Belated Victims: Living and Dying after the Storm
Her name was not Michelle, but that’s what I’ll call her.
On the surface, she wasn’t much different from any other freshman English student. She wrote mostly middle-of-the-road essays and got mostly middle-of-the-road grades—usually in the low B or C range. She seldom spoke unless directly called upon. She even sat in the middle of the classroom—not a front-row overachiever or a back-row misanthrope, just a student who wanted what an education might bring into her life. She probably wanted a job she could live with and perhaps love, money, a place in the world.
This is how I remember Michelle, the picture that formed in the sixteen weeks or so in which I saw her three times a week, the duration of a freshman-year course that she would complete only months before Hurricane Katrina killed her. These memories might be faulty, mashed together with images of a thousand other students I’ve seen since then. Or perhaps I’m creating a person that never was, reacting to my own guilt over not paying more attention to her in life.
But faulty or not, this is the image that I carry, the one that I can share.
In August 2005, I was living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and finishing my doctoral dissertation. I was working as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College, and while much of what I experienced there frustrated me, I found the student population fascinating. Having only taught at universities, I had become accustomed to dealing with traditional students, many of whom were children of privilege. But at BRCC, I encountered over-25 students, budding small business owners, and people from the lower tax brackets. At the beginning of every semester, my classroom filled up with single mothers and middle-aged men working two jobs and youngsters whose parents could not afford LSU or Southern.
And after Hurricane Katrina near-missed New Orleans and devastated the gulf coast, after the levees broke and the streets flooded and the city became a powerless third-world town, after the debacles at the Superdome and the Convention Center, after the evacuation and dispersion of the Crescent City’s poor and largely African-American populace began to resemble a new diaspora, after the universities and colleges that could still operate began to announce the creation of emergency courses for evacuees and the hiring of displaced educators, I went to work one day and met Michelle.
I didn’t know then that she had lived in the lower parishes. I didn’t know about her home life or her relationship to her extended family. It isn’t the kind of thing that comes up in class, at least not often, and it certainly isn’t the kind of thing you ask about without cause. I only knew her name, and with all my other students to remember, it would take a few weeks for me to associate the name in my grade book with the quiet young woman who sat in the middle of class.
More wasted time? No, it was only the natural progression of any semester, the adjustment period in which you learn who the students are and how badly they really want to be there. But in retrospect, it’s easy to wonder what each moment might have cost. Michelle’s life was already rushing toward disaster, as if someone had turned over an hourglass, one day in her life for each grain of sand, the pull of her destruction as inevitable as gravity.
That isn’t completely true, of course. Michelle’s death was no more certain that the eventual appearance of a storm like Katrina, or its growth to Category 5 strength out over the Gulf, or its losing momentum just before making landfall along the Louisiana-Mississippi coast. But Michelle’s death was seeded decades before her birth, planted by governmental neglect, fertilized by Louisiana citizens’ indifference, nourished by an “it will never happen here” attitude that itself grew in power each time a storm veered east into Mississippi or west into Texas. Michelle’s death became more certain every time the levees held.
You can blame Katrina on global warming, God, or plain old bad luck. You can blame people’s decisions to stay on stubbornness or on Mayor Ray Nagin or, more likely, on a collision of political, historical, and socioeconomic factors. You can blame the federal government’s slow response on George W. Bush’s general incompetence, on the rich’s laissez-faire privilege, on FEMA. But the levees—well, we’re all responsible for them. Whenever we failed to demand levee reconstruction or allowed the passing of one storm to lull us into believing New Orleans would always be safe, we hastened the day when Lake Ponchartrain would spill into the streets and carry away all our assumptions. And because we own the levees, we own Michelle’s death, and others like hers.
The last time I saw Michelle, I hurt her feelings. It was the day of our final exam. She wrote her in-class essay quietly, as she had done everything all semester. When she brought her exam to my desk, she handed it to me. I took it and smiled.
“Have a good break,” I said.
Instead of leaving, she unzipped her backpack and pulled out a package wrapped in Christmas paper. She held it out to me.
“This is for you,” she said.
