A friend and I were just talking about how awkward it seems to make small talk here in southeast Louisiana in these weeks after Hurricane Katrina. The main topic of discussion is - and as it should be - the hurricane. It's impossible to go anywhere without being asked "so, how did you make out with the storm?" She and I are among the very lucky ones. Minor issues aside, our homes are intact, our families' incomes hasn't been radically altered. But it feels weird to say, "Just fine, thanks. And you?"
My friend mentioned that it feels like survivors guilt - which is a fitting description. (She has clearly thought this out more than I have.) Everyday there are reminders of Katrina's wrath. This morning I received an email from a friend who I know lost every physical possession in the storm. His home was in the Lakeview area of New Orleans where the levee breached. He evacuated to his in-law's house in Virginia and like most of us, thought he'd be able to return a few days later. As it turns out, he's not returning at all. At least not to live. His children are enrolled in school in Va., his wife is looking for work. He himself will return only for work since he accepted a position with a FEMA contractor to help assess the storm damage. Although it's a job, his career as a free lance writer has been swept aside, one more casualty of the hurricane. I felt a little awkward telling him that all's well here in my little part of the world.
A few days after we returned home following Hurricane Katrina, my older two kids and I went to our church and its school to assist with the cleanup there - removing sheetrock, throwing away moldy school books, toys, backpacks, removing tree limbs and brush. When they asked why were doing this, I just blurted out that it was because we didn't have to do this at our house, dammit, and we're grateful for it! (Their own public schools were spared, but our church and its school was located a couple of blocks from the lake so it was one of the few areas in our town that flooded. The boys really worked their butts off and I'm proud of them.)
For me, I don't know if it's so much guilt, as it is the feeling that although we've come through this unscathed, I don't believe we're intended to come through it unchanged. I just don't know what to do with it all yet...