I came to Houston after the storm hit. I was in Baton Rouge for the worst part of Katrina. All of the ugliness unfolded during that period. I went through a few transitions however fortunately, I found stability early on. After 4 years, I am still living in the same apartment I moved in after about one and a half months in limbo.
It took some time to adjust to Houston because it was so different than New Orleans. Houston was a huge city, within a city, within a metropolis. Every section of the city seem to have a mini business district equipped with tall buildings and shops. The highways were massive, and quite intimidating coming from a 2- 3 lane highway in New Orleans. Houston was constantly building and growing and expanding. It is not possible to see that kind of development in New Orleans .
After I settled in and adjusted to Houston I was determined not to return to New Orleans. I’ve been there and done that before. New Orleans represented the unchanging past. There was so much deep pain and hopelessness post Hurricane Katrina with everyone.
We were all scattered all over the place from cit to city, just trying to cope and swollen the pill of reality. I thought people who had ventured to stay in New Orleans were crazy, and out of their minds. There was so much chaos and political drama in the city. There was a military presence as well. People were still dealing with some of the horrible things that had taken place in the city, and it was morbid.
I passed the landmarks seen on TV at the heart of the crisis. Places where dead bodies floated. Places where people begged for food and water. I can’t get that picture out of my mind every time I pass the Convention Center. I can’t forget how the Police Chief ordered the removal of everyone’s guns in the most insane moments following Hurricane Katrina. Eddie Compass you should have known better, Ray Nagin you should have known better.
What was more shocking about this period was the amount of anarchy and police abuse going on. I got so sick of it and pretty soon I just tuned it out. I was determine not to return to the city for some time. I did not go to my house until January.
I had a lot of work to do. I had to mentally prepare myself for the trip. I really did. I can recall how far reaching Hurricane Katrina was, and two weeks or so Hurricane Rita hit. I had to drive pass Lake Charles LA, and other towns that were smashed by these storms. It was amazing the gradual damage I saw leading up to New Orleans.
I never forget passing the swamp near Boute before entering Kenner. My heart beat faster and faster. The city of Kenner looked horrible. Hundreds of signed polluted the ground. It was an unbelievable site to see.
I drove down Veterans Highway. Taking the long way home. My eyes could not believe the site of Metarie, LA. I said if Metarie looks like this God help me. The place looked like a war zone. You could see the water lines on each house with mud and yuck mixed together. I call it yuck because I don’t know what that crap was. As I made my approach to West End Blv. and then to Robert E. Lee.
It was like the Trail of Tears. I just didn’t recognized the foreign place. Trash was piled up to the sky on West End. Blv. and the smell was like a toilet that hadn’t been flushed for weeks. It was so horrible and thick. I needed a face mask just to leave my car. The stench was unbearable.
My neighbor tried to get me mentally prepared to enter my home. I entered my house and was horrified at the site. I didn’t cry or shed a tear because I was in shock and had mentally prepared myself for the worst.
For 4 years I hungered to find my place in Houston. I had met a lot of people (mainly Muslims). I quickly worked on building a life for myself here, as well as building Iqra Newspaper. I opened an office last year, however when the lease ran out I decided to pack my bags and retreat.
The economy was so uncertain, and I felt I just couldn’t get the type of support I needed to make this thing work. The city was just too divided across cultural lines, and there had not been a paper quite like Iqra who tried to tear down those walls that divide. It was also my goal to create something that Americans – whether Muslim or not could relate to.
It was just not enough to sustain an office, and I didn’t want to take a risk of getting deeper in a financial hole. Since I no longer had the lease to worry about, I began to rethink my presence in Houston.
It took forever and a day for the Road To Home program to process my application. But you know there is an old saying. God doesn’t always come when you want, but He is right on time. Well, it seems that the timing was right.
I went to New Orleans a few days after about an 8 month hiatus. I felt a release in my soul. Something just felt right. I had a good talk with the neighbors, something that is just unheard of in Houston (with a few exceptions). They urged me to come back home. This time I listened.
All of the things I searched for, the outdoor coffee shops, the sense of cultural belonging, the water within walking distance from my home, the yard the house were all there in New Orleans. New Orleans felt like a new frontier with so much potential only if people took advantage of it.
I visited a public housing project that had been torn down. I photographed this place on each trip. I also filmed a bit on the last trip and was determined to film the progress of the demolitions and rebuilding. I lucked upon some previous St. Bernard Housing residents who just passed by in a car to see their old home. The scene really touched me like never before.
I spoke with them while they were still in the car. It was about 4 family members I believe. They spoke on camera about their feelings. I could feel the pain in their voice of loosing their homes. I really couldn’t understand it before. In a 7th ward elitist perspective, I felt it was just a project. Why would someone want to return to the ghetto! Why not use this opportunity to get out of the St. Bernard. I now understood that they were no different than me. They lost and I lost. They wanted to regain something I was looking for in Houston and couldn’t find. This was their home. Who was I to judge?
I wrote a company about rebuilding. The lady told me she would advise me to move out of New Orleans. She just couldn’t see the sense of returning to a Hurricane prone area. She said nothing about Houston’s venerability and you know I mentioned it, but that isn’t the point.
New Orleans is a city like no other in America. The history is rich, the city is unique and old. It brings you back a few hundred years. The culture is different, the homes have their own style, the food is the best in the United States. People come from all over the world to experience New Orleans. My memories are here, my childhood…..
I am returning to New Orleans for the time being. Only God knows what lies ahead. I want to emerge myself in the community. Giving something back. I told that lady in the car that I would make sure the world knows about the St. Bernard Housing and the people’s saga. I would like to make a documentary about it. In the process of rebuilding my home and my life.
See photographs of before and after the St. Bernard Housing project in Flickr