Last updated on October 9th, 2023 at 04:52 pm
Chaos is where great dreams begin…
The day before Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, I started seeing the news on my Facebook stream. I finally stopped what I was doing and read what was going on. My eyes froze on the screen. Oh my God. This was not going to be pretty.
The satellite images of Sandy reminded me of Katrina. That sucker stretched from Connecticut to North Carolina.
The hurricane advisories warned Sandy would be merging with two other storms–making it one super-storm–with snow thrown in to make it extra nasty. And I knew exactly what the affected people would go through before, during, and after.
“After” is the keyword here.
Part of me assumed that people on the East Coast were used to hurricanes. Surely, they would be well-prepared. But when I looked at the news about the survivors, I don’t think many of them fully grasped what would come raining down upon them. Mother Nature will kick your ass when she wants to.
The day that Sandy was scheduled to hit land, I had a pretty full day planned. But something about the day made me feel like I was trying to move through Jello. It was as if everything was in slow motion. And I couldn’t keep myself away from the Internet. I kept having to check on the status of Sandy. I turned off the music and the television.
I waited quietly for the storm to hit …
I was ready to ride it out with the people of the East Coast. I kept reminding myself not to be scared and that it wasn’t actually happening to me, but in a way, it was. I was scared for the millions of people who were about to experience the ride of their lives.
Sadness overwhelmed me like the storm overwhelmed Staten Island. All of my living through Hurricane Katrina memories came flooding back to me.
Five months after Hurricane Katrina, I returned to New Orleans, Louisiana, to rebuild my life and attempt to resurrect my dreams. I was clueless as to what I would be up against. Sure, I’d been through A LOT of hurricanes in my life, but this time, it was different. I didn’t want to believe just how different it was.
The people in New Orleans are professionals living without power. It’s kind of a way of life in NOLA. Thunderstorms always caused some flooding mixed with lengthy power outages. It was never a big deal. But Katrina’s devastation went way beyond losing power for a while. It had turned my home into a nightmare.
Surviving hurricanes …
When you are affected by something as powerful as Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, or any other powerful natural disaster, your life changes in one second, and trust me, it ain’t for the better, at least at first.
A few places were open in the French Quarter because the Katrina flood waters did not affect that area. It was the last place you wanted to go unless you lived in the French Quarter. It was hard enough waking up feeling anywhere in the ballpark of motivated to do anything.
I had gas at my house, only because it did not flood, so my stove still worked. Fortunately, my kitchen was the 2nd of the only two rooms that were not heavily damaged or completely destroyed. The problem was I had no food to cook. I didn’t trust anything that was left in the pantry, even if it was in a box.
I’d sometimes eat at my neighbor’s house with a generator, but I soon realized I needed to recapture who I once was, so I began developing my creative food menu. Finally, one of the large chain supermarkets opened for 2 hours daily. Yeah, that’s right: 2 hours. The inventory was severely limited.
I had to be smart about buying what I needed for a decent amount of time because there were no gas stations. None.
These became the staples in my kitchen…
- French-style green beans (canned)
- Canned tuna
- Garlic (always)
- Dried Beans
- Water. Water. Water
I’d travel to the grocery store about once a week. I’d place my gun in the cart where the child usually sits. Dazed, I’d try to focus on picking up what I needed to survive and hurry back home. Shopping always took an hour or more because of the lines and the lack of employees. People became angry. Racism reared its ugly head. Horrible words were exchanged between people of different colors.
It broke my heart.
I enjoyed visiting my neighbor’s house, where we’d moved into this rhythm of sitting, drinking cocktails, and cooking in an “almost normal” kitchen with lights and air conditioning. We’d easily slip into denial through our stomachs about our predicament and pretend that everything was OK.
Sometimes, we’d bring food across the street to another neighbor’s house, who had kept a constant security watch from his screened-in porch with a shotgun and camera monitors to watch for looters.
The looters came like cockroaches in the middle of the night. He was our neighborhood protector.
Living after a disaster of this magnitude is very hard. It can drain your soul. You don’t realize how much you rely on the little things until you have almost nothing. Post-natural disaster becomes a hazard because you are doing everything by candlelight. You are only half the person you were before the event.
