by Avery Friend
The streets were packed and Lori could barely breathe as she pushed her way through, her thick black hair sticking to the back of her neck. Her ponytail holder had slowly slipped down for nearly an hour before she had finally ripped it out and wrapped it around her wrist – they had always annoyed her, anyway. Her hair tended to remain greasy despite washing it with special shampoo six times a week and conditioning as little as possible. Something that came from living in New Orleans, she supposed, where you could step outside for the newspaper and come back in sweating.
“Lori?” her husband called, craning his head over the throngs of people. “You there?”
“Right here,” she answered, waving her hand over her head. “Slow down, will you, Gary?”
“Sorry,” he replied, taking her hand as she caught up with him. “I thought the woman behind me was you until she pulled out a cigarette.” Lori didn’t smoke.
She glanced around. “That woman there?” she asked, disgusted. “Are you kidding?” The woman was wearing a red miniskirt, black stilettos, and a black halter top that revealed a tattoo of a butterfly. She couldn’t see her face, but was willing to bet that it was covered in a blanket of makeup about three inches thick.
“No, not her,” Gary reassured her. “That one there – no, there.” He pointed to a woman who, thankfully, was wearing jeans and a Saints jersey. Lori looked slightly mollified.
“Good,” she grumbled, hiding a grin before glancing at her watch. “Come on. The thing’s about to start.”
The two found a place towards the left side of Jackson Square, where they could barely see the podium set up but were nearly directly under a pair of speakers. Lori didn’t want to imagine what the Superdome must be like right now, because last she had heard they had been sold out and people were standing in the hallways to listen to the ceremony and following concert. It was bad enough here, with only something like 5,000 people – the already humid air was playing hostess to cigarette smoke, alcohol, and the distinctly spicy smell that never seemed to leave the French Quarter. At least she wasn’t standing by anyone too bad – an older man, probably in his sixties, was talking on his cell phone and a family with three teenage-looking kids was talking quietly.
A gong-like sound rang out and it took a few moments for silence to fall, but eventually chatter died down and cell phones were set to silent. Lori leaned against her husband, and breathed in deeply as he wrapped his arm around her. She twisted his wedding ring around on his finger, a habit that had arisen on their honeymoon and still continued 37 years later.
They both looked up when a youngish man walked onto the stage. He was dressed in a suit (sans the jacket – no one, no matter how prestigious, was stupid enough to wear a jacket in New Orleans during summer, even if it was at the end of August), and as he tapped on the microphone the speakers threw a fit, making Lori wince as well as several other members of the audience. The man looked sheepish.
“Sorry,” he apologized. “Hey, everyone, thanks for coming out here today. I’m William Norris, I’m the co-founder of Remember, a nonprofit organization set up to commemorate Hurricane Katrina and those who were affected by it. My wife Kathy, she’ll be speaking later, founded it with me in 2010. We decided to do this because we both felt that the media and the rest of the country was beginning to forget how much was left to be done here. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that’s their fault. It’s easy to forget when you don’t drive by the destruction every day on your way to work. But we knew that people here weren’t forgetting and that a lot of people, including us, would want to remind the rest of the world that we still needed help. To be honest, we didn’t get a lot accomplished until Allen hit. I saw a report on television where people were wondering how a category 1 could cause so much damage – they didn’t realize how much of it was leftover from Katrina.”
He kept talking, but Lori found herself drifting. It had only been seven years after Katrina that Allen hit the city, a storm that before wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow but wound up caused absolute panic nationwide. Even Lori and Gary, both levelheaded people who had never evacuated in their life, had joined the stampede to get out of the city, opting to stay with their daughter Liz and her husband in Virginia for a week. When they returned to a completely unharmed neighborhood, the two had made fun of themselves for leaving, but they both knew why. Staying during Katrina had left them both far more scarred then they cared to let on.
Their younger child, Peter, had just left for college when the mandatory evacuation had been announced. Gary had considered leaving, but Lori had scoffed, saying that everyone was just overreacting. Anyway, Elysian Fields had never had problems with storms, and they had been living there for over 20 years. Gary hadn’t put up too much of a fight, feeling that riding out a hurricane would be far easier than putting up with his acrophobic wife on an airplane, or battling the traffic in a car. While they forced a hole through their attic ceiling and sat on their rooftop for 53 hours, they both had plenty of time to curse that decision. The following two years in North Carolina had been perfectly nice, but they had jumped at the chance to move home in May 2007.
