How did Katrina change my life? 

 A.H. Jaffor Ullah

Published on August 31, 2006

My conspicuous absence from the cyber world for the last 8 weeks was caused by my return to New Orleans. My home had no telephone service, never mind the broadband Internet service. Thus, I was disconnected from the rest of the world as Israel fought with Hezbollah guerrillas inside Lebanon for weeks and the British authorities made such a fuss about some errant Pakistani Brits who Pakistani authorities thought were out there to blow up planes in midair.

I got back from Cornell campus on July 10, 2006 to report to New Orleans to my workplace. The infrastructure of New Orleans was destroyed by the hurricane Katrina. A big part of the city is still inhabitable. It is like a ghost town. My hometown, Slidell, is a northeastern suburb, which is coming back to life. I hired some construction people to rebuild my home. It turned out that they were a bunch of crook who took some advance money from me but did not finish the work. I ended up doing the unfinished work – tile work, carpentry, plumbing, and a lot more.

My telephone company, Bellsouth, established the phone line only two days ago. The DSL modem came to my doorsteps just today. Thus, I was able to reconnect to the cyber world.

I just realized that hurricane Katrina struck my city exactly a year ago. My life was turned upside down by the killer hurricane. I lost all my material possession. The ghost-like house was still standing tall with a tattered roof. Literally, we became homeless. Like an itinerant we moved aimlessly from city to city. We somehow ended up in Atlanta by the middle of September 2005. And from there, I went to the Cornell campus with my daughter while my wife returned to our home with my eldest son who is a grad student at Yale.

A year had passed by and things have changed for the better for my family. I spent 9 months at the campus leaving behind half a dozen grad students who still maintain communication with me. My daughter had attended high school in Ithaca and my wife served as a substitute teacher over there. My second son, Riaz, had finished his difficult first year at Georgia Tech in Atlanta while my eldest son, Rashad, went to Kolkata from Yale to study Bangla receiving a scholarship from U.S. State Department-sponsored program administered by the University of Chicago.

I have seen human foibles in Red Cross shelters where I spent some time as the hurricane raged through Louisiana and Mississippi. I saw adults crying without knowing where they are headed in the aftermath of the hurricane. Those dark days are gone but many hurricane survivors are still in a rut. An entire section of New Orleans looks like a war zone. One could drive miles after miles in Eastern New Orleans where there are empty buildings still standing tall but no people could be found. And gone are the hustles and bustles of shopping malls. The main public university of New Orleans has resumed its classes with a limited number of students and faculties. The same is true for other places of learning. Now it takes far less time for me to drive 28 miles from my home to my place of work. Sometime as I am driving, I ponder what had happened to all those people. One could see the lawns of the deserted homes taken over by weeds and grasses. There is no sign that the owners are coming back to reclaim their properties anytime soon. While the mayor of New Orleans is very upbeat as he makes his prediction about the future of this city, the ground reality is very different.

I learned a very valuable lesson from the hurricane. I always felt that bad things happen to other people. But I learned my hard lesson. We, the humankinds, are very weak and helpless as compared to various destructive forces of Mother Nature. When earthquakes, tsunami, cyclonic storm, massive floods strike a region, many people needlessly die. Our orb is inhabited by 6.25 billion people and each year if a fraction of world’s population face starvation or become homeless due to ongoing war, disease, or natural disaster, and then many lives are impacted.

We are however glad to be alive. My family members have gone through a lot. We have seen many wan faces of adversities. Life is a struggle here. Still many people in my area go to Church run help center to get a morsel of food. But life goes on. Let us hope that many people who are financially devastated and who lost their dwellings will be able to rebuild their life. Because it is far easier to restart life in an impoverished nation than it is in the land of Dolce Vita.

Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans.