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What Hurricane Katrina Taught Me about 9/11

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When people would talk about how much 9/11 affected them and/or changed them, I would smile and say something like “that’s nice.” As I was thinking, “it’s not America’s tragedy, you were 3,000 miles away. How could it have affected you?”

I live on the Upper West Side, almost five miles due west from The Trade Center. My friends who live(d) downtown told me that I didn’t suffer enough as I wasn’t physically near the scene. I believed them.

Smoke did come into my apartment; I was and still am inconvenienced by some of the after affects. It changed my life as it changed so many other lives.

My mom died suddenly a month later. I became bitter, angry and a bit jealous of the families of the victims. Not only did they not have to pay estate taxes, they made money. It was irrational but so is grief. Because of anthrax scares, I would get late notices before the bills. My personal mourning meant nothing to most people.

How can you mourn an old lady at a time like this?

Gee, I don’t know. Something to do with her raising me, being the last person to love me unconditionally, and my truest friend?

I’m a third generation New Yorker; my parents were both born in Manhattan. Though they lived in Nassau County most of their adult lives, my dad always tried to vote for mayor. He also waited for the super, but that’s another story. My dad thought that people who moved from New York were all crazy, unless it was London .

My move to East 63rd Street just off Fifth Avenue when I was 25 was one of the happiest days of his life. I had left New York twice but came running back both times. I knew Manhattan was my fate; just thought that it would be The Upper West Side where everybody was my age.

I grew to love being the prisoner of Fifth Avenue as I could easily walk to any neighborhood in Manhattan. On Sundays I usually walked down to The Trade Center and would decide where to go from there. One bright May Sunday, I detoured off my route to the club in The Village where everybody did know my name, and the soon-to-be-new-owner, my college friend, Lenny, and Lucinda Williams, when she was just Lucinda, introduced me to my boyfriend Zachary who had moved to New York two years earlier from New Orleans to become a folk/rock star.

As I write about Zachary often, and never seem to be able to get away from the beginning, I have spent much time thinking about that walk. The year before I had worked across from St Paul’s Church; met most of my adult friends there. Downtown, The Trade Center and St Paul’s played many roles in my life at times. I remember when South Street was a pier people would sun bath on. During the week it was filled with workers, but on weekends it was deserted. I have never been a sun bather; love to walk on the beach, but I would sit at the edge with my legs in the polluted water. It was a Manhattan oasis. We don’t have many of them anymore.

I don’t love New York as passionately as I did before. It had been losing its lustre for years before 9/11. My mom was old, and had macular degeneration to the utmost degree. By 1996, when I finished grad school, 20 years after I got my undergrad degree, I knew I had to to stay here. In 1997, I found the almost perfect co-op on The Upper West Side which is still way different than The Upper East Side, but has been gentrified. Most of the city is usually crowded. I spent $95 the other night to see a play that most people loved; I thought that it was trite and not a tenth as good as the book. I liked the film Hairspray a lot more than the play.

I live the proverbial ten blocks from Lincoln Center and don’t even watch performances on TV; I do appreciate all the free summer events, but have I made it to more than one event this summer? Of course not.

My mother died; I’m free to leave. But do I? I talk about it often. New York’s in my blood.

I did think of moving to New Orleans about ten years ago. My mom said:
“But you don’t know the crime there.”
I looked at her rather strangely; she couldn’t see my expression:
“You know the crime in New York; you know how to walk so that nobody bothers you.”

I thought about it; she was right. But now I know Santa Monica and Venice Beach, CA. I could move; I will move. Hopefully I can be bi-coastal. But I have a few things to finish first. Maybe I will always have a few things to finish first. I’m comfortable here.

I wondered how I could be in another city on 9/11. How could people understand?

I found out this week that they can. I finally understand that you don’t have to live in a city to love it or feel its misery (Gawd does that sound like bad ’80’s psycho babble.)

I finally understand that everybody can truly feel the pain. As 9/11 was America’s tragedy so is Hurricane Katrina. It’s so much worse that it’s beyond my comprehension.

I am so sorry that it took a tragedy of this magnitude to make me understand this.
ed: JH
Of course, next month I’ll probably think New York is the center of the earth again.

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About piaSavage

  • Excellent write, Pia!

    D L

  • Art,

    I read your comments about being a born a New Yorker and your emotional ties to Manhattan..it was interesting when you wrote that the city has lost its lustre for you a few years back because of crowdedness, high expenses, etc….you wrote of Venice and Santa Monica, California with longing.

    Well, with those two California locations, you certainly will get beaches, but most of them have used syringes and ocndoms strewn across the sand. Also it is very crowded in Los Angeles County; you can’t drive anywhere without traffic jams and lines of people. The cost of housing and transportation is through the roof and getting more expensive every day.

    Culturally speaking, I think New York is more civilized; but Los Angeles gives easier access to the environment; you can drive for 30 mins. and be at a beach, a hiking trail, a desert…..I guess you have to weigh which Coast is most important for your life today.

