I was 16 when I first went to New Orleans and the destruction was everywhere. It was April 2006, a full 7 months after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the area. I had first heard the news on the radio on the way to school in the first week back to classes my junior year. The end of August brought the end of life as New Orleans knew it.

I had never been there, knew no one there, but just hearing about the massive loss made my throat tighten and my nose sting with tears that wanted to come. This was a new thing for me. I had never felt so deeply about the lives of people I didn’t even know, and I’m not sure why it happened this time, but it did.


I watched the news as the months went by, waiting for my chance to go and try to help in some capacity or another — I wouldn’t get a chance until my spring break. And the city’s plight that first flooded the news as the waters flooded the streets, soon became a brief mention now and again over the next few months, and within 4 and a half months, nothing. I had to search for information, and it was hard to find. The pictures I saw online were all dated from the beginning. So I was shocked and pained to see that the imagery was all the same when I arrived on the ground 7 months later. Not a lot had changed, the world had just stopped watching.


That was the first of two relief work trips I went on to the city in that year after Katrina. The second one, 11 months after the hurricane, showed more improvement in the city. We went to some neighborhoods that had had houses sitting, displaced by the storm, in the middles of streets, and those houses were now gone, cleared, and the street was useable once again.  We saw the rebuilding of some homes and some city buildings. We saw a drastic drop in the number of broken windows in downtown’s scenery. The whole feel of the city actually was different, slow progress was happening. Slow clearing away of the rubble was happening. Slow rebuilding was happening. And where two months before people’s demeanor on the street had still seemed somber, now the jazz artists had returned to the french quarter, and churches were beginning to re-open their doors for services and more people had their FEMA trailers they’d waited so long for.  On that second trip we even saw the super dome being repainted — what had been the epicenter of panic, chaos, wounded lives and bodies was now being returned to a place of regular life, of games, of victories and defeats that don’t hurt your life more than for a moment.


What I saw in New Orleans was a city that was broken and rebuilding.  And I think that’s why New Orleans so quickly and completely captured my heart.


I would say that I am currently broken. I have less brokenness in my life than a year ago. But I still dont have what there used to be, my life still doesn’t always work the way life is supposed to be able to work. I am rebuilding with the broken pieces. I am in that process. As is New Orleans. And most that come for the first time may not even know that this is not the way we know it could be. It looks pretty good. Pretty cleaned up. A newcomer doesnt even know what’s been rebuilt and what was left whole in the wreckage. But those familiar with the city, they can take you to the ruins. They can show you water marks and piles of rubble still. They can paint a picture for you of how the waters rose and whole houses were thrown blocks away with their foundations still attached.


But the city, while broken and rebuilding, is not wounded.


This is a distinction I had to make for myself recently, after my blog post about the ways I don’t trust the church but I wish I did. Lots of people began to hear my story for the first time in conversations after that post, and many people who had known my story started to see some of the brokenness that still remains because of the storms of my life. But the word I heard a lot and began to react to was about me being “wounded”. I will say that yes, I have been wounded by the storms, but the circumstances and the people and the places and events. And by wounded I mean I’ve been hurt. But I began to react to it (which is not about those people using the word, but about me processing for myself) because I had to honestly look at myself and ask: Am I living like a wounded person? And after a lot of self-examination, I’d say no. I’m not.


Wounded animals lay in the road or in the woods or under the stairs to the back patio waiting to die.


Wounded people are not functional — their words leak bitterness, their lives wreak of rot, their relationships are shallow and unhealthy.


Wounded people need to heal.


Broken people are healed or healing. But they still have to rebuild. And sometimes, when a storm comes, they get a little wounded again. So they heal again. But its not the wounds overall that hurt. Those are just scars now. The hurt is in the memory of what used to be. The loss of life before it broke.


And that loss will not ever go away.


Mostly, I’d say I don’t have a lot of wounds that need healing still, I’ve done a lot of work on that, and I continue to uncover new hurt places and seek healing in those. I’m committed to that process. But for the most part, now is the time to rebuild. The time to clear the streets, to rebuild the buildings, to re-paint the football stadium.


And this is why I always love to see the New Orleans Saints football team win. They’re not my football team, but I love their city, their broken, rebuilding city, and I want to see that stadium see as many victories as possible. Because with each victory that happens there, it’s like a small brick on the pile rebuilding a broken city’s spirit, which is harder to rebuild than buildings.


But the good news is, spirits are harder to destroy than buildings, too.


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

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