Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hurricane Katrina: Move to North Carolina

In 2005 I was rooted. My roots extended far into that deep but shifting alluvial soil of New Orleans. I was born in New Orleans, as were my parents, my grandparents, some of my great-grandparents, my three sisters and two brothers, and most of my cousins. I had lived in New Orleans for over fifty years.

I felt secure with family close by. I could meet my sister Maria or my brother Danny for lunch at a moment's notice. The families of my married sisters, Sandra and Janet, lived a short forty-five-minute drive across Lake Pontchartrain. My brother Michael, disabled from a stroke, lived in a neighborhood nursing home, so I could pop in anytime for visits. I had a wonderful circle of friends--from school days, family connections, neighborhood, work, writer's circle, piano studio, yoga, reader's theater, French club.

It was my thirteenth year teaching English to international students in the Loyola Intensive English Program of Loyola University New Orleans. I knew the ins and outs of Loyola, whom to see to get what done, the short-cuts around campus and around any red tape.

I knew the language of New Orleans and all the cultural references. I oriented myself by the four New Orleans directions--uptown, downtown, toward the river, toward the lake. I used French-influenced expressions with the verb "make," as in "He made twenty-one last Saturday," meaning that he turned twenty-one years old last Saturday. My closet held items I could throw together for a costume: ballet slippers, a grass skirt, a Mexican straw hat, face paint, beads, feathers, a black velvet tail.

But after Hurricane Katrina, I lost my teaching position: the post-hurricane financial cut-backs at Loyola included closing the Loyola Intensive English Program after our Spring 2006 semester. New Orleans was broken, and no one seemed in a hurry to fix it. People around the country questioned the wisdom of living in a hurricane-prone area--and I began to see their point.

I decided to move. I chose Jackson County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains (the Smokies) of western North Carolina, where my lifelong friend Donna Glee lives. I wanted to be near someone I knew.

I had also heard of the NC TEACH program, a summer program that prepares mid-career adults to move into public school teaching as a means of alleviating the teacher shortage. I applied and was accepted. Once I arrived in North Carolina, though, I learned of openings for renewable one-year-contract lecturers in the English Department of Western Carolina University. This would involve teaching first-year writing at the college level, and would leave my summer free to continue my studies for a Ph.D. in English Composition in the summers-only program of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. This latter position is the one I ultimately chose.

I left New Orleans on Thursday, April 28, having sent the bulk of my belongings on ahead with a moving company. I packed my car with the help of my sister Maria and her friend Malik, took care of a last-minute slow leak in one of my car tires, and drove to my friend Marcella's in Chattanooga--the same Marcella who had sheltered me on evacuation from Hurricane Katrina.

The next day, Friday, April 29, I drove the rest of the way to Donna Glee's home in Balsam, North Carolina, right near the entrance to the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway. I would stay with Donna Glee while searching for a more permanent address. I arrived at Donna Glee's with a heavier heart than I had realized: Donna Glee had no sooner welcomed me than I collapsed in tears on her porch. Actually, it was a blessing to stay with Donna Glee. She is a comforting sort of person, and her supportive friendship smoothed the path for me in countless ways as I adjusted to living in a new place.

Part of that adjustment involved getting a North Carolina driver's license. This might seem like a fairly straightforward task upon moving to a new state, and indeed the process itself was straightforward. My internal feelings, however, were not. For several weeks, I felt disoriented and slightly dizzy whenever I glanced at my new North Carolina license. Was that really me pictured on the license? But how could that be me on a license that said anything but "State of Louisiana"? There was something jarring about the two identities--me and the name of a different state--that my mind refused to put together at first. If I wasn't a Louisianian, a New Orleanian, then who was I?

Ultimately, I spent three years in North Carolina. My next post will tell something of my life in North Carolina during those three years.

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