Nicole LaCava for your contributions.
To the people who grew up in St. Bernard Parish, this is for you … and ya mamma n dem.