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Lessons from New Orleans: How to come back after disaster strikes

In 1991, I sat at the Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans, Louisiana with my five month old daughter in a stroller. I had every reason to be happy and optimistic. I was there to present the results of my research at a scientific meeting. I was about to finish residency training and move to Connecticut for a fellowship at Yale. That trip I also visited the zoo and fell in love with the city. I promised myself I would bring my daughter back when she was old enough to really appreciate the culture and history.

On our trip to the zoo, I noticed a display that described what would happen to the city in the event of a major hurricane. I don’t know if it is still there. I remember thinking that nothing could bring down this glorious city and I wondered why they had that display near the zoo. At the age of 29, I had yet to experience disaster, natural or personal. I didn’t realize how vulnerable we all really are.

In our home I frequently shared with my daughter my desire to take her back to New Orleans. When our encounter with a sociopath left us financially devastated, I didn’t know if I would ever be able to travel with my children. Then, after the hurricane struck, I was deeply saddened, both for my self and for the city that I love. I had missed the opportunity to share the excitement of New Orleans with my daughter. Or, had I?

This spring my cousin unexpectedly moved from Southern Illinois to Baton Rouge. We had a great visit with her family last summer and had been looking forward to a repeat. Here was my chance to visit New Orleans once again.

This past Monday I drove to the French Quarter and sat in the Cafe Du Monde with my now 16 year old daughter. As I reflected on the progress the city had made in healing from the storm, I asked her what life lesson she had learned on our visit. She said, “Life is better with French donuts and award winning chocolate fudge!” (Earlier we sampled the award winning candy from New Orleans Southern Candy Makers.)

I’d like to share with you four other lessons of healing that come from New Orleans. The first lesson is, if you don’t believe in yourself, no one will. The people of New Orleans believe in their city and fought to save it even when many were saying it could not be rebuilt. If you are recovering from a personal disaster, you too must believe in yourself and fight for yourself.

Second, don’t be so reserved that you can’t talk about your disaster. If possible learn to laugh about it. The manager at New Orleans Southern Candy Makers answered all questions from customers about the damage his shop suffered in the storm. Many of the t-shirt shops had shirts that read, “I drove my Chevy to the levy and the levy was gone!” There were also coffee table books with pictures of the storm damage. Like this city, I have to acknowledge that my personal disaster has become part of who I am, and I have to feel comfortable enough to talk about it.

Third lesson, always smile even when you are hurting. In spite of their disaster the people of New Orleans are as friendly and welcoming as ever. What good does it do us to become sour after disaster? We only drive other people away from us at a time when we need supportive people in our lives.

Lastly, the people of New Orleans have taught us to do the work of clean up one day at a time. There are still parts of the city which have not yet been rebuilt, but recovery progresses one day at a time. There are still many parts of my life that have not recovered. Like the people of New Orleans I work on recovery one day at a time. I try to keep a smile on my face and occassionally enjoy French donuts and award winning candy with my daughter.

Dr. Leedom in New Orleans



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