Below the Water Line:
Getting Out, Going Back, and Moving Forward
in the Decade After Hurricane Katrina

by Lisa Karlin

Centennial Publishers, 2015. ISBN 978-0-996-23270-8.
Reviewed by Janet Brantley
Posted on 11/12/2015

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment

On August 30, 2005, Lisa Karlin takes out her journal and starts to write, as she says, "partly to capture...information, but also to keep me busy and distract me from thinking the worst about our family's future." The Karlin family includes Lisa, an oncology nurse, her surgeon-husband Richard, their son and daughter, and two dogs. In less than three days, they go from thinking of Hurricane Katrina as giving them a short vacation from their everyday lives, to considering whether they will ever be able to return to their home in New Orleans. It will be months before they do, and years before they recover, if one can call it that.

As I read Karlin's memoir, Below the Water Line, I was transported back to the day my daughter and her best friend evacuated Ocean Springs, Mississippi with their five dogs and came to stay with us in Southwest Arkansas. So many people across the South took in friends and relatives after Katrina, and this book will resonate with them, as it did with me, by bringing back the harshness of those days.

A lifelong journaler, Karlin escapes into writing to help her deal with the terrible ordeal her family faces. In the end, they do have a home to go back to, but no jobs, no school, no stores, and few friends. She knows they are luckier than many, but it is still a very traumatic time for them.

Evacuation does not come easily, and she and her family find themselves in the small town of Brookhaven, Mississippi, instead of either Houston or Dallas, their preferred destinations. Conditions in the town soon become primitive, and Karlin writes honestly of the various ways in which they and others stranded with them cope, or fail to cope. After several days, they are able to make their way to Houston, where they will spend the next several months, as she and her husband commute to temporary jobs around the country. When they are finally able to return to New Orleans, it is to a vastly different city, as much changed as they are themselves.

This book gave me a new insight into the aftermath of Katrina. I admit that, as mother to a Mississippi evacuee, I had felt little compassion for New Orleanians because of the things that happened in that city after Katrina, and because of what I saw as an erroneous impression by most Americans that Katrina only impacted the Big Easy. "People chose to live below the water line," I thought. "What did they expect? And what about people elsewhere? Why doesn't anyone care about them?" When my daughter returned home, it took her about three weeks to locate any friends or co-workers who did not lose just about everything they had. All my sympathies lay with those people. Lisa Karlin brings the reality, the horrible reality, of that time in New Orleans home to me, and I readily admit I was wrong. Katrina impacted more people than I had been willing to admit. Karlin's family are survivors. I admire them for their tenacity, and I admire Karlin for having the strength to share the ups and downs of life after Katrina.

If you shared the experience of Katrina, you should read this book. And if you did not, you should read this book, so that you can give thanks you were spared.

Lisa Karlin is an oncology nurse from New Orleans, Louisiana, who with her family experienced the environmental tragedy that was Hurricane Katrina. She would consider herself an ordinary American who has experienced extraordinary times. A lifelong journaler, she has turned her personal writings into a vivid portrayal of life for her and for her family in the post-Katrina world. Visit her website.

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