The last week of August 2005, a natural disaster struck the southern United States and impacted millions of lives. Hurricane Katrina caused grief, tragedy, and despair. But for me, it was a blessing in disguise. One of the 400,000 displaced citizens of New Orleans was 15-year-old Chelsea. Fearing the storm and the damage it would cause, Chelsea fled her home in search of refuge. Almost 700 miles later, in St. Louis, Missouri, she stopped. She moved in with a host family, and enrolled in a local high school. And there, she met me.
Chelsea and I shared only one class, but during that class we bonded. We began hanging out outside of school: we shopped, went to concerts, and explored festivals. Chelsea told me about the home she so dearly missed: the city and its rich culture, her family and their traditions, her friends and what they did for fun. I dreamed of traveling to this amazing place, and when Chelsea left St. Louis and returned to New Orleans for good, I was jealous. Chelsea and I continued to e-mail, talk on the phone, and write letters.
My fears of losing touch vanished, and when she invited me to come to New Orleans for a week during the summer, I jumped at the chance. The summer of 2006, nearly a year after the storm, I prepared to take my first solo plane ride. I was nervous, but the promise of seeing my best friend for the first time in months soothed my fears.
After an interminable flight over Lake Ponchartrain, the plane landed. I gathered my things from the overhead compartment, and rushed out of the plane. The airport was empty; the eerie silence reminded me of the reports I’d seen on the news of the airport being used as a mausoleum following the storm.
As I hurried to baggage claim, I realized for the first time I was entering a city that had suffered an immense tragedy. With great relief, I embraced Chelsea as we waited for my luggage. The air was hot and muggy, and Chelsea’s mom, Miss Judy, gave me a reassuring hug and loaded my bags into the trunk.
Chelsea booked a surprise cooking class for us, and as we discussed the coming week, I was filled with excitement. We arrived at the cooking class at a local mall. I was apprehensive at first; I’d never eaten Cajun or Creole, and spicy was my worst enemy. With each shake of the “Slap Ya Mama” spice shaker, I grew more nervous. What would I eat for the week? The cooking instructors added dish after dish to our plates, and I apprehensively took my first bite. The food was amazing!
When the class ended, we climbed back into Miss Judy’s car. Excited to see Chelsea again, I paid little attention as the view outside the car changed. When Ms. Judy began talking about the damage, I almost didn’t know what she was referring to. Now, as I looked out the window, the area surrounding us was heartbreaking. Homes were ruined and trash was everywhere. Big spray-painted Xs covered the fronts of the houses, the recovery teams’ signatures. I again remembered the images I’d seen on the news of families leaving their homes and belongings behind. Many would never return. I continued to see disturbing images like these throughout the week.
Though she’d been seeing these images daily for over six months, I witnessed Chelsea’s continued pain. While much of the city feigned normalcy, many parts had not. Often I found myself turning my head to look away. Luckily, Chelsea and I did experience a lot more than the sad effects of the hurricane. I submerged myself into a culture completely unlike my own. The brass instruments of street musicians played lively jazz tunes. Po’ boys, red beans and rice, gumbo, and beignets were staples at every meal. Thick southern accents and New Orleans pride created an atmosphere like no other city.
Leaving New Orleans was hard. I hugged my best friend and held back the tears, knowing that it would not be my last visit with Chelsea. I boarded the plane and headed home; glad to be back where I could pronounce everything on the menu. I missed Chelsea, and still do. My best friend by my side, exploring a city like no other, my first trip to New Orleans was one I’ll never forget.
Adriana Hart-Schmidt of Webster Groves, Missouri won Honorable Mention for this essay.
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