One day, in the aftermath of Katrina, the grocery store began adding small amounts of meat to their inventory. I purchased a chicken, put it next to the gun, and planned on cooking my first real post-Katrina meal: baked chicken, mashed potatoes, and peas. It’s one of my favorite comfort meals.
The excitement over the idea of eating a substantial meal was dizzying.
When I returned home, I turned on my oven to 400 degrees. I washed the chicken with bottled water (no running water) and put some bottled water in a pot for the potatoes. I felt powerful. My kitchen was filled with paint cans, mold remover, ladders, and many repair items. It was difficult to move around, but I managed pretty well.
I opened the oven door, grabbed the baking dish with the chicken, and turned to place it in the oven. I had forgotten to move a few things out of the way. I tripped over a paint can. My knee landed on the opened oven door and stuck. For a minute, it didn’t hurt. It was clearly a 3rd-degree burn that burned so quickly through the layers of skin and nerve endings that I couldn’t feel it.
I pried my leg off of the oven and said aloud, “This is not good!” There was nothing in my home to treat the injury. There were no hospitals either. I started thinking, “If I was EMT – come on Maria – what should I do with no medicine of any kind?” My answer was that I should pour vodka on it and have some to drink with it. I am sure all I did was waste good vodka on my leg.
To this day, I have the scar on my leg to remind me of my life right after Katrina.
My thoughts on survival…
Hurricane Sandy victims will now be experiencing shock, pain, anger, and the feeling of helplessness. Many victims will be numb. I’ve seen some on the news who are putting up a strong front, but the reality is that they are going through a form of hell no one can imagine unless they’ve gone through it. My heart breaks for them. One survivor commented on the Red Cross relief efforts, “Bottled water is nice, but I really need a blanket.” The only dream of hurricane survivors is a sense of normalcy. I totally got that.
This past January, I visited New Orleans again and saw my uncle’s bar and my mom and aunt’s grocery store. No one ever came back to take care of these places. I had to face it. I needed closure.
I think resilience should be the dream du jour.
I firmly believe as humans, we are all born with resilience. It’s just how much further we develop it, with or without choice. It can be strengthened by healthy actions, like allowing yourself to be in a horrible situation and grieving your loss before taking baby steps toward a new life. To all of you survivors of anything devastating, always ask yourself the following question when you feel in crisis: “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?”
Don’t look at your crisis as an insurmountable problem. Instead, look at it as a chance for self-discovery and change. Be open to the possibilities and be patient with the outcome.
Take decisive actions, and please allow yourself to experience strong emotions. Take good care of yourself while you are riding the wave of recovery. Believe it or not, food and cooking can help you get through it. Cooking can bring about a sense of rhythm and normalcy. Recovery can be a time to enjoy some comfort food in moderation. Use your imagination and go to the recipe memories that feel best.
Buy some chocolate chip cookie dough and bake cookies (while you snack on the raw cookie dough), and get into the smell of the cookies as they turn brown in the oven.
Buy a pint of your favorite ice cream and eat with a plastic spoon right out of the carton. Make creamy macaroni and cheese and savor each bite.
Make vegetable soup and watch it simmer.
Bake some flaky biscuits to go with the soup and smear them with butter until they ooze.
We live in the face of an uncertain world, and we must stay on top of our dreams and be resilient when life kicks us in the teeth, but most importantly, we must be gentle with ourselves when it does.
And lastly, to the Sandy survivors out there…
- Take things one baby step at a time.
- Reach out to your human and spiritual connections. Remember that you are not alone, although you feel that you are. I’m still partly living the effects of Hurricane Katrina, but it has shaped me positively. Destruction is a rough road, but it can birth creativity.
- In the meantime, pray for strength and be kind to your neighbors.
Dreaming again is possible, but first, you need to grieve and seek comfort where you can find it.
Maria Vieages is known for her variety of exquisite recipes with a New Orleans, Portuguese, and Sicilian flair. When not hanging out with fellow chefs in New Orleans, you can find Maria teaching private cooking classes or as a guest chef on Celebrity Cruises, where she teaches, provides cooking demos, and even headed one of the first passenger culinary chef challenges on the high seas.
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