Time and Lowland Louisianans: Time Perspectives in College Student Narratives of their Hurricane Katrina Experiences

By Donna Bonner


During fall 2005, only a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the University of New Orleans (UNO) began holding classes. As both an alumni and a long-term adjunct professor at UNO, I take pride in the fact that this public university, which has long educated New Orleans' ethnically and racially diverse working class, was the only area university to hold fall classes, thus allowing students to engage in productive and potentially therapeutic endeavors while they were experiencing the fall-out of the disaster in their lives. Prior to Katrina's coming, I was contracted to teach the senior level course "Ethnicity in Contemporary Society" during the fall semester. Following Katrina, the chair of the department contacted me to see if I would teach this course on-line to students, mostly native New Orleanians or long-term residents of the city, who were now scattered throughout the nation from New England to the West Coast.

I redesigned the course and asked the 30 students who signed on to explore with me how race, ethnicity, class, neighborhood affiliation, age, and other aspects of identity affected our experiences of the storm and its aftermath. We read articles together and posted our comments. We posed questions and debated our responses. We questioned our city's past, present, and future in terms of racial, ethnic, and class relations, as well as our city's relationship to the rest of the nation and the federal and state government. Finally perhaps most importantly, we wrote about our experiences and posted these for comment.

Along with providing a forum for learning, the class became an on-line support group in which we confided to one another our difficulties in dealing with trauma and loss and in understanding ourselves as New Orleanians living either in diaspora (or "exile" as many put it) or living in a greatly changed city. As two students noted:

Although I (and everyone around me) have lost a lot, many of us have also learned a lot. This class has made me think about a lot of issues, and I have had to view a lot of things critically.

It [sharing with the class] lets students know that they are not alone in this struggle. People can make comments, support, and sympathize. I know this is a class for a grade, but I think this is very therapeutic.1

The majority of the students donated their narratives and postings for use in my research concerning the implications of the Katrina experience for New Orleanians. This essay provides a discussion of students' perspectives on time flow during the height of the disaster as evidenced in their "Katrina experience" narratives

In late September, a month after the Katrina disaster, students were asked to write a narrative detailing their experiences of the storm and its aftermath. Students were told to represent their experiences in whatever format they wished, with no requirements in terms of types of information included, genre, or style of presentation. The students responded with fairly straightforward narratives ranging in length from 1 to 25 pages, with all narratives including data about their emotional and intellectual responses to events.

Disaster researchers Oliver-Smith and Hoffman point out:

"Ownership" of a disaster, that is, the right to claim that it occurred, who its victims were, and the "true account" of events, origin, consequences, and responsibilities, often erupts as a very contested form of discourse in all stages of disaster" (2001: 11).

Fellow disaster researcher Gregory V. Button points out:

[I]t makes a crucial difference whose interpretation [of the disaster] is heard in the aftermath . . . and whose interpretations are excluded. The outcome of important questions-who is to blame, who should be compensated, who suffers disproportionate risk exposure, and who should be involved in essential decisions such as remedial treatment and preventive policies-pivot on whose voices are heard (2001: 145).

Student depictions of time flow during the disaster varied depending on whether or not they evacuated the metropolitan area, indicating how viewpoint affects perspective on social events and how multivocality marks experiences of disaster. Individuals with differing experiences of the disaster differ not only in the details they describe but also in the ways they structure and understand what happened. If this is so, it points to different needs in terms of healing from disaster-related trauma, as well as potential differences in opinion about the disaster among New Orleanians that will affect reconstruction efforts. Finally, these differences in narratives have far-reaching implications for how the Katrina disaster is remembered in the social consciousness, dependent upon the types of voices privileged in public discourse. This in turn affects the types of aid offered and the individuals to whom aid is offered in the fall-out of this disaster.

Background on Students

Teaching at the University of New Orleans, I have always considered my students to represent a cross-section of the New Orleans population, although this cross-section has always excluded those most marginalized within New Orleans' primary and secondary educational system. Unfortunately, these individuals often left high school unable to handle the requirements of college courses. Because African Americans made up the majority of the poor in the city dependent upon public education, black New Orleanians have always been under-represented in upper-level courses at UNO, when one compares city demographics against university demographics.

