“My mom was overwhelmed. I had to get my little brother to school every day; it was like every day I woke up and had to forget everything that had happened to day before,” said Mr. Bridges, who now works for a New Orleans social justice nonprofit, and sings in a band, Melomania. “Homework – forget it. Nothing.”
Although “trauma” can mean many things, and is generally considered destructive, its demands can force people to learn what their abilities are and which are most useful when all seems lost. Studies by Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychology professor at the University of California, Irvine, and others have found that adults who report having taken no serious hits – like, say, the death of friend, a serious illness, a natural disaster – generally do not score as highly on measures of well-being as people who have survived traumatic events. It is people who have been through at least two traumas, and less than six, who score highest.
After returning to Louisiana, Mr. Bridges said he got blindsided again, this time in Baton Rouge, where he got a degree in biology from Louisiana State University. He and his brother tried to stop a fight, he said, but they never got the chance. The police arrived and beat them both, he said, and shattered his jaw. He spent months in the hospital with his jaw wired shut.
“I honestly believe that having been through Katrina helped me get through that,” he said. “I don’t know that I would take either of those back, honestly. It’s part of who I am. I became a storyteller. I’m an optimist; going through those things, I know nothing can put my light out.”
This city still bears visible scars of Katrina, buildings that stand empty, crippled monuments to the flooding. But the young men and women interviewed for this story had one thing in common. They all came back.
They returned not home, but to a permutation of it, one with an existential uncertainty that is no abstraction.
“Now I know, I’ll never stay in any big storm,” said Shaysa Shief, 22, who was trapped with her family for days after Katrina, with no power, little food or water. “No one’s going to come help you; you are on your own.”
You look over your shoulder here, they said, literally and mentally. And you watch the weather forecast.