We watched endless hours of CNN and groaned as Wolf Blitzer butchered every clich about the city as well as pronunciations of local landmarks and names. Still, gleaning news only from cable TV, it seemed New Orleans was safe. At first. Then came the actual news from home.
"My mom says the water is rising," one friend exclaimed, snapping shut her cell phone.
We all silently, collectively realized that the long-feared doomsday scenario had come. The television's images soon captured this reality, and media-fueled hysteria soon followed. Floating bodies. Burning buildings. Looting. The way some reported it, you'd think the sky had fallen and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were galloping down Canal Street.
When the smoke cleared, I found myself in the same boat as many New Orleanians: House destroyed. Job gone. Nowhere to go, nothing to do. I bought into the hysteria to some degree, with my darkest fears informing me no one would return to New Orleans ever again. I had two pairs of shorts, two shirts, a pair of flip-flops and a $2,000 check from Uncle Sam. So, what do you do?
Some remember it as the "K-cation." More crassly, others called it "playing your K-card."
No matter how you describe the sad, strange time when the city's population was forced to scatter across the country -- and, in some cases, the world -- Katrina clearly emptied our swampy cocoon. We suddenly had to engage the rest of America in the wake of an unprecedented disaster. The best and worst in human nature surfaced. New Orleans was rightly celebrated as the nation's most vibrant, unique and soulful city, but also exposed as not the Big Easy, but a place where life was often hard by virtue of entrenched social ills and deeper divisions.
"When life gives you lemons, make lemonade," the saying goes. With that in mind, I set out on a journey to explore, experience and squeeze a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity out of Katrina's lemons.
For a six-week stretch immediately after Katrina, I criss-crossed the country, finding fellow evacuees every step of the way. A new local slogan says, "Be a New Orleanian Wherever You Are." We were.
In Charleston, S.C., I met a self-described Yat in utter disbelief over the Lowcountry custom there of steaming oysters. "Dey take da damn ersters here an' cook 'em!" he exclaimed. "Can you believe dat?"
In Virginia -- where I was given free lodging in a country cabin, along with some clothes to keep me warm, examples of the bottomless generosity America showed in our time of need -- I was playing golf when I heard a shout of "Aiieee!" from a mountaintop tee box, and later found a drunken foursome of raging Cajuns from devastated Plaquemines Parish letting the good times roll, no matter what.
I attended a rollicking dinner party in rural New Mexico where everyone was from New Orleans, a night spiced up by a chef doing the cooking and an art curator doing the talking.
At Halloween, the group of friends I evacuated with, now spread out from Florida to California, reunited in Las Vegas for a four-day music fest, Vegoose, put on by New Orleans-launched promoters Superfly. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but let's just say we partied like New Orleanians.
Despite those good times -- which, admittedly, came in a state of denial that could not process all the death and destruction back home -- I encountered the worst in human nature. Namely racism, a vile legacy I hoped at first that Katrina would finally erase, given the storm's exposure of how it still severely cripples our city today.
In Shreveport, I heard a guy say, "I don't know what the fuss is all about -- the storm's just killing off the n-------."
Fleeing that sentiment in disgust, I found racism again at my next stop, a tailgate before Auburn University's opening football game, when a guy told me, "I had a check for the Red Cross made out, but I tore it up after seeing all that crap on TV. I ain't giving my money to a bunch of thugs and criminals."
"I was gonna help," his friend chimed in, "until they started playing the race card."
The race card was being played in the New Orleans area, too, as friends told me about going to a dinner party on the Northshore where the host began the meal with a toast to Katrina ridding the city of its majority-black population.
Despite that attitude, the New Orleans I found upon my first return in October was surprisingly refreshing. You could feel a new sense of optimism, a palpable determination to solve our problems and build America's only 21st century city that would one day become the New Jerusalem. Yet, a combination of machine gun-toting troops, no stores, no employment prospects and no place to stay led me to leave once again. After confirming my suspicion that everything in my former Lakeview residence was destroyed, I decided to hit the road. The gypsy wave carried me along well.
FEMA never gave me the second round of checks I kept hearing about, and to this day the agency tells me my case is pending (sound familiar?). But, I had some money left, and I figured the American dollar would carry me a lot farther south of the border.
Over the following months, I bused, hiked and hitchhiked my way from Mexico to Panama. I was blessed enough to learn some Spanish, surf in El Salvador and volunteer for recovery efforts in a Mayan community in Guatemala decimated by Hurricane Stan. Farther into my travels, I ached in my heart for home, until I finally realized -- like so many others -- what it truly means to miss New Orleans. Perhaps it was because I witnessed first-hand just how much we're influenced here by Latin culture. The joie de vivre is the same, no matter if you're seeing it in the faces of children dancing in streets where music is the rhythm of life or in families gathering around a boiling pot of seafood and spice.
I budgeted myself to where I could survive down there -- often spending as little as $2 a day -- until Jazz Fest. I made it back here flat broke, bouncing between places to stay and paychecks until finally achieving some sense of security with steady work and an apartment to call my own. This comes despite rents that don't make it easy to return, despite having been robbed several times, showing me that these days life here is as tough as ever, if not tougher.
But, like you, I'm here -- loving the food, hearing the music and sipping on that sweet glass of lemonade.