It is life, I think, to watch the water. A man can learn so many things
-Nicholas Sparks, The Notebook-
On August 29, 2005, 18 years ago, I watched the waters rise and learned so many things.
I was the Athletic Director at Dillard University in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit.
Like it was yesterday, I remember waking up early Saturday morning to attend the funeral of a prominent community leader. The funeral lasted several hours, and like many people at the ceremony, I was unaware of the enormous danger heading toward New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
There were no clouds in the sky when my phone began to ring; when players, coaches and administrative staff called me to ask for details about our evacuation plan. Evacuation plan? I quickly left the funeral and sprang into action. The next several hours remain a blur. I organized the teams and staff, locked down the facilities and ensured everyone had a plan to get out of the region. Later that evening, I packed a three-day supply of clothes and toiletries, confident I would be able to return to the comforts of my life in just a few days.
My friend and I sought refuge in Houston, TX. From our hotel room, we watched, transfixed, as images of devastation and death flashed across our TV screens. Broken levees. People on rooftops waving white flags and pleading for rescue. A steady stream of news footage showing the elderly, the disabled and thousands of people living in poverty slowly dying in the heat. It broke both my heart and spirit.
There I was, tuning in to the tragedy of my home city from a nice, comfortable room a state away from the stark realities of my neighbors. I was one of the lucky ones. I could afford gas, travel expenses and inflated hotel rates. I had friends and an entire community of support waiting for me in Houston — people who reached out and who ensured that I was well taken care of.
Days, then weeks, then months passed before I returned to New Orleans. I never did return to my apartment, which had suffered major flood damage. And, like so many others, I soon realized that the massive storm had impacted every aspect of my life.
I had limited access to my bank accounts and financial records, to cell phone service, clothing and daily necessities. I remember as if it were yesterday the surrealness of being a high-ranking leader in higher education who had to: stand in line for hours to sign up for public assistance, apply for my Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) number and purchase clothes at the local Wal-Mart.
I remember how the weight of those experiences begin to take its toll; and I remember the moment when I no longer could mask my devastation.
It was about six weeks after the storm. I had just walked into the nearest Red Cross to request housing assistance. And that’s when I suddenly began to cry. The Red Cross volunteer recognized my trauma; she took a little extra time to help me find temporary housing at a local extended-stay hotel. In my suffering, she saw my humanity and our shared-humanity, and she took action. I will never forget that moment. I will never forget her act of kindness. I will never forget when I walked into the hotel and begin to put the pieces of my life back together. It was the first time in months that I felt any semblance of normal.
Experiencing Katrina challenged my personal and my political views. It exposed and dismantled my belief that I was assured protection from poverty because of my education and status in life. My new reality reminded me of my interdependence upon others; it flew in the face of the ideology of meritocracy I didn’t realize I’d internalized.
For many of us, especially for me, Hurricane Katrina acted as a great equalizer. It brought home basic lessons of humanity as well as a recognition of the fragile tapestry upon which our collective democracy, freedoms and financial stability rest. You see, despite all my hard work, my good-paying job and my education, at the end of the day, I was no different than the thousands of other storm victims. The FEMA lines were not separated by the haves and the have-nots. There was only one line, and we all had to take our turn.
Hurricane Katrina taught me the power of community, as millions of people across the country reached out to help strangers. The enormity of the storm challenged our political system, social morals and individual capacities to lead. I watched leaders ignore and fail thousands of citizens every day. I watched leaders who were once regarded as pillars of the community commit fraud, lie and betray the public to serve their own interests. I watched organizations led by people who relied on positional power create panic and instability throughout the community. I watched organizations, including my university, struggle to develop, organize and articulate a strategy and vision for recovery.
In the waters, I personally learned how to reimagine my own humanity outside the context of labor or a job title. In the waters, I learned that change and transformation can only be sustained through interconnected communities and courageous leadership. In the waters, I began studying an African philosophy called Ubuntu, which means-- “I am because you are; you are because I am.”
Steeped in African tradition, Ubuntu reminded me that there is no single act of leading or leadership that doesn’t demand personal introspection and continuous understanding of both our individual and collective roles in solving problems. It taught me that all matters matter, and that people, organizations, communities and stories are connected. This connection is both local and universal. It is seemingly insignificant at times yet significant all the time.
Finally, the impact of Hurricane Katrina prompted me to reimagine my life’s work as well as to learn something new in the world. I learned the importance of a humanistic way of leading and being, which challenges us to remember that we are all in the water, always. To keep from drowning, we must work together, take courageous actions and upend all oppression if we are to survive the next storm.