Editor’s Note: Merissa Nathan Gerson is the author of Forget Prayers, Bring Cake: A Single Woman’s Guide to Grieving, a memoir on mourning in New Orleans, and visiting assistant professor of communication at Tulane University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
I drove up to the mechanic with a shaking engine on Thursday last week. It was one of the smallest issues an engine could have. He told me, “You can drive away, so we aren’t going to help you.” I didn’t know a hurricane was coming until that moment. He said there were at least 17 cars needing fixing so their owners could leave town. I filled my gas to the brim before driving home.
On Friday, between class sections at Tulane, student after student wrote me that they were leaving. Some sent me screenshots of the tickets for flights home their parents bought them, and one let me know her dogs were her babies and she “just had to go.”
That’s when I started preparing the house where I live alone. I was ready to hunker down. I had three gallons of water, nonperishable food for seven days, a first aid kit, phone charger banks, candles, a whistle, and flashlights, and someone was mailing me a battery-run radio. I can’t quite pinpoint how and when I realized I was actually going to drive away.
By Saturday morning, the contents of my fridge were in a cooler bag, my clothes and shoes were in the car, my porch furniture and plants were inside, and the missing storm window was taped shut with a strange mix of trash bags, poster board, Bubble Wrap, and high-grade canoe sealant waterproof tape. I left my fish behind, fed and water filtered, and I drove northwest to Shreveport, Louisiana.
I had the money, the vehicle, the ability to leave things behind, the autonomy, and the place to stay. I was in a position of profound privilege.
To exit a storm like Ida, to leave New Orleans, means one needs a vehicle, and money to fix it, and money for gas. One needs to feel financially and emotionally able to abandon their worldly possessions, and they need to believe a storm is harmful enough to exit. (I was more worried about being alone with the raging weather than about safety – I would have stayed had someone been in the house with me.)
And even if one does evacuate – with that working vehicle and money for gas – they need a place to stay, enough to pay for a hotel – possibly for an entire week or more – if they don’t have a friend or can’t handle camping – or aren’t safely able to. They need money for food, a plan for long-term life elsewhere.
Most of all: They need to not be in a panic that halts action.
Then they have to plan to stay alive. Do they need medication? A ventilator? Much more minimally, I happen to have a tooth infection and am scheduled for a root canal tomorrow in New Orleans where there is no power. At all. My antibiotics last two more days. What happens to an evacuee without insurance? Without backup medication?
It has been five days since I learned this storm was coming. I am a recently arrived New Orleans resident, two years to the day at the end of the week. I have family support. This is only my third hurricane season, and I have seen and felt little destruction.
But for those who have lived through hurricanes, hurricane season is not just about the most immediate threat to life or property, safety, infrastructure, livelihood, community – enough to throw anyone – but it is also about memories, past horrors, replaying a disaster already lived through. Grief over loss of life and loss of property, safety and order, this becomes compounded with old grief, layered grief, past issues, memories, grief, on grief, on grief.
Hurricanes kill. They pause order. They force a refocus on every single thing.
Exiting means imagining the worst. It means possibly having your world shaken and twisted, and for many, completely and permanently altered. Even my exit, as simple and supported and financially backed as it was, brought with it fear and sadness, and grief, over what I thought this week would be, how my fish might not make it, how my plants will die. A small form of grief, but grief.
But for others, a day after a storm of this caliber means memories, with current and past trauma mixing like a very bad cocktail. Compounded grief is about more than this one moment. It is about a layering of suffering, a repeat of memories, a repeat of horror. If your family was lost in failed infrastructure, or if you were subject to refugee status in the last storm, if you witnessed your world and loved ones washed away – a second storm is a different thing.
Long time New Orleanian, Maurice Ruffin, writes in his most recent book, The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You that, “New Orleans is like a brick. You pour water on it and there’s no telling where the rivulets will run.” And grief, in many ways, is the same.
A second storm, another hurricane, riddles the body and emotions and every other piece of a person with memories – with a layering of history that troubles this one moment, makes it louder, heavier, almost unnavigable.
I saw a post online a few days ago about a funeral held in the days before the storm. There was no one in attendance, save for the person who posted the photo. Yet the moment honored the dead – and was still vital. That person has their uncle to mourn, a storm to navigate, and possibly the loss of a roof, the disappearance of a home. There is much to mourn, to sit and cry over. And most do not have the ability to bend and pause and grieve. To stop, to cry, to feel, and to process. This is a luxury in times of disaster, especially when there are basic needs left unmet.
In an Instagram post last night there was a plea for help: “I have 7% on my phone, we are on the roof, please, I fear for my life.” And this time, sure, there was a rescue team on hand. But these small posts will bump up against past errors, when New Orleans was underwater, when the levees broke 16 years ago, when bodies were left in the streets. For those who were there, they will live that grief all over again.
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What is the impact of memory in a time of disaster? What is it to grieve while one fights for survival? And when shock shows up? Fight or flight? A slew of symptoms of trauma are re-triggered and left unresolved. When their heart rate increases, or their knees buckle beneath them, or palpitations come, or overall disorientation arrives – what is it then to organize one’s life around an exit? Around a rupture of the ordinary – a pause – a re-pivoting of everything from work to home to bed to food? Running water becomes extravagance, electricity becomes a gift, and you realize the power of streetlights.
Five days after I drove away from the mechanic and filled my tank with gas, I can say that disasters are not great human equalizers. Grief, while experienced by all, needs tending, and treating. Certain people are treated and tended, while others are not. The money that allowed some to escape the storm will also buy them health care, time, grief support, and therapy. But for others, the lack of these things can be debilitating. Are we truly all together in a storm?