On the night of Sunday, August 22, 2010, I tucked my four-and-a-half year old daughter in her bed, kissed her forehead and turned out the lights. About 20 minutes later, a thunderstorm blew through the area. The intense lightning put on quite a show. When a bolt struck close by, and the powerful KA-BOOOOOOM rattled the windows a half-second later, my wife and I were not surprised when the little one’s voice called “Daddy! Mommy!”
We spoke to her softly and calmly.
“It’s just a little lightning and thunder, honey. The bright lights and the loud noises aren’t going to hurt you. It’s kind of fun, actually, to count the seconds between the flash and the boom. You’re safe and sound here in the house with us. We’re right down the hall, and we’ll come check on you in a little while.” We gave a few more hugs and kisses before making our way back down the hall.
“Daddy?” she called again.
We poked our heads back around the doorway.
“What if the storm gets soooooo big?” she asked.
My wife and I exchanged glances.
“This is just a little storm, honey. It’s not a big one.”
“But what if it’s like the big storm that hit Ne-worlins?”
My heart sank. You should never, ever, know what that is like, I thought.
As a parent, you do your best to ease your child’s fears. “There are no such things as monsters.” “It was just a movie; it was just pretend.” “Don’t be scared, I’m going to catch you.” But what do you say when it comes to the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history? If a small child really knows about Katrina, how could she ever really feel safe in a storm?
If she’d seen the people on the rooftops screaming for help, surrounded by rising water, could I tell her that something like that will never happen to us? If she’d heard about the hundreds of family pets left to drown, would I really be able to reassure her that our dog will be okay in the house by himself during a storm while she is at school?
What if she’d seen the video of Lee Ann Bemboom, the woman at the Convention Center holding her lethargic, overheated baby boy slumped over her arm: “Look how hot he is; he’s not waking up very easy!” After seeing that, would my daughter believe me if I told her she’ll always be safe in my arms?
What if she’d seen all of her belongings…ALL of her stuffed animals, blankets, shirts, skirts, shorts, shoes, dresses, hats, hair-ties, books, games, paints, crayons, easels, movies and dollies…covered in mold, and mud…and diesel fuel…and feces.
What if she’d returned to the place where her house and all of her things had once been? What if she’d stood on the concrete steps that just recently had ended at a familiar front porch? What if all she could see from the top step was mud and weeds? What if she had turned and asked, “Daddy, where is my room? I want our house back!”
Make no mistake, in late 2005 little ones all over the Gulf Coast tearfully pleaded with their mommies and daddies in just that way. And I’m sure every single parent choked back a levee breach of tears, put on their most stoic face, held their child close and said:
“Baby, it’s okay. Everything is fine. You’re going to have a new room with new toys really soon. I promise.”
Not one of them said, “Storms are nothing to be scared of.”
At Katrina +5, New Orleanians look at the numbers: the population, the number of blighted houses remaining, number of reopened schools, number of hospitals, recovery dollars remaining. We look at the calendar: the weeks left until hurricane season is over, the upcoming anniversary of the day we moved into our new homes, and for the unlucky, remembrance of the day fathers, mothers, and children took their last breaths.
At Katrina +5, for those of us with young children, we keep the numbers and the dates to ourselves. For our kids, August 29, 2010 just means beignets for breakfast and one last trip to the store for school supplies. The little ones aren’t going to notice the extra church bells ringing to mark the moment of each of the levee breaches. They aren’t going to watch the TV specials. They aren’t going to read the section in the Times Picayune dedicated to storm stories. And if we can help it, they aren’t going to see us crying.
I try to tell myself that I’ll explain everything to our little girl when she’s old enough to understand it all. I say that I’ll tell her when she’s able to hear about it without being traumatized. But then I remember.
I still don’t understand. And I still get scared.