Nonetheless, UNO students have always come in all shapes and sizes, so to speak, just like the inhabitants of my city. My UNO classes were always racially and ethnically diverse, with a nice sprinkling of foreign students to round out the mix. Perhaps most importantly, and certainly unusual in university settings, has been the presence in my UNO classes of individuals of all ages with a great diversity of life experiences.

Thirty students completed my fall course. I did not force the students to divulge demographic data on themselves as I did not find this appropriate in the context of FEMA data collection and Red Cross lines. Instead, I initially asked students to tell the class "a little about themselves including the neighborhoods with which they identified." Nonetheless, most students divulged their racial / ethnic identifications and information about their economic situation and familial background in the course of their narratives and postings.

Twenty women and ten men completed the course. Approximately 60% of the students identified racially as white and 30% as African American,2 with the remaining students being either the children of Vietnamese or Indian immigrants or individuals from African nations attending the university. The majority of the students were in their twenties and thirties. My students included African American mothers from Slidell, Uptown, and the Westbank, white male waiters and construction workers who lived in Uptown or Metairie, young Vietnamese men from Gentilly, Nigerian graduate students in international studies, working class white women from Chalmette, and working and middle-class women and men in their twenties, both white and black, who lived with parents, roommates, partners, spouses, and/or children throughout the city. Interestingly, my older students, those thirty or older, tended to be African American, female, and parents. Of the thirty students, 7 stayed in the metropolitan area for the storm, while the remaining 23 evacuated prior to the storm.

"Right Before Our Eyes" or "In the Blink of an Eye": Change through Time in Students' Disaster Narratives

Examining student Katrina narratives for storytelling patterns as one might analyze patterns in a genre of folklore or fiction, one cannot ignore the ways in which students depict the passing of time. Over the course of a period of time shorter than a week, these students' lives changed radically, as did the situation of the places they call home. Those who evacuated the city and those who remained in the metro area describe the passing of time during and after the storm in markedly different manners.

In the narratives of those students who stayed in or near the city, time was marked by a downward spiral in conditions. Conditions changed "right before our eyes." Worsening conditions are contextualized through accompanying markers of time. Phrases like "after the wind started," "at 1 o'clock," "about an hour later," "the next morning," and "after we saw the water" structure these narratives, as students attempt to describe the steady and rapid deterioration of conditions around them.

In the narratives of those who evacuated, change happens "in the blink of an eye" or "over-night, while I slept." For those who evacuated it was as if they left their neighborhoods one day and everything was fine; then, suddenly, they turned on a television and witnessed CNN reporters riding in motorboats down their streets. Why and how could something so "surreal" happen? (Twenty-five of thirty students employ the word "surreal" in their narratives.)

With the exception of a law enforcement officer (also a student) who remained in a city suburb working, students who stayed in the metro area include two African American women who remained in their homes with their extended families in Slidell and on the Westbank respectively, an African American man who stayed with his roommate / cousin in an apartment in New Orleans East, a white woman who stayed with her parents in her condo in Metairie, an East Indian woman who stayed in a downtown hotel with her fiancé's family, and a white man who stayed with his wife in the downtown hotel where she worked. The practice of sheltering in high-rise buildings in the downtown area was referred to as "vertical evacuation" by New Orleanians.

The narratives of the four students who remained in homes, condos, or apartments away from the downtown area contain much detail concerning the steady decline of conditions due to the destructive powers of the storm and the breaking of the levees. The students who stayed in large hotels downtown, an area of higher population density during the disaster, focus their narratives on the steady decline in food supplies, water, gasoline, and medicine, as well as a steady decline in the emotional state of those around them as no help arrived and people began to feel that they needed to flee the city.

Turning back to the question of time perspective, we'll first examine quotes from the four students who sheltered in low-rise homes, apartments, or condos. In their narratives, these students offer time lines of destruction; notice the way in which the passing of time provides a framework in these narratives for the destructive changes which occur.

