Sunday, August 29, 2010

In my old life...

About five years and two weeks ago I was in Dr. Advisor's office struggling not to cry. I'd been working on a field project with him for almost three years--we drove instrumented towers to the coast to collect data from hurricanes--and I had just returned from a five month internship in Baton Rouge, twelve hours away from my new husband who stayed behind to continue his classes and research. After being gone for such a long time and working two hurricanes already that season, I just couldn't face another long trip away from home. A long, extremely stressful trip during which I was responsible for the safety of a ten-person team of grad students as well as several hundred-thousand dollars worth of equipment, a detailed experimental plan, and the interests of the several agencies who funded our work. It was a lot to handle, the trips were often unpredictable in duration and departure time, and I needed some stability. Badly. I knew that when, upon returning from my last trip, my loving greeting to Ryan was "I want a beer, a hamburger, and a shower. In that order." In other words, I was completely wrung out.

So there I was in Dr. Advisor's office. "I'm not happy doing this anymore and I think Pete [not his real name] would do a good job." And then I started sobbing and couldn't stop. He seemed surprised and said "Well, you've done a good job for me and I'm happy with your work. If you'd like to stop, that's OK with me. I just want to ask you one thing. Think about it really carefully before you answer. Will you be disappointed if the next storm is 'The Big One'?"

I thought for a few minutes, but I was so beyond exhausted I knew it didn't matter.

Two weeks later I watched the landfall of Hurricane Katrina in horror on cable news at my friend Godmother's house. We sat on her couch for hours in silence except for the occasional "Oh my God. Those poor people."

As we all know, the horror had only begun. The city had been spared a direct hit and the storm had been weakening at landfall. It wasn't until the sun came back out that it was clear something had gone very, very wrong in New Orleans. And also that the weakening storm had brought with it a catastrophic storm surge unlike anything seen by the region since Hurricane Camille in 1969. It leveled huge areas of the Mississippi coast, a place I had grown to love during my time there for my research.

About a week after that Godmother and I were invited to help on a different field project, investigating damage to structures along the Mississippi coast. It was a good opportunity, so ten days after Katrina made landfall, Godmother and I found ourselves here:

Inspecting damage to the Highway 90 bridge, somewhere in Mississippi. I'm on the right, Godmother is on the left.

It was absolutely one of the hardest things I've ever done.

Well, except for times like these (I'm pretty sure that was tea):


And the time we went (on my second trip to Mississippi, yes I went TWICE! After declaring myself DONE with field work.) to a Chili's that was completely taken over by FEMA personnel who all began chanting "WE LOVE FEMA!" raucously in, not surprisingly, the bar area where we were sitting.

For each light moment like those, though, there were dozens like this. That's the memorial for the people who died in Camille. It was badly damaged, as was the church that once stood behind it (you can see the steel support beams behind the memorial on the left). There was a sign indicating that mass would continue to be held every morning, but you should bring your own chair.


It was heartbreaking. It was even more heartbreaking to have to be a scientist and say "The way these studs ripped off the nails like this mean that this was surge damage" and not wonder about the people who once lived inside. I hope that some of what we learned will be applied in the rebuilding so that the next time the area gets hit by a hurricane the damage isn't as severe.

Several months after those two trips Ryan and I learned that Charlie was on his way and that pretty much cemented the end of my days of traveling across the country on one or two days' notice for research. I happily turned in my steel-toed boots for sneakers and flip flops and relegated all wind to the computer model I was working on for my dissertation. And as glad as I am to have had those experiences, I have not looked back.


sarah said...

Katrina is one of those things that feels like both yesterday and a lifetime ago; I just remember watching it unfold on TV with my jaw on the floor. I can't imagine having been in the heart of the aftermath the way you were.

Sarah said...

My department is doing a colloquium on work/family balance, and I have been thinking about what I am going to say as part of the panel discussion.

I have been reminiscing about my life as an academic w/o kids, and I admire this post very much. I have looked back a few times, actually.

Amy said...

Wow, Becca, I had no idea you were there afterward. What a daunting experience it must have been to on one hand, have such a great opportunity to conduct actual field research, but on the other, to have that opportunity come at the expense of lives and property loss.

We were on vacation in Barbados when it hit New Orleans and we spent so much of our trip watching CNN in the room and just saying, "WTF?" over and over. I always identify Katrina with that vacation and the fact I was pregnant with Jack.

Anonymous said...

Oy! That seems so long ago now... I'm glad I went but hope I never have to go again. That smell will stay with me for life.
By the way have you seen any of the recent "5 Years After Katrina" specials? I saw one on HBO and it enraged me. So much was misrepresented. I better sign off now before I leave a 300 page essay on your blog comment section.