    Personally, I would love to live six months of the year in Manhattan and the other six months of the year in Los Angeles; thereby getting the best of both worlds.

  • pia

    The cities I picked are the most like NY but with better weather and on the ocean

    Where other people find Santa Monica and Venice crowded, I find it moderately so, and I’m used to syringes and condoms–or used to be before New York became Disneyfied.

    If I’m going to live in a Disneyworld it might as well be one on the ocean.

    Have friends there and again while it’s expensive; it’s nothing like here.

    Always say the only cheap thing in NY is coffee beans–if you can live on coffee you have it made

    We used to be much cheaper in clothes and ‘electronics’ but the rest of the country’s caught up

  • JC

    I almost started a post last week about 911. It is saved in my drafts, but I have thought of it a lot this week in the aftermath of Katrina. I called that fall my downfall, as I was so very affected by it and I think that our (young children on 911)will be afraid of tall buildings in the same way that we are afraid to drive over bridges. The only thing I can attribute the fear to, that so many in my age group seem to have, is watching the coverage on Chappaqudick. I know that here in the MidWest I sat up round the clock and watched the coverage. I slept on the couch for weeks so I wouldn’t be away from the TV and the last thing I heard before sleep and the first thing I heard on waking, was 911 coverage. I truly suffered. My heart broke and I fell into a terrible depression that took me years to pull out of. I slept little, sitting on my couch to the flicker of the television. I was very deeply impacted by 911 and I hope that I learned some lessons. I turned off the TV Wednesday. I have been babying myself a bit, knowing that I am in a highly stressed state. I am waiting for word of my son, but I am forcing myself to sleep some at night. I have my grandson here this weekend, although I didn’t feel up to it really and he has helped me maintain some semblance of a normal routine. Most importantly though, while I am distressed, while I watch, while I am in pain, I am managing the level of pain that I allow myself to experience. I can not allow my whole life to unravel because I am so pained by an event that has caused major suffering. I can’t look at the children and I can’t look at the animals. I feel a bit hardened doing this, but I have to protect myself or I am no help to anyone. I wrote a post last night about whether or not folks feel any safer than they did four years ago. I know after witnessing the rescue response down south, that I will never feel safe in the same way again (the we are an American, therefore safe and living the American dream) kind of safety. I read that our fema director (in fact our last two) were appointed by Mr. Bush and have never worked in emergency services before. So why is it a surprise that this hasn’t been handled well? Meanwhile, I have fumed as this appointed person has talked about how well things are being managed. NO they are not! Here we are four years later, having allowed dubbya to float a Department of Homeland security by us in the middle of the crisis, that has not prepared us in any way for a disaster. I feel that we now look like sitting ducks to the rest of the world. I am sorry, but I was a dissenting voice when we sent folks to Iran and Iraq. People looked at me like I was unpatriotic. I was wise to what we would give up with the department of homeland security. Again, it was during the crisis and folks looked at me like I was crazy. We have given up our rights and our children to someone that doesn’t have the ability to lead. Yes, he gave some good speeches, but they were written for him and he practiced them for days prior to giving them. I saw the footage of the “deer in the headlights expression” that he had during the eleven minutes he sat staring at the kids in the school room prior to even moving, when New York was under attack. We should be shamed that because of our allegence to a political party we are unable to see evil for what it is. When there were problems with voting we should have been wise. When each of our rights was taken away, we should have been wise. Each time we have been lied to, we should have gotten the clue, but folks haven’t. I will visit blogs for the next few months defending the fact that those folks shouldn’t have been there, so they deserved what they got. That in that devastation, it takes time. No, dropping some water out of a helicopter that is flying over anyway is not going to take that much time. Is it the fact that they were not the white upper middle class part of the problem? I don’t know. I know that the scenes looked like a third world country and I know that someone who descended from the royalty in Brittan and has been a member of the social register (where no blacks are represented) someone who was a good ole boy, may have been affected by this. What is the answer? The answer is for all of us to wake up and stop playing the game. Stop voting for someone based upon party lines and start voting based on competence and ability. Why do we only get two choices? Why not fifty to start with? Why is it more important who someone slept with than whether or not they lie to us and cover things up and drag our country down to the point that what we represent and have stood for our whole lives means nothing? I am sorry that I am rambling, but I am angry. Thanks for a wonderful and thoughtful post. Thanks Pia. When I hear from my son I will let you know.

  • pia

    JC you amaze me. JC has one son in Iraq, and one son in a town where nobody has been heard from.

    Personally I can’t imagine how she feels. I expect myself to rant like that at times, but JC is much more a lady; I think this is both good therapy and sentiments we will be hearing much more of in the very near future, but not as eloquently put

    And when the revolution happens I get to hang Karl Rove–and not around his neck

  • Classic Pia. Always a trip from the personal to the national and back again. Well done, as always.

  • New Yawker

    the upper west side west of the trade center?

  • pia

    hillarious comment. As it says in the post
    I live on the Upper West Side, almost five miles due west from The Trade Center.