K15: What I've Learned from the Storm
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a post from our Restoration Journeys Director, Sarah Barnett, a lifelong New Orleans resident whose family lived in the St. Bernard area during Hurricane Katrina's landfall in August 2005.
A few years ago, I thought I was done sharing my story; that I had wrung that history dry; that this far out from the storm, there was nothing new left to parse from it. And then things shifted, like they always seem to do, and I’ve found myself in a space where it’s quite literally my job once again to take a deep breath, open my mouth, and hope that the right words come out as I attempt to explain how everything in New Orleans and everything in me was rearranged on August 29, 2005.
Fifteen years ago, Hurricane Katrina took her toll on this region, washing bare the shores of the coast and turning New Orleans into a bowl of water, grime, and chaos. My stack of stories from that moment is extensive. I could share what it was like to be a twenty-one-year-old who stayed through the storm. I could tell you about the winds howling through the city as the eye of Katrina passed just to the east of us. I could tell you about the immense quiet and stillness that settled in that Monday afternoon – the heat growing thicker and thicker as those of us who stayed sighed, heavy with the relief of surviving “the big one.”
I could tell you of the chilling fear, despite the heat, when we learned the levees were giving way, the intensity mounting as the heat and waters rose and we realized help was not coming. I could tell you about the sheer panic in my sister’s voice when she called that Tuesday, desperate to know if we were alive. I could tell you of the dull ache that settled in my stomach when I realized the floodwaters washed away most of my worldly belongings.
I could also tell you about the kindness I was shown in those days, weeks, months following the storm. Many of you already know those stories because many of you dropped everything and came to help, no questions asked. And many of you have continued to come back to this place time and time again to serve.
Fifteen years later, though, there is one story that stands out to me in that jumble of experiences piled messily in a corner in my mind. In a period of time between leaving New Orleans and arriving up north for school, I landed in Texas with my family. Most of the memories of that time are shaded darkly, and the lines are not always distinct, but one afternoon stands out starkly against the fuzziness.
We were in a hotel full of people just like us: evacuees, refugees, survivors (we went by many names at that point), and a nearby church “adopted” us for a few days. I remember riding downstairs in the elevator wearing the same outfit I had worn for three days straight, and when we stepped outside the lobby into the hotel parking lot, the church members had set up a serving line. I numbly grabbed a plate and stepped forward, and a pale, freckled junior high boy, braces flashing in the sunlight as he smiled, handed me a hot dog and a bag of chips. He said something about praying for me, but I can’t be sure. The next thing I knew, I was in the elevator again, struggling to breathe through raw, heaving sobs.
I didn’t have the words for it then, but looking back it’s crystal clear to see that in that moment, my white savior complex was turned upside down.
In the middle of the devastating heartache and the complete upending of my life, every part of my identity was rearranged, both the good and the bad. I was twenty-one, idealistic, and invincible, bound for a life on the mission field. I was going to save the world. I was the one who bestowed kindness, served others, handed out handouts. And here I was, houseless, possession-less, and completely unsure of how to be a person who accepted help from anyone else.
More than that, it made me question who I was that I was having to accept help, accept handouts, and not be able to do anything in return. I had a distinct picture in my head of who that person was, and looking in the mirror to see it was actually me was startling to say the least.
That moment, that simple gesture from a kind young man, was a catalyst. It wasn’t the end of my white saviorism - it was the crack that I needed to begin a lifelong process of unlearning and relearning, a process full of mistakes and repentance and trying again.
I’m grateful for many of the lessons that came out of the storm, but none has marked me so much as this: no matter which side of the serving line I find myself, I am no savior. I am no hero. Instead, I am as cracked and vulnerable as those faulty levees that surrounded my beloved NOLA in 2005.
Fifteen years later, and this is the truth I circle back to time and time again. It is my job to work alongside volunteers who comes to this place to share Christ’s message of love, many of them just as young and idealistic and invincible as I was in 2005. It’s my job to help show them that each of them is also in need. If we are going to set out “on mission,” we must first realize that we are also desperate for a Savior, that we do not have all the answers, and that we are mutually broken. God has called us, these cracked vessels, to serve one another, to love one another, and to walk humbly, learning, relearning, and repenting as we go.