On this 10th anniversary of America’s worst natural disaster, I thought I’d share a personal experience.   In October of ’05, just six-ish weeks after the storm, I travelled from Durham to New Orleans with a group of documentarians from the Ctr for Doc Studies at Duke, along with a number of Katrina victims who had been evacuated to North Carolina and were going back home for the first time.  I became friends with a young husband, father and high school history teacher named Robert who had been separated from his family after being forced at gunpoint onto different buses outside the Super Dome.  He ended up in Raleigh and his wife and child had been flown to Kansas City.  It took them almost a month to locate each other and reunite.  As a family, they settled in Durham until they were allowed to return to New Orleans. His wife and daughter stayed in Durham while he traveled back to see what had happened to his home. (Among many misconceptions, the city had one of the highest levels of home ownership in major US cities by African Americans.) He knew that his home was most likely trashed from wind and water, but his plan was simply to see his house, look inside to see if anything could be salvaged, assess what his next steps would be and, most importantly, drink a beer on his front porch.  He just craved that simple act of normalcy. I started filming as soon as we stepped off the bus at Louis Armstrong Park – spookily desolate – then immediately set off down debris strewn downtown streets for the Super Dome, which upon arrival, we saw it had been completely fenced off; the repairs were well underway.  He then took me on his journey home, re-tracing his family’s route back to his house in the Bywater neighborhood, not far from the Lower 9th.  We stopped at a bar in the French Quarter. The bartender said that her bar didn’t flood, had never closed, and had only lost power for a couple of days. She said a lot of journalists and cops used the bars in the Quarter as places of respite from the waters. She gave us two Dixies on the house and he took off, leading me on his journey.  As we moved out of the Quarter, he started to point out the water line on the buildings. Step by step, the line got higher and higher. He showed me how he, with his daughter on his back and his wife at his side, stayed close to the walls, what window sills they rested on, and where they left the old spare tire that they floated through the waters, a makeshift mini-boat they held onto after leaving their house.  His excitement grew as we hit his neighborhood, then his street, then his block.  He pulled the beers out of his backpack and handed me one, saying “can’t drink alone, man.”  Then he stopped at some cement steps with a street number painted at the bottom – I can’t remember what it was. At the top of the steps was a pile of bricks, wood and some debris. The house was gone.  He had never been told, never had the chance to save any heirlooms or family photos, never had the chance to say goodbye.  We sat on the steps and drank the beers anyway.  After a while – no idea how long, he walked me back through the city to the park, and the waiting buses. He stayed in New Orleans and, to my knowledge, is still there.  I handed the footage I shot – his story – to a representative of the group with which we were collaborating and jumped on a bus up to Monroe, La to see my dad; my mom had died about six or seven months earlier.  I have no idea what ever happened to that footage, and never heard from or saw Robert again.  It’s my deepest hope that he and his family are healthy and were able to rebuild their home and their lives.

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