I can hardly believe that it’s been a decade since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. For better or worse, I always think of the storm as a kind of before/after moment in my life. Before I realized that my personal diatribes are mostly useless. Before I understood that my judgment never matters. Before I knew how deeply God loves his creation.

I was standing in my apartment at the University of Mississippi the day after the storm made land. Public radio opened their lines up for people to call in and talk about what was happening as it was happening; it was sort of a “live feed” of heartbreak. And it was as desperate and scary as it sounds.

I remember being paralyzed with grief when one man called in who worked at a nursing home. “There’s no power,” he said “we cannot keep machines running and insulin cold,” he cried, “and people are starting to die.” It felt like I was hearing the apocalypse on the radio.

Things quickly became fraught for everyone. I had family members on the coast who could not get water or gas. And when they did, there was grave concern that they might be carjacked and killed on the way. I knew a young father who was killed in his driveway for the gasoline he had just purchased. Suddenly, it seemed like all of the bad things were possible. I have never been in a war. But Katrina made me hope I would never have to be in one.


I ended up working at a hurricane relief camp on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi pretty quickly after the hurricane hit, but not because I was a saint. Honestly, it didn’t even feel like I had much of a choice. Those people are my people. So I went.

I was unprepared to be inundated with other people’s trauma. And as a particularly egocentric recent college graduate, I was sure that I had the answers for everyone’s problems. Personally speaking, it was a lethal combination. I vividly remember standing at the welcome tent for the relief camp when a young Vietnamese couple approached me. There was a sizeable population of Vietnamese fishermen on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. And because of their lack of family support and their paycheck to paycheck existence, many of these hard working people were especially devastated by Katrina. As the young couple approached my tent I realized that the mother was holding a very sick baby. The child was sneezing and coughing and it was an oddly chilly morning. “You need to get that baby a blanket!” I yelled in all of my youthful brilliance. “We don’t have a blanket,” the mother snapped back in broken English. I was dumbfounded by my own judgmental uselessness. It felt like Heaven put me in a dunce cap and sat me in the corner for a while.

I ended up living at the relief camp for two months. For the first few weeks, I helped out at the pharmacy tent. I remember wearing earrings that looked like the Red Cross symbol so people would feel better about taking Prozac from a Southern Studies major. At that point in my life I thought of myself as being a bubbly and enthusiastic young woman (I was an Ole Miss graduate, after all). It turns out that’s not what gets the job done after a hurricane has wiped out people’s homes and hearts. What people needed in the aftermath of Katrina was someone who looks competent and doesn’t talk too much.

At one point there was anxiety within the volunteer base at the camp because they figured out that the local people were taking donated clothes and selling them in the streets to one another. There was concern that the clothing wouldn’t end up “in the right hands” and that people were gaming the system. We had a wonderful clergyman who ran the camp. His response to all of the privileged people hand wringing was this: “Great! Let them take our stuff and sell it! They are getting the local economy going!” It was a nice way of telling us ain’t nobody got time for what amounted to adults tattle tailing. We were volunteering in utter devastation and this was a judgement free zone. Nobody had time for our “helpful” condemnatory thoughts about a community of people who had lost everything.

One year and one month after Katrina hit, I got married and moved to New York. I mostly forgot about everything that had happened, or so I thought. One day I was having lunch with some girlfriends and one of them mentioned that she was vacationing in New Orleans the weekend before the hurricane hit. She told us how relieved she was to get out of the city before hell broke loose. My social appropriateness went out the window and I started to ugly cry immediately. Everything I had seen and all the people I had encountered came flooding back. I realized then that Katrina would always be with me. But admittedly, it’s taken me a long time to know what to do with it.


In the wake of loss there is often a need to prove that everything happens for a reason. When people die we say that God “needed another angel in heaven.” As though God is just that bad at staffing the pearly gates. I’m never sure what to do with that theology. There was no reason for the trauma and loss that hit the people of the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005.

Poor people did not need to die in the Superdome. Children did not need to lose their parents. Parents did not need to lose their children. Katrina did not need to happen. But it did.

I have come to realize that God didn’t redeem Katrina the way that we wanted Him to redeem it. Sure, there are silver linings. New Orleans may be better by some peoples’ accounts. Good Christian people rallied and lent a hand when the government was terribly delayed. I even got to learn some personal life lessons about not being a judgmental jackwagon. But none of this was necessary. Whenever folks want to remind me of silver linings I just want to remind them that they are negating an entire cloud hanging overhead.

As for me, there will be no existential lessons from Hurricane Katrina. If the storm taught me anything, it is that I do not serve a God who teaches us lessons from on high. God’s redemption is not as neat as we want it to be. It is tears given for loss and hope given for heartbreak. God’s redemption does not come in the form of laws and regulations. Instead, it walks through the pain with us, knowing that this world will never be perfect. God wasn’t moving a chess piece that day from the clouds. He was and is on the ground weeping with us all these years later.