This kind of thing happens occasionally, and the moment is always awkward. Knowing that a student actually appreciates you warms your heart, even as the mind screams Danger! Danger! You want to listen to your heart, but accepting gifts from students is simply unethical. Even the appearance of favoritism can lead to appeals, even lawsuits. So being offered a gift in front of a classroom full of students, especially during a final exam, felt incredibly dangerous, as if someone had opened the door and tossed a cobra into the room.
I didn’t take the package. I said, “I appreciate the gesture, more than you know. But I’m not allowed to accept gifts from students. I hope you understand.”
For a moment, she just stared at me, the present still held out, hanging between us like a broken promise. Then she half-smiled, nodded, and put the gift back in her bag.
“Merry Christmas,” I said, as cheerfully as I could.
“You too,” she replied, not unkindly, and then she walked out the door without looking back.
The next time I saw her face, it was on the news.
In the spring of 2006, my courseload included a couple of argument-based composition classes. As an exercise in social awareness and practical argument, I required my students to participate in online discussions of current events. The responses I got from these Baton Rouge citizens about New Orleans evacuees were often disturbing. In spirit, they sounded like this:
“These people are living in new trailers rent-free. Seems like they’re making out all right.”
“When are they going to get jobs and stop expecting the government to take care of them?”
“They could solve their own problems and get their homes back if they just worked hard enough.”
“These people,” “they,” “them”—my students were using the language of exclusion. Worse yet, they were stereotyping, assuming facts not in evidence, oversimplifying, overgeneralizing—everything I was trying to teach them not to do. And though I tried to present them with alternative points of view, the flavor of the discussion remained, for the duration of that semester, largely the same. Some people, who otherwise seemed rational and empathetic, disdained the victims of Katrina and wished them gone from the city. If one person refused to work, these students thought, then all evacuees were lazy, sorry parasites on the body of hard-working America. Never mind that countless evacuees worked hard and that others might have good reason for not working. Many people who had not seen Katrina blow their lives away were sitting in self-righteous judgment of those who had.
Luckily for the country, this kind of thought seemed to be seated in a vocal but comparatively small minority. But some people went far beyond words.
One night my wife and I were half-listening to the local evening news when I heard the anchor mention Michelle’s name. Snapping to attention, I turned up the volume and then fell back against the couch, my stomach in knots. As the newscaster explained what had happened, I recalled every careless word that those students had written. I wondered how they would feel now, if they knew what I knew.
Michelle had been living with relatives in the Baton Rouge area ever since Katrina had washed away her home. I don’t know her exact circumstances, but I witnessed first-hand how the shock of losing everything you ever had weighed on people. Some sat motionless, shell-shocked, unable to muster the motivation to pick up the pieces. Why build a life when wind can so easily knock it down? Others fell into a deep depression. Others became violently angry. Nearly everyone, even those who immediately went back to work, felt the tension.
Like many displaced Katrina victims, who often had to squeeze over a dozen people into a few rooms, Michelle and her family had been living with relatives. One evening, Michelle got into a heated argument with two of her cousins. Emotions led to words; the words led to violence. Michelle’s own relatives stabbed her multiple times. According to the news, she died right there on the ground. She never had a chance.
As I listened to the story and remembered the girl who had brought me a Christmas present, I had to remind myself to breathe.
We bought a sympathy card for Michelle’s mother, but I never sent it. In spite of being a writer and a teacher of writing and literature, I couldn’t think of anything to say. Everything sounded trite and hollow. Was I supposed to tell her that I only knew her daughter long enough to turn down a thoughtful gift? Could I express hope in the justice system when the killers shared her blood? After Katrina and her daughter’s murder, should I appeal to her faith in a God she might not even believe in anymore? And somehow, “I’m sorry for your loss” seemed inadequate.
Besides, there was too much to be sorry for: Michelle’s death, my failure to remember her better, the levees and the politicians who always deprioritized them, the citizens who never demanded more, the federal government’s creeping response, Mike Brown, the laughably-named FEMA. For what, or whom, should I apologize?
I’ll always believe that Michelle’s was a hurricane-related death. The storm destroyed her home and dropped her in the maw of familial and economic tensions exacerbated by uncertain futures and cramped living quarters. When she, and far too many others, needed strong, quick solutions, too many agencies pointed their fingers at someone else. “Let them take care of this; it isn’t our job.” Too many private citizens failed to look past the ends of their own noses.
I hope we can all see farther now.