The first narrative is by the young man who stayed in his apartment in New Orleans East with his roommate/cousin. The time period covered below is approximately 24 hours, from Sunday to Monday afternoon. In this and the following narratives, I've italicized time markers:

We gathered some stuff we had recently got from the local corner store and put it all in the kitchen so we could see just how much food we had between us. We gathered all the empty jugs and bottles and filled them up with water. L [student's cousin/roommate] had sandwiches made and I rounded up all the canned food items like spaghetti and meatballs and beefaroni. We took showers because we were warned that we should take them not knowing when we would be able to again if the water would go out or be contaminated. We got flashlights together and candles. . . . We charged our cell phones. . . . We stayed up the whole night watching the weather change right before our eyes. At first there was a breeze that was pretty consistent which grew over time, a short period of time. Rain came in steadily which started around nine or ten o'clock. It never stopped once it started until the next day. The wind became stronger and stronger with every passing hour. Around twelve we had on and off power failures until it completely went off around one and two. The cell phones and the land line phones went out all around the same time not long after the power went out for good. The last person I talked to was my sister, who was breaking up really bad. They had to evacuate to the local church down the street from my grandmother's house in the Lower 9th Ward. I remember talking to my mom right before she gave the cell to my sister saying that the cars and the trucks in the streets were completely covered and the water was approaching the stairs of the rectory. She told me she loved me and told me to be careful and told me L and I were going to be fine cause we could swim. Lightly joking about our desperate situations is how we kept from not panicking, too much. . . . The last few seconds of our conversation was a broken up one. I just remember us mutually telling each other our "love you's" and said whenever we got another signal we would call, whoever got that signal first. I didn't talk to her or anybody else in my family for about six days. Once the sun came up is when the real rain and wind started beating up the neighborhood. Hours of consistent rain and wind took their toll on the trees, houses, and telephone polls. We saw the trees bend like a twig in your hand. Telephone polls leaning side to side like a street sign does in a normal summer storm. Roofing tiles and paper was hummed into the air at speeds I have never seen before. Rain that felt like little pebbles thrown at you by some one standing a few feet away wore away at people's windows and fences. One by one things started to fall apart, fences collapsing, trees cracking in the distance and in front of our house, not in any specific order but just every few minutes something else gave out. Explosions from transformers were common place after awhile. We heard them quite frequently. We would just stand out on the front porch of the house and see what real wind power was all about. Walls of water being carried by strong gust of wind would sweep down the street so fast my head could hardly keep up with them. This lasted well into the day. During the last few gasp of hurricane strength winds is when the water in the streets started to take over the grass and sidewalks slowly but surely. That's when we knew it was coming and there was no stopping it. We gathered up certain things and put them in the attic but once we got in some kind of organization the water was already up to the middle of the walkway up to the front door and the driveway. I was outside more than L was because he was trying to make sure he could get all his computer stuff to higher ground. Most of my things that could be placed on higher standing objects were already there. We thought as long as it was off of the ground and maybe on the kitchen table it would be fine. We were wrong. It seemed that once the water reached the doors it started pouring in as if the house were being placed into Lake Pontchartrain itself. We kept the doors closed to slow the progression of water into the house, but it was inevitable. In the rear of the house there is a sliding glass door and what we saw kinda scared us. It was what the water level was outside, which was about a good foot higher that the level that was in the house which was only six or eight inches at the time. The part that was really scary was the fact that we could actually see the water level rising steadily outside if we just stopped for a minute and stared at it. After a few hours and a few feet, about three and a half now, we opened up one of the doors to go take a look outside. Outside in the street we saw debris flowing down our street which now resembled a small river or stream. Fences, poles and sheds were down all around us. Wires hanging by a thread into the murky water, small rodents floating by was the first vision for our eyes outside. . . . I couldn't believe the amount of water that we could see once we got up on the roof. It was everywhere. Being in the Navy I have seen an endless amount of water all around me while on a ship, but to see this on land from the top of a roof is horribly fantastic.

After a number of days spent sleeping in the attic or on the roof, swimming through contaminated water to find supplies, and spray painting "Alive Inside Please Help" on their roof, this student and his cousin, who both lost all forms of ID and their cell phones, were rescued via helicopter, dropped off on an elevated expressway, picked up by a bus and brought to a shelter in Thibodeaux, Louisiana, from which they hitchhiked to Baton Rouge where they had family.

Other narratives of students who remained in residences follow a similar format of worsening conditions through time. Once again, I've italicized markers of time in these quotes from three separate individuals:

The winds continued to howl outdoors. At this point we had lost all phone communications and power. The radio let us know that the eye wall was going to pass over us in about an hour. The calm before the storm. The weather did just that. It became completely still and calm. The winds died down tremendously. The color of the sky was a peculiar orange/reddish color. We then ventured outdoors to take a quick look and see if my elderly neighbors about two doors down were okay. An oak tree had downed one of [another tree on to] their house. My husband and I, quickly went next door to help them grab a few things and they joined my crew of 13 at that time. About 1:00 pm, the winds started circulating from the opposite direction. That's when my husband saw the water.

