The sun also rises
Originally published in The Daily Iowan
Georgia sat next to me in the passenger seat, gripping her rosary and praying softly aloud while staring at the setting sun in the Texas sky. Her 40-something-year-old son, Sidney, sat behind her in my 1997 Toyota Camry, burping up the can of Coke I bought him and mumbling things I couldn’t make out as I sipped my Mountain Dew and headed west.
Five of us began the 550-mile trip from the Hurricane Katrina relief shelter in Houma, La., to San Antonio. After dropping off Aneisha, a single 31-year-old, in Houston so she could be reunited with her aunt, we were down to four. Denise, likely nearing 50, sat behind me, either sleeping or pretending to.
At 76, Georgia was handling the long road trip quite well as we reached our ninth hour on the highway. She mostly kept to herself, making observations every now and then about what she saw out the window.
“We need that sun to stay in the sky so it can dry up New Orleans, and everyone can be back together again,” was one comment that stuck in my head.
We covered their hurricane horror tales in the first half-hour of the car ride. Trudging through shoulder-high water, sleeping on the hard concrete of the freeway for three days, Sidney lifting his 220-pound mother into a boat and watching helicopters pass by to rescue others and eventually them.
I had watched the disaster unfold on TV for a week in my Iowa City apartment, and now there I was, becoming a piece of the survivors’ stories.
But for a majority of the trip we sat in silence. All I could think to talk about was the tragedy, and I figured they were trying hard to push it from their minds.
Never had I spent so much time around people I had so little in common with. They came from the projects. The only experience I had with projects was staying up late at night trying to finish them.
I stereotyped the hell out of them by putting in a Ray Charles CD at the beginning of the trip that continued to repeat itself. I kept the volume so low I wasn’t even sure they could hear it.
Unfortunately, Denise was destined for another shelter, but at least she had located her mother and brother and would be with them soon.
Georgia and Sidney loaded their suitcases full of the few belongings they salvaged into my car that morning only hoping to find their family.
I was caught off guard when I discovered this news halfway through the trip, but I soon came to the conclusion that hope was all these people had left.
After a few phone calls and a little luck, I had Georgia’s granddaughter Carlise on the phone. She was working at a bar in San Antonio.
The car erupted with emotion as Georgia spoke with her family for the first time since Katrina struck.
She handed the phone back to me, and I took down directions while steering the car with my knee.
I knew why I had hopped in my car to drive down to Louisiana a week ago, putting off school and work to go help the people I saw on TV. But, as I made my trip south, I began to question if I would make a difference.
I drove past the freeway entrances to New Orleans only to be greeted with armed guards and signs that read “Emergency Vehicles Only.”
As I neared my sister-in-law’s family’s house in Houma, I saw a man teeing off on a golf course while one of the worst disasters in history was still occurring just a short car ride away.
“Why did I just drive 15 hours to come here?” I wondered. “Was it simply a romantic idea at the time that should have involved a bit more thought?”
Then I arrived at the shelters.
People were packed into gymnasiums like it was a sold-out concert. Their city was gone, and this was their new home.
I spoke with a mother who lost all seven children. When asked where his parents were, a little boy responded, “In the sky.”
The chaos and grief were too much for a country to take on, let alone one college kid. But I came up with a purpose. I would do my best to pay attention to the small stuff.
I held crying boys who reached their arms up to me. I played tic-tac-toe with a 10-year-old girl who was confident she was returning to New Orleans in a day or so.
Then, on a Thursday morning, 10 days after Katrina had struck, I drove my car to pick up four strangers who had no one else to turn to but me.
The mood in the car changed since Georgia and Sidney discovered they would soon be reunited with family.
I heard Georgia saying a prayer for me. I sipped my drink.
“Hey B, you doin’ the Dew?,” Sidney said.
I laughed not only at his comment but at the fact he had given me a nickname before ever calling me Brian.
Then Georgia caught me off guard by asking me to turn up the music.
Coincidence or something greater, Ray’s words came from the speakers.
Georgia, Georgia, the whole day through.
Just an old sweet song.
Keeps Georgia on my mind.
Here we were, a white 21-year-old college boy from Iowa singing alongside a black 76-year-old woman from the projects of New Orleans.
After Denise reunited with her mother and brother, I pulled up in front of a bar in San Antonio and told Georgia and Sidney to wait in the car to make sure I had the right place. I asked if a Carlise was there. Two women jumped up from a table, frantically hugging me and running out to the car.
“We didn’t know where you were,” Georgia’s daughter told her.
“You were the only family we hadn’t found yet,” said Georgia’s granddaughter.
I said my goodbyes and went on my way, knowing I would likely never see or hear from any of my co-travelers again.
The next morning, I got a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize.
It was Sidney.
“Everyone is back together again, B,” Sidney said.
Sweat soaked through my shirt that day as the sun beat down. I figured it was doing all it could to dry up this mess.