I looked down from the third story window of the Saint Bernard housing project. It was the day after Katrina hit New Orleans and I was across the Mississippi River. I was twelve and somehow my family had left me to fend for myself. Below I witnessed people expressing their fear and anger in the worst ways. I heard neighbors screaming at one another. I saw neighbors stealing from each other’s apartments. I saw gangs of young men shooting at other gangs. In the moment, without any police around, temptation called me. I went down to the stores and took some things I needed – chips, water, and cigarettes. And then I took some things I didn’t need – jewelry, clothes, and shoes.
I saw a lot of things during Katrina, things no one should have to see. I saw mothers crying for their lost children. I saw elderly people who had been abandoned. I saw sheets covering corpses. I saw bodies floating in the river. I saw a man who had lost all hope, jump from the bridge into the brown water of the Mississippi and drown.
Four days after the storm a bus finally came to rescue a group of us on the bridge. I spent a week in Lafayette before reuniting with my parents in the Astrodome. Then I spent the next year in Texas where I first began to learn to read.
We don’t have a choice if hurricanes or earthquakes or tornados hit, we do have a choice about who we are in the face of these disasters. We have a choice, as President Obama says, to live with the “audacity of hope.” We have a choice, to help one another in different ways. We have a choice to stand out and be the person we are called to be. We can choose to be selfish and think only of our selves or we can choose to help others.
So here’s what I also saw. I saw people helping each other through the water. I heard people encourage one another to have faith. I heard many African Americans say whites didn’t care about saving blacks. But I witnessed blacks and whites working together passing out water. And, two white Coast Guard officers rescued me. Finally, I listened and believed my teachers in Texas when they told me they had faith in me and that I needed to have faith in myself.
The twelve-year-old boy who looked through the window of the Saint Bernard housing project four and a half years ago could never have written this essay. He could not write or read or count. He did not have a mind patient enough to envision anything complex. He did not think his opinion mattered. Now that boy has gone. In his place is a young man determined to follow his dream.