During the hurricane, I can remember having my hands pressed up against the window and I could feel the strength of the wind and rain; hoping that it would all be over with soon. We lost the power around 3:00 a.m. I was in my bedroom trying to sleep while listening to the gusty winds. Needless to say, we all had a sleepless night. The next morning we peered out of the window to survey the damage. My condo faces the back parking lot and we could see that it had flooded in low lying areas. A handful of windows in the complex had been blown out. I was one of the lucky ones.

During the storm, as we sat downstairs in the den, all we could do was listen to the whirling of the wind, watch our fence crumble around us, ours and our neighbors' chimneys fall into our backyard, as well as other falling debris. As the house vibrated and the windows seemed as though they were going to shatter at any moment, all I could do was pray for a miracle.

While the final quote does not reference time markers as explicitly as the others, this student's listing of one event after the other has a similar effect.

Although students who vertically evacuated to hotels downtown had different experiences, their narratives also include a time-line of devolving conditions. The next quote is from the narrative of a student who vertically evacuated to a hotel where his wife worked:

The lights went out and it was the beginning of Katrina. From our eighth story window I could see debris flying and smashing in windows while siding from the adjacent building was crashing to the ground. Ever fearful of projectiles, I could not stop staring at this massive force just outside my room.

I will never forget standing in line for breakfast, which is quite unexpected during a hurricane, and seeing a man hunched in the entrance of the building next to the hotel. I couldn't believe that this man was outside for one of the worst storms in New Orleans' history and I was about to eat eggs and toast. Even more disturbing were the unappreciative remarks concerning the food, which so many people in the city were not fortunate enough to receive. Apropos, the man endured the storm and was taken in when the winds subsided.

Immediately following Katrina, I was walking amongst broken trees, scattered glass, crushed cars, collapsed buildings, and New Orleanians who could not fathom what just transpired. Ever so attentive of the police, who were diligently trying to keep people inside and out of harm's way, S [student's wife] and I made our way from Canal Street to our uptown apartment. It was like walking through a silent forest. Eventually we made it home where we were grateful to see that it was not damaged too badly. Packed with spirits and a radio, S and I started our walk back to the hotel where we knew that a generator would at least provide us with light. We were optimistic of our situation and were anticipating a short stay at the hotel. . . .

The next morning, I vividly remember the wake up call from my wife, who was working, saying that streets were flooded and we were trapped in the hotel. [The levees had broken.] It was an unbelievable situation, because just the day before we walked freely through the streets and now there was water up to the top step of the lobby.

Unfortunately, it just kept getting worse. The provisions started to dwindle and the generator ran out of fuel. People started to become dehydrated and, of course, no one could leave the hotel with out walking through waist deep water. There was a serious sense of unease developing throughout the hotel, which was increasing by the minute.

On Wednesday, the circumstances had worsened. People were desperate for information and the hotel staff could only do so much. Staying close to my wife, I was able to hear the proposals, which were meaningful and attentive, of the management, but it did not give me or many others much hope.

Later, Sara and I were sitting in the office talking with her coworkers trying to figure out what to do. One friend had her cat with her and was afraid of being forced to leave him, while another friend's car would not make it out of the parking garage because of the high water. The situation seemed grim until another one of S's coworkers and her boyfriend said that they lived on the Westbank, which was not badly damaged. They asked us if we wanted to walk there with them and they could drive us to Baton Rouge if their car was unharmed. With five minutes to decide, S and I were walking with very few belongings through waist deep water.

Fortunately, this student, his wife, and her coworkers were able to walk across the Greater New Orleans Bridge to the less severely damaged Westbank of the Mississippi River, where they were able to eat and shower. He and his wife were then driven to Baton Rouge where they purchased airline tickets and traveled to Oregon to stay with his brother.

