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Disaster by proxy: I missed my cities' seminal tragedies

Editor's note: Yes, the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is over. But reader submissions continue to come in. In the spirit of remembrance, we offer a few lingering recollections.

I am a New Orleanian, but I didn’t fight my way out of the attic with an axe during Katrina. I didn’t wade through chin-high toxic soup in the black of night to make my way to a shelter of last resort. I didn’t even ride it out as an evacuee in Texas, like my mother and so many others.

In fact, I was at a delightful resort in Italy, near Lake Como, on a trip for work. I happened to meet up there with a high-school friend from New Orleans, and it was together that we first saw the image on TV of a monstrous hurricane covering nearly the entire Gulf of Mexico, bearing down on our home state.

“Wow, that looks ominous,” we said, unable to glean much detail from the Italian news coverage, and called our respective families to see what they were planning. The effects of half a bottle of Brunello were quickly replaced by the pang of not being there to help my mother pack up and get out of harm’s way.

It was a feeling I was all too familiar with, having experienced something similar in 2001. That time, it was a work trip to the south of France, not the Italian lakes, overseeing a training program for a global group of management consultants. I was living in New York then, sharing an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen with a high school friend and my older sister, a newly-minted lawyer who had moved to the city two weeks prior. They both worked downtown.

Early in the afternoon of September 11, I stopped by the coffee bar at the hotel – probably to grab my third chocolate croissant of the day (I had been unceremoniously dumped by my boyfriend the previous week and was still smarting), and I noticed several hotel staff gathered around a television. Like much of the world at that moment, they were watching CNN’s video of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center. As we saw the second plane hit – and realized this was more than an aviation mishap – we scrambled to halt the proceedings of our training program and allow participants from the U.S. – we had several from New York – to contact their families back home.

I was busy doing the same and couldn’t reach my sister or roommate, but I did get through to another friend who worked on Wall Street. “We are okay,” she said, “And I – Oh my god, everyone is running!” And with that, the line went dead. The first tower had fallen.

While I wrung my hands in front of the television in Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer, transfixed by the noxious cloud that may or may not have consumed those closest to me, my sister was trapped in the glassed-in conference room of her office in Battery Park, watching as people jumped in desperation from the towers, before finally being released to walk home through the open-air crematorium of lower Manhattan. Our roommate, who exited the subway at the World Trade Center just after the first plane hit, then dodged a fireball at her Deutsche Bank office, managed to find her boss and run – in her heels – to a safe location uptown.

I couldn’t get a flight home until the following Tuesday. It was Rosh Hashanah, but hardly an auspicious beginning to the New Year. As I rode in the cab from JFK to our apartment, I was convinced that the whole world had shifted during those seven days, that the people who had been through it would never be the same, that the city would never be the same. Nothing would be. I blamed myself for not being home to comfort my sister and my friends, and for the fact that I would never know what it meant to be there in New York that morning.

While I had missed the main event, however, I was soon afforded my share of suffering when my father was diagnosed with lung cancer in October and died in November. But that was in New Orleans, and I was in New York, adding a hair shirt beneath the cloak of guilt I had been sporting in the weeks since 9/11.

***

Over the next few years, things started looking up. I met my now husband, got engaged, and moved to Philadelphia while he completed his medical residency. Our wedding was planned for March 2006 in New Orleans, something to look forward to after the difficult few years since my father’s passing. We had no intention of moving to New Orleans, but we thought it would be a fun place to hold the wedding and easier for my mother to be involved.

After Katrina hit on August 29, 2005, and as its impact became apparent, I returned to my Philadelphia office, where I sobbed my eyes out while continuously refreshing news websites for the latest grim details.

My mother was safe in Texas, but her home had flooded. Our friends up north urged us to move the wedding to New York, where my husband’s family lived. But I was determined to support my ragged city, to show them that I really cared, even though I hadn’t been through their tragedy.

We flew down to New Orleans several weeks after Katrina, as soon as they opened up the parishes for homeowners to salvage what they could from the wreckage. When we landed in New Orleans, the airport still felt like a morgue. Though the bodies and triage units were gone, the specter of emergency still hung in the air, encircling the rows of seats that had not yet been set right, over the baggage carousels where dying elderly patients had lain. In my moldy childhood home, we emptied 30 years of living into Steel Sak trash bags, pausing occasionally to ask my mother, “Do you want to keep this?” to which the answer was invariably a curt “No.” When my fiancé suggested that we should probably be wearing masks and gloves for the cleanup, she silenced him with an eye roll.

After a stint in a Texas motel, my mom was lucky enough to get a room in a rental house with friends in a suburb of New Orleans. We spent a surreal Christmas 2005 with them in "the compound." The boxed wine was tapped around 7 a.m. on Christmas morning and didn’t stop flowing. We drove around the city assessing the progress – or lack thereof – in different neighborhoods, gliding silently through major intersections with no working traffic signals, surrounded by mountains of other people’s debris and feeling like guilty pretenders.

***

We ultimately held our wedding in the French Quarter in December 2006, about 15 months after Katrina. It was beautiful, and I was proud to import 200 out-of-town guests to spend their money in the city’s bars, shops and restaurants. Like many in the New Orleans diaspora in the years following Katrina, we were drawn to the story of rebuilding, of the need to take part in a renaissance that no one could have imagined 10 years earlier.

We moved home in 2010, to a pink house that didn’t flood during the storm. My husband works in the brand new downtown medical center. We enjoy restaurants, businesses and traditions that have been around for generations and many that have sprung up over the past decade. We are surrounded by friends and neighbors who are natives and transplants or, like me, transplanted natives.

As I took in this week’s considerable media coverage of Katrina and its aftermath, I again had plenty of sobbing at my desk. Sorrow for the incredible losses, guilt that I wasn’t part of their suffering, but also gratitude that I’m here now. And finally ready to shed the hair shirt.

At least until I miss the next disaster.