Last Word

In Hurricane Katrina’s WakeThe Damage That Can’t Be Measured in Dollars Often Makes the Biggest Impact

By Lori Hutzler Eckert

Many years ago, my father taught me to ride a two-wheeled bike, a brief rite of passage that brings the first taste of independence and freedom for many children. When his big, capable hands let go of my tiny green Schwinn one hot summer day, it was with a mixture of thrill and panic that I set off on my own, in a way, for the very first time.

However, as the years passed, my father was there pushing, pulling and paving the way for my adulthood. And while I tested uncharted waters, I knew that no matter what happened, he would always buoy me, helping me make crucial decisions.

But as with all of us who are lucky enough to have parents who survive well into our own adult years, the tide must change and our roles begin to reverse. At nearly 40 years old, I suddenly found myself taking the lead, giving the support, providing the care.

For many of my generation from the coastal areas of Louisiana and Mississippi, the dynamics of our relationships with our parents didn’t take the naturally slow and methodical course of change – it happened all at once on Aug. 29, 2006, the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

Like tens of thousands of other people, my world shifted on its axis in the wake of that storm. My parents, who lived on the Louisiana Gulf coast, suddenly were homeless. And as the reality of losing a lifetime of possessions set in, in many ways, I became the caretaker.

Several days after the storm, I sat in a cramped motel room with my mother and father holding both their hands. I had to tell them that my grandmother had died. My father’s mother, Alice Smith Hutzler, was one of the more than 40 elderly people abandoned by a New Orleans hospital after the storm passed and the floodwaters came.

Most who know me would say I do not shy away from the chance to be in charge. I generally am poised to take the wheel at any given moment. But in the weeks following the hurricane, while searching for answers to the location of my grandmother’s remains and worrying about the fate of my family, I felt ill prepared at best – lost and longing for someone to help guide me.

I was fortunate to have the support from my husband, Richard, my aunt and uncle, and many dear friends; however, there were many times when I wanted so desperately to ask my mother and father what to do, but they were now relying on me.

Like a willful child, I angrily thought, “This is not fair!” Like an adult, I said, “We will get through this and be fine.” That internal conflict was a burden unto itself.

Late one night after the storm, I called my friend of more than 25 years, David Hansen. He was in the throes of looking for a house for his parents, who had lived for more than 30 years in the same home until Katrina. After a few minutes of quiet conversation about the circumstances, I asked him if he felt the shift, if he recognized the change. Yes, he said, he had. In that moment, we realized we were not alone with our newfound roles.

More and more, I saw my contemporaries, people I knew as carefree children, taking charge of their families as time passed.

A year later, now that some order has been restored and a new routine is in place, we recognize the privilege it is to care for the very people who gave us life and raised us. I am glad to carry some of the burden and try to make the situation a little easier for my parents while coming to a sort of understanding – I hesitate to call it full-on acceptance – that they now need to turn to me for direction.

But as those of us affected by the storm move forward – dealing with the bumblings of bureaucracy, discussing housing plans, trying to make new memories – I still find myself longing for my dad’s strong hands to steady the wobbly wheels and set me back on course.