The other student who vertically evacuated with her fiancé's family provides a similar time-line of her experiences downtown:

First of all, I did not want to leave my apartment that I shared with my fiancé. . . . Well, on Sunday morning my fiancé convinced me to stay at a hotel room (on Canal & Bourbon) with his uncle, 2 aunts, grandmother and brother. . . . That room was so crowded. We only bought enough water for 2-3 days and not enough clothes. We slept on the floor while four of his family members shared 2 full sized beds. . . . We stayed at the hotel from Sun. until Tues., the day after [the storm]. I was going out of my mind in that hotel! We also couldn't really get anything to eat b/c they were charging $15 for breakfast, $17 for lunch and $20 for dinner. So the only time we ate was on Tuesday b/c everyone was so hungry! The sound of the wind and rain on Monday was horrific. . . . The wind was blowing so hard and strong that it was pulling down the plywood off of the other stores on Canal [Street]. Trees were being bent and windows were broken at the jewelry store across the street and other stores.

So when we got up Tuesday the street had some water coming up. It was not like that last night (Mon). [There was no flooding of this sort on Monday.] I figured that it was the sewers coming up, like the pumps were backed up or stopped pumping. So, my fiancé's uncle went to see what was going on and he heard what happened on the radio. [The levees broke flooding the city.] He said that we had to leave the hotel and go somewhere else. We just had to leave N.O right away. . . . So we packed up and left.

I did not want to leave b/c I didn't want to leave my family [her parents and siblings]. . . . They stayed in the Bywater area (Dauphine & Monteguy Streets). I didn't know how they were. When I tried to go [see if they were ok] the police had some areas blocked off and it was flooded toward N. Rampart.

They had so many people walking up and down the street. They looted Walgreen's on Royal and Iberville while we were packing our things in the car. It was so scary and sad looking. There were some areas packed with people and other areas were deserted. . . .

So we left and headed towards Baton Rouge b/c no one knew were to go. We drove for 6 hours b/c his uncle kept getting lost and making detours. I was very hot, hungry, tired and annoyed. We finally got to BR and ended up at a Wal-Mart parking lot b/c we had no where to go. . . .

This whole experience was like a dream. I could not believe that it happened to us! I thought that we were going to be back home on Tuesday. I guess a lot of people thought that. Boy, were we wrong. I did not understand why the news were labeling us as refugees. We were not from another country! I did not understand why it took so long for people to come and help us! When the Tsunami hit, people rushed out there. How were they able to help other people and not their own? . . . I commend the police officers who stayed and tried to keep order. I don't think that they did anything wrong by letting people loot places for food and water. It was for survival. I don't believe in looting, but I would have looted for food and water and things for life.

I wish that I could have helped people who were stuck down there. You hear all the gruesome details about the Superdome and Convention Center and can't help but feel bad and guilty that you got out and they didn't. At least, that's how I felt. I hope that the government doesn't make the same mistake again.

"In the Blink of an Eye"

In contrast, those students who evacuated the city prior to the storm were removed from first-hand experiences of natural destruction and social disorder. If they offer a time line of events, it is a time line of movement, from shelter to shelter, hotel room to hotel room, relative's house to friend's house, or, in the worst cases, parking lot to parking lot, as their stay away from New Orleans was prolonged by destruction and government pronouncement that citizens should not return to their neighborhoods until conditions in the city improved.

In the narratives of evacuators, there is no time line of destruction. Instead, destruction is depicted as almost instantaneous. The storm, in these narratives, is an event from which change emerges, rather than an emergent process in its own right:

Before the hurricane I was a senior at UNO with a really good schedule for the semester, had a great job that I really enjoyed and was really getting my life together. That has all changed. It is truly amazing how your life can get completely flipped upside down in the blink of an eye. As for my social positioning, I am no longer a student, sister, daughter, employee but now half a student, unemployed, unhappy, missing New Orleans, hating Houston person really wanting to graduate in Spring, alcoholic, maid to family member roommates, shuttle bus, helpless, prisoner of apartment, grieving, oh and not to mention bored out of my mind. These are all new identities that I have picked up post-Katrina.

Students who evacuated frequently construct their narratives like individuals who have received a troubling medical diagnosis from a physician; there is the "before" when everything was alright and the "after" when you find out that everything is definitely not alright (Charmaz 1993). The storm in these narratives is a turning point, a place marker for the point when things went bad.

