On this very day ten years ago, I reported to my office as a member of the local Red Cross staff responsible for attempting to organize resources for a hurricane response that promised to be life changing for all in its path. That morning started around 5:00AM as I prepared for a long day of work of putting valuable and limited resources into place for the response that would begin once the storm passed through the area.
The day before had been equally long. As a sort of vacation from the work of the Red Cross, I was in Atlanta, GA for a leadership conference with Amnesty International for whom I volunteered as an organizer in Mississippi. Around lunch time, I received a text message from my best friend saying, “You’re landing is going to be a bit wet” or something to that effect. Immediately I raced to the nearest television to get the latest weather forecast and tracking for the storm named Katrina. (This was a world before the smartphone was ubiquitous and information was not yet held in the palm of our hands.) Though I do not know it for a fact, I am pretty sure that I went rather pale when I saw the track the storm was taking. It was coming right for the Mississippi coast, and I knew that I had to find a way to get back to Mississippi as quickly as possible.
The next phone call was to Delta Airlines, and I anticipated a difficult phone call with a customer service representative that just really didn’t care about my predicament. As the customer service representative came on the phone I said, “Hello. My name is Hunter, and I work for the Red Cross. I have no documentation to prove this to be true, but I must get back to Mississippi before the Gulfport airport closes. What options do you have available for me?”
To my surprise, Delta Airlines was amazing. They got me on the next available flight at no cost and thanked me for going to do the work that I was setting out to do.
As I set about my work on the day before Katrina’s landfall, I really didn’t have a clue what to expect in the response to this storm. I knew it was going to be difficult, and I knew that I was already exhausted from a hard summer of work that left little time for rest. I knew that I was going to be pushed to limits. I knew that I was going to see things that I had never seen and things that I would never be able to forget. Or at least that is what I thought.
The reality is that I can only remember snapshots in time during my time in the Katrina response. I know that I saw the face of death on weeping mothers sitting in a shelter pleading for news of her child.
I saw the worst side of humanity as people abused the aid being poured into the region from every available agency. I saw people stealing valuable food from the Red Cross and other agencies to sell at top dollar to people that had nothing. I heard stories of communities brimming with anger.
I saw the best side of humanity in the faces of volunteers that arrived driving Red Cross emergency response vehicles 5 days after landfall. I saw people willing to come into the path of destruction and give of themselves to people they saw hurting. I met a volunteer who drove to Hattiesburg, MS to donate the money his family saved for a trip to Walt Disney World to alleviate the pain and suffering of fellow human beings and then stay on as a volunteer for several weeks.
I saw friends fall to their knees at the news of the safety of their families. I saw what it meant to be so thankful that no other response was available.
I saw a government that was only interested in patting itself on its back in the face of pain and hurt and suffering. I saw myself completely lose it when I heard the then governor Haley Barbour extol the federal government for its response to Katrina when all I could see was suffering.
I witnessed the tragic nature of creation, and I witnessed my ability to do nothing about it except to keep putting one foot in front of another.
I experienced what it meant to have no place to live except in my office for weeks after Katrina. I experienced what it meant to be restored to some level of humanity by finding a respite away from the office at my mom’s, which had little damage.
The scars of Katrina are deep scars. They are scars that continue to remind me of the fragile nature of this life. They are scars that get ripped open every time a government official lauds the response to Katrina instead of owning that nothing that was done was quite good enough – including the boasts of President Obama.
Will these scars ever heal? Probably not, but maybe that is a good thing. The scars of Katrina remind me of the need to continue to strive for a just and loving world. The scars remind me that the idea of justice within the United States is far from the justice of my faith.
The scars of Katrina remind me that I am not called simply to seek justice but to love my neighbor – to go beyond simply giving them what is due. The scars of Katrina are reminders, and while I may not be able to give a narrative accounting of Katrina because I am not able to remember large swaths of it, the scars remind me that injustice cuts deeply. Perhaps one day I will be able to remember more from that time. Until then, I remember what I can, and I am shaped by that re-membering of who I am and how experiencing Katrina changed the contours of my personhood just as the storm changed the contours of the Mississippi coastline.