April 2006. I had assumed that, eight months after the storm, I would be returning to a New Orleans that was well on the way to being renewed. Healed. Because how could anyone allow such a cultural treasure to remain broken for nearly a year? But I had a window seat, so as my plane approached our descent into Louis Armstrong Airport, I had an unusually vivid vantage point of how Hurricane Katrina had impacted this beloved city. You could see exactly where the storm made landfall. It looked like a giant had stomped his way inland, flattening entire neighborhoods and erasing the signs of humanity for miles. And I cried as the plane touched down, for all of those families who lost lives and everything they owned. I wept for the elimination of so much that proved their previous existence, however troubled or meager it may have been.

I came to New Orleans with my videocamera, intent on capturing vocalist Jhelisa Anderson as she performed a Nina Simone tribute set at JazzFest. I also hoped to film a few candid conversations with other people I encountered who had moved back after the storm. I soon learned that I would gather stories, but not through my lens. I met several people who opened their hearts to me, with gut-wrenching tales of escape from the storm. Tearful retellings of terrified relatives who had barricaded themselves in their homes, unable to swim and paralyzed by the idea of climbing into a boat or Coast Guard basket to escape the floodwaters. And countless instances of people who had the privilege of finding work and returning to New Orleans, rebuilding their homes but without any of the standard amenities we take for granted in a developed country. Trying to restore running water and other utilities. No trash pickup. No mail delivery. No street lights. And only the clothes they managed to salvage on the way out. So little to resemble any of the life they had lived, pre-Katrina.

From a married couple in their 20s to a former schoolteacher in her 70s, I heard and saw so much during my week there. From the famed French Quarter; out to the neighborhoods of the Garden District, Tremé and Gentilly; and even further out to the deluged city of Slidell, I met people who had a firsthand confrontation with survival and won. And over this last decade, when I’ve had to surrender personal items to theft or environmental damage, as I’ve had to bury all of my remaining elders, I have not allowed myself to indulge in enduring grief.

Because I am still here. Still breathing, still working, still expressing my talents the best way I know how. Belongings can be replaced. But life is a unique gift, and it takes an extraordinary strength to surrender it all to an act of God and dig in to restore what was lost. New Orleans is one of my global spiritual centers for many, many reasons. But its greatest gift to me, and the rest of the world, is what it teaches us all about going from nothing to something. The will to endure. The strength to rebuild. The power to begin again.

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