Most people's lives revolve around a certain agenda or schedule. Some of us do the same thing everyday for years and years. . . . When our daily schedules are interrupted not even the brightest of people know how to cope. Hurricane Katrina is one of the greatest examples of how unpredictability can turn someone's life upside down. . . . So far until Hurricane Katrina the last year had been fairly uneventful. I lived in the comfort of my Grandmother's house in Metairie, worked at Arnaud's Restaurant, and returned back to U.N.O. to finish my degree. Now, I live in Baton Rouge where I rent a room in my friend's house, work at Juban's Restaurant at night and go to LSU during the day. I feel very fortunate that I did not loose everything in the hurricane, well anything of material value at least. I did however lose my way of life, to which I had grown accustomed. I was able to find a new house, job, and college, but selfishly, I miss the old ones. The restaurant I work at now is profitable, but it doesn't have the comforts that Arnaud's had. . . . I have been in college for over eight years and am still a junior. I don't know why, but I had this feeling at the beginning of this semester that this time around would be different [she'd complete school]. I was somewhat settled and had all of my cards perfectly in order. Then, WHAM, in a matter of a few days I was forced to start over again.

In the words of another young woman:

I was somewhat relieved when I went to bed Monday night that maybe we had been spared the worst. Around 4 am, my friend called and said that things had gotten worse in New Orleans. I think I was half asleep and not ready to hear this news, so I rolled over and fell right back asleep. The next morning when I actually awoke, C's brother [student's fiancé's brother] told me about the 17th Street Canal Levee breaking. This is when I found out that my Mom and Dad's house in Lakeview, where they have lived for 27 years, and where I grew up with my brother and two sisters, was badly flooded. Our wedding was scheduled for November 4, at a reception hall on Carrollton Avenue, which was flooded. My work and my school were flooded. Life as I knew it would never be the same. And I was one of the lucky ones. I still had an apartment.


Before I draw my conclusions, I need to note that, in this paper, I am privileging students' first hand experiences as described in their narratives. In doing so, I do not mean to imply that students who evacuated the city were not cognizant of the nature of the destruction which occurred, rather that their experience of their destruction differed. With that sincere caveat, I'd like to end by asking both myself and my readers why this question of differing portrayals of time and devastation in student Katrina narratives seems important. I believe this sort of difference is an indication that we are witnessing nascent identity transformation among the students and among New Orleanians in general.

In a human interest story on WWL television in New Orleans in 2006, Blackie Campo - a fisherman, native of, and fixture in Shell Beach, LA, for the last half century - was asked how he feels when he sees the destruction in Shell Beach, Mr. Campo responded:

You get a lump in your throat.
Then you start to tear up.
And you get a lump in your chest.
It's hard to digest all this hurt.3

Mr. Campo rightly notes that destruction is something you have to "digest." You must consume it and take it in, even though it is difficult. I believe that the way in which you digest the hurt matters in how you understand it and incorporate it into your life and your understanding of who you are and what the disaster signifies for you and others.

In their narratives, students are both presenting and digesting their hurt. And the ways in which they do so, the ways in which we all take this in and decide who we are now after all this, makes a difference in who we will be. In making decisions about aid and rebuilding, scholars and policy makers should look not only at the identities we possessed prior to the storm (race, our neighborhood origins, SES, wealth, etc.), but also to the identities we possess today because of our experiences in both the literal and figurative eye of the storm. New forms of identity have emerged among New Orleanians post-Katrina. Based upon these narratives, we might include in a list of possible new identities: "those who stayed for the storm" and "those who left"; "those who ended up in shelters" and "those who were able to stay in hotels or private homes"; and "those who can return home" and "those who cannot," to name just a few.

As we all know, prior to the storm, identity was a complex topic in New Orleans. Our population possessed (and had imposed on it) racial and ethnic identities, identities based upon neighborhoods, identities defined by the way one celebrated Carnival or simply the way one dressed, identities based upon wealth or poverty or even types of wealth and types of poverty. These identities have definitely not gone away. However, these pre-Katrina identities are made more complex by new aspects of identity that are making a difference in the lives of individuals and in social discourse.4

On an open board, seven students maintained a discussion of what it meant and means to them to be "a New Orleanian," pre- and post-Katrina. An older student, an African American woman who grew up in Uptown New Orleans and evacuated with her husband, children, and entire extended family to a shelter in Jackson, Mississippi, and eventually found herself living with her husband's family in Pennsylvania eloquently summarized this discussion and her thoughts on these topics in early December:

One thing I've noticed throughout this ordeal is that the way we view ourselves is so fragile. On one end, some of us who have lived in New Orleans all of our lives are now struggling with the notion of living somewhere else. Relocation comes with its own set of obstacles, but under these [extreme] circumstances we are questioning our own identities and ideals as we consider moving to new places.

