On Anniversaries and How We Remember

A Bywater house memorializes their Fema X by making it into an art piece.

Today, on the six-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I’ve been thinking about when and how we choose to commemorate a tragic event. I’m reacting to the anniversary-ness of the anniversary on both a personal and professional level.

As a public relations professional, I understand that marking the anniversary of any event is a way to gain attention for it. If you every read a press release, or look on an organization’s website, they are always trying to capitalize on the “45 anniversary of this” or the “15 anniversary of this.” For example, this year you may have noticed a lot of news stories about the Civil War, because it’s the “150th anniversary of the Civil War.” Sometimes I feel cynical about these anniversaries, but they do serve a good purpose. It’s the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Freedom Riders, and I think it’s important to refresh discussion about these activists and consider the outcome of their efforts.

However, it seems that anniversaries only capture the public’s attention if they come in fives. Last year, the 5th anniversary of Katrina earned a lot of national attention and there were numerous city events to mark the occasion. This year there are still many events, but it’s more subdued. Is six years a lot different than five? This year marks a decade since Sept. 11. Yes, there are always ceremonies on that date, but I guarantee the Sept. 11 anniversary will gain a lot more national attention in 2011 then it did in 2010. I’m sure people directly affected by Sept. 11 will be thinking about it during the “off year” anniversaries, as well on October 11.

The water line at The Bean Gallery in Mid City.

On a personal note, anniversaries of sad events have always felt a little forced. My mom passed away when I was eight, and this event shaped most aspects of who I am today. I may not consciously think of her every day, but something about her and the effect of her death influences my behavior. Sometimes I think of my mom because someone brings her up. Or something reminds me of her. But what I have found most challenging is feeling like I am “supposed,” to feel sad or remember her more significantly than I do on other days.

Your personal history becomes a part of your daily life. I am most emotional and thoughtful about past experiences when I am caught off guard, and forced to remember these experiences. What I’ve found most moving with remembering Katrina  are the subtle reminders or personal memorials present throughout the city. Many businesses and homes have marked where the water line reached in the storm aftermath, such as at one of my favorite coffee shops, The Bean Gallery. It forces me to think, “Wow, here I am debating whether I want to use real sugar or Sweet and Low, and this entire place was once flooded.” You can actually see the water line at the house I am living in Mid City. Some of the most poignent reminders are of people who have chosen to keep the now infamous FEMA-X on their houses. You’ll see beautiful, landscaped New Orleans houses with this chilling X–a reminder of the first few days after the storm when the scale of the disaster necessitated the National Guard to go house to house to find the number of live and dead victims in the structure. These are the kind of reminders that stop me in my track and force me to consider the devastating effects of Katrina. And those can happen any day of the year.

The water line on the door of my Mid City house.

A view of my house from the street. The house is raised, so the water line going half way up the door is pretty dramatic.

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