by Chris Stewart

Having lived in Minnesota for over two decades my Katrina story isn’t one of displacement or loss of homestead, but one of discovery, resilience, and self-renewal.

In the days before Katrina I was preparing to get married. I had asked my dad to send childhood pictures for the video reel we would show at our wedding reception. He wasn’t responding and I was getting impatient, so I texted an uncle for help.

He replied with a text that said, “please turn on the news nephew. They talking about a category 5 coming.”

That didn’t register. Not only was I ignorant to hurricane categories, it seemed weird for my folks to bracing themselves. It was New Orleans after-all, the city that lived through legendary hurricanes Betsy and Camille, and bragged about it for years.

When I finally did see the news the scope of the problem struck me, but like many people watching from a distance I felt helplessness and tense.

Thankfully my closest relatives made it out. I heard from my dad who made it to Memphis with my step-mom, three sisters, and two brothers. They were seven people deep in two Ford’s with all the possessions they could quickly pack. I told them to make their way to Minnesota where I could put them up, which they did.

Knowing they would hit Minnesota in 24 hours my future wife and I prepared a house for them. Friends, neighbors, and co-workers filled the place with every possible item a family would need. Once my family arrived there was an overwhelming outpouring of support came from every direction. Earnest people made repeated visits to deliver casseroles, groceries, beds, sheets, and cash.

There were hugs, kisses, and tears.

More than any other time in my life the generosity of strangers gave me a glimpse into the fact that we all have immense, unused power to overcome, and none of us are really strangers. In those troubled times my family was still able to smile and live with the easygoing goodness characteristic of New Orleans. They’re ability to gracefully transition through a period of losing everything showed me how indomitable my people have always been.

It also said a lot about my adopted state of Minnesota because it seemed like every Minnesotan within miles offered to help in any way they could.

In a <a href=””>recent speech</a> Mayor Mitch Landrieu reminded us how communities in 32 different states took in displaced New Orleans families. He called it a “sweet burden.” That for me is a way to tell the Katrina story that lifts rather than depresses.

Yes, the historic devastation of New Orleans in 2005 woke the nation to how the city had been a case study in racism, injustice, and systemic inhumanity. There is no way to gloss over mournful black faces huddled together at the Superdome and convention center without adequate food, water, or services. I can’t pretty up the horrifying pictures of bloated bodies floating namelessly in dirty water. A local activist tells me 40% of the people who died in the storm did so because they couldn’t swim. Like many cities, black New Orleanians were redlined out of swimming pools and swimming lessons; A potent reminder of the material consequences intelligent design of white supremacy.

And I admit my own family was traumatized even if they held it to themselves, in silence, without complaining, and without crying too much. They are models of resilience. They are accustomed to life not being fair. They’ve lived with the ghost of inequity so long that it is a family member, that relative no one likes but everyone accepts.

The pain is real, the depression untreated, and the spirit unbeatable.

Taking that all into account, I refuse to produce poverty porn and I won’t participate in <a href=””>selling the misery</a> of New Orleans. I won’t hold her up like <a href=””>Hottentot Venus</a> to be inspected and pitied by people who want to sell a particular political agenda, or perhaps more foul, just use it as an opportunity to feel superior to my ancestral homeland. New Orleans has always had the remarkable ability to be classically beautiful even with potholes and uneven streets.

So, to hell with your paved, manicured, sterile urban metropolis that lacks personality, character, and the echoes of centuries past.

The two most most influential people in my life, my grandparents, are buried here. They were proud, loving, good-humored people who loved every inch of culture in New Orleans. I’ve thought a lot about them over the past year, as I’ve been here to research the rebuilding of schools. Their lives were so much about hard work and helping others. They taught me to give what I can to people who need it. No one should go hungry or naked, period. They learned that in the city they loved.

Katrina woke us to the ravages of color-coded neglect and our country’s unfinished struggle with race. It also showed us the stunning power of empathy, that rarely shown but always present renewable energy beneath the skin of American, and it the hearts of friends abroad.

It was shown when 200 Mexican soldiers <a href=””>set up camp</a> to distribute medical supplies, water, and 7,000 meals per day; when Canadian Mounties <a href=””>made their way</a> to St. Bernard Parish before the U.S. Federal Government; when <a href=””>college students</a> came in caravans to clean up; when construction workers came to rebuild the infrastructure; when teachers came to renew the promise of education; when entrepreneurs relocated their businesses to revitalize the economy; when busloads of faith-based organizations sent <a href=””>nine hundred fifty four thousand volunteers</a> to the Gulf region in the years immediately after Katrina.

That story is better than a million recollections of death and despair. As Mayor Landrieu said, we are “unbroken” and “unbowed.” The city is rebuilding to make New Orleans better than it was. New schools are the most visible signs of investment, but there is infrastructure rising all over.

Critics who will dress themselves in a self-defined version of realism will want me to point out the enumerable ways in which New Orleans is failing. They want to hear about racialized disparities in just about every area of life. Those issues are real, but they’re as real in Minnesota, Oregon, or New York.

It’s not my job to help you look down on New Orleans and pretend it isn’t a great city making an astounding comeback because it has amazing people rising above the high water mark of Katrina.

What I will remember is that the American government broke levees in a way that flooded poor people out of the city they built, and left many others stranded, exposed, and dying.

Then – and this is the most important part – the American people bested the government by bringing life-saving aid, comfort, labor, supplies, and love for humanity.

They were our bridge over troubled water, and that is my Katrina story.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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