For others, everything that we consider "normal" has been stripped away from us. We are experiencing betrayal and loss. Not only are our homes gone, but our jobs, communities, churches, neighbors, and friends are no longer available. Some of us have lost dear relatives or have been separated from them by hundreds of miles. So the question is who are we now in the midst of all of this turmoil? I question my identity often. For me, I often feel that New Orleans with all of its romantic ideals and troubling realities is a huge part of me. It is what I know, and sometimes I feel that it is all I know. So, choosing whether to relocate or to go home comes with all kinds of consequences. I wonder if I am the same person if I move to PA? Am I still a New Orleanian? . . . I still adore all of the wonderful things of the Crescent City, but now I realize that I can actually survive somewhere else. This is a thought that I would have never considered before Katrina.

It is good to know that there are things that I enjoy that I didn't realize and there are other things that I mourn that I never knew were so important to me before - things that I took for granted before the storm - like my mom making me walk to the corner store as a child, or going to see the Mardi Gras Indians each year with my entire extended family.

Many people question plans for rebuilding New Orleans. While I care for my city deeply, I also question how New Orleanians will rebuild themselves, their understandings of who they are, wherever they are. The way we tell our stories of Katrina may provide some indication of who we are becoming. Disasters are not events, "isolated and temporally demarcated in exact time frames" (Oliver-Smith and Hoffman 2001). They are processes with a past, present, and a future (ibid). Today, we New Orleanians are living the future of "our disaster" and our experiences have made us different now than we were when we began this journey.


Charmaz, Kathy. 1993. Good Days, Bad Days: The Self in Chronic Illness and Time. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Davis, Frank (01/25/2006) Naturally N'Awlins: The Story of One Prominent St. Bernard family, the Campos. WWL Television and website (

Button, Gregory V. 2001. Popular Media Reframing of Man-Made Disasters: A Cautionary Tale. In Catastrophe and Culture: the Anthropology of Disaster, 143-158. Susanna M. Hoffman and Anthony Oliver-Smith, editors. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research.; February 27, 2006

Oliver-Smith, Anthony and Susanna M. Hoffman. 2001. Introduction: Why Anthropologists Should Study Disaster. In Catastrophe and Culture: the Anthropology of Disaster, 3-22. Susanna M. Hoffman and Anthony Oliver-Smith, editors. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research.

Quigley, Bill (02/27/2006) Six Months After Katrina: Who Was Left Behind?

Ritea, Steve (10/30/05) Made In New Orleans: New Orleanians who fled Katrina invariably took along a little bit of home. Now, locales far and wide are treating themselves to a taste of the city's unique culture. Times Picayune website.


1. Unless otherwise indicated by bibliographic referencing, all quotes are from student narratives and postings.

2. Hence, racial statistics for the class are the reverse of the pre-Katrina racial make-up of New Orleans, which was approximately 28% white and 67% African American (; February 27, 2006)

3. Frank Davis, "Naturally N'Awlins: The Story of One Prominent St. Bernard family, the Campos. 01/25/06. WWL Television and website (

4. Not surprisingly, our pre-Katrina identities often coincide with our post-Katrina identities, indicating the inequalities which existed in New Orleans prior to the storm and the social injustices evident in the treatment of Katrina victims. As Bill Quigley of the Loyola University Law School in New Orleans points out in his article, "Six Months After Katrina: Who Was Left Behind?" 93% of individuals who ended up in shelters after Katrina were African American. Quigley writes, "The people who were left behind in Katrina were the poor, the sick, the elderly, the disabled, children, and prisoners - mostly African-American. . . . It seems clear that most of the same people who were left behind in the evacuation for Katrina are being left behind again in the reconstruction of New Orleans. In fact, now there are even more being left behind. Hundreds of thousands of people have not been able to make it back. . . . There is not a sign outside of New Orleans saying 'If you are poor, sick, elderly, disabled, children or African-American, you cannot return.' But there might as well be." ( February 27, 2006)

Donna Bonner is a cultural anthropologist. This article was originally published in the Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, Volume 16-17 in 2008.