Lori snapped back to attention as William moved on to another subject. “We were failed during Hurricane Katrina,” he stated boldly. “We were ripped off and ignored by the government, and I think that most people here will agree with me.” Loud applause sprang from the audience, and Gary removed his arm from Lori’s shoulders long enough to add his own enthusiastic claps. Lori grinned and joined him before nestling up against him once more as William continued. “So let’s not let them take credit for rebuilding this city. We rebuilt this city. Even after Allen when the government was all over us, we were the ones who brought New Orleans back. It’s been ten years, ladies and gentlemen, and it’s been a damn long ten years, but we’ve made it!” Cheers rang through the ever dawning night as he thanked them, and stepped offstage. Lori smiled, somewhat sadly and bitterly, but genuinely as well.
His wife Kathy spoke next. She appeared to be in her early thirties, with shoulder length auburn hair and was wearing a shirt that said ‘Remember’ in bold black letters. A very good speaker, Lori decided, as she greeted them and proceeded to tell them her story. It was merely one of the thousands Lori had heard since the storm, but she listened anyway as Kathy described being removed from Baptist Hospital two days after giving birth to her son (who waved shyly at the audience from behind her, wearing the same shirt as his parents). The feeling of panic she described at not being able to find her husband for three weeks was all too familiar. She was very personable and ended by thanking them for coming out.
“I know that it seems strange to be celebrating the anniversary of this storm, because it doesn’t seem like something to be celebrated,” she said, her voice strong but somewhat quieter. “So many people died, or lost loved ones or homes – even people who didn’t lose anything had to deal with watching this city that we all love wither away. But we do need to celebrate. We deserve to celebrate. If you asked someone from out of state before the storm, and probably now as well, how they would describe the city of New Orleans, about 3 out of 4 people would mention parties or Bourbon Street or Mardi Gras. If you asked someone from here how they would describe New Orleans, most people would talk about the personality, pride, and celebration of this city. We’re the home of Jazz funerals, which I think applies here. We mourn for our losses but celebrate what we’ve had, and what we do have. We’ve brought this city back. So let’s celebrate it.” She ended on that note, and like her husband, left the stage to much applause and recognition.
“She was good,” Lori murmured to her husband as another woman took the stage. Gary nodded.
“Yeah, she was.”
There were several speakers who followed, including a police officer who had been shot in the days following the storm, a Jazz musician, and a rising politician who talked about issues of prejudice and abuse during the storm and how to help eradicate them. Gary followed her closely, and applauded heavily when she finished – he had been beaten up in high school for being black, an incident that still stuck with him all these years later. Lori grinned at him but didn’t say anything.
As the speakers finished, Kathy Norris took the stage again and spoke into the microphone. “We have volunteers making their way through the crowd right now with candles. They do have lighters, but to make this move faster, please try to find someone whose candle has already been lit to help you light yours.”
Lori and Gary each took a long, white candle from a young woman they saw offering them, and Gary borrowed a cigarette lighter from a man behind them to light his. Lori dipped her wick into the flame and cupped her hand around it, not wanting it to blow out.
It took about fifteen minutes before things began to die down, and William Norris took the stage once more. “Does everyone have a candle?” he asked, and a general murmur of affirmation rippled through the group. “All right. We’re going to begin the memorial now. Please remain silent and respectful as we read the names. We’re here to honor those we have lost.” A long moment of silence served as agreement. “Thank you.”
Lori sighed and closed her eyes as he began reading names, one after another. She could feel the wax beginning to drip from her candle but didn’t adjust her grip – a sticky drop burned against her palm, though she didn’t wince.
Alyssa Garcia, age 37. James Garcia, age 42. Ian Baker, age 76. Nancy Parkinson, age 63.
The names of the dead filled the air, and Lori could almost see them rising up like sparks. A bitter taste filled her mouth and she swallowed. Gary tightened his grip on her.
Reina Ellis, age 20. Alex Tripe, age 7. Owen Schafer, age 44. Polly Steinbeck, age unknown.
A tear dripped down her dark cheek, before coming to rest in the curve of her chin and drying like the wax had on her hand.
Kurt Blossman, age 53. Ellen Newton, age 4. Lucy Newton, age 27. Sean Harris, age 33.
The names went on and on and on, for ten minutes, twenty, half an hour, and finally after about forty five minutes they stopped. The crowd was absolutely silent. It was amazing how not even cars or birds could be heard. Never in her life had Lori heard the French Quarter so quiet. It shook her, just a little.
All of those who we could not acknowledge today.
Her candle was one of the few still burning, though it was down to the very end and her hand was covered in wax. Slowly, she brought it to her mouth and blew it out. The smoke rose into the air like the names had, swirling and dispersing slowly over the city of New Orleans.
— Avery Friend, Age15
New Orleans Center for Creative Arts
New Orleans, LA
Avery Friend is an astounding young activist from New Orleans and has contributed to our website previously. We thank her for this story, which was originally published at Scholastic.com