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Katrina: Looking Back Four Years Later

August 31, 2009

(Lauren Kelley is a staff writer for Philanthropy News Digest. This is her first post for PhilanTopic.)

Katrina_2008_10_06..splande There's been a lot of talk the last few days about the recovery effort in New Orleans -- the benchmarks that have been met and how much work there is to be done. While the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is a natural opportunity to take stock of those efforts and to look ahead, I can't help but remember the immediate aftermath of the storm, which I experienced secondhand through my parents’ dispatches from the flooded city.

When Katrina first formed and began to pick up strength in late August 2005, my parents had lived in New Orleans a couple of years, having moved there from my hometown of Dallas. My mom, a native Floridian, was no stranger to hurricanes. When she was growing up in Miami, her family and friends would have "hurricane parties" -- they’d board up the windows, play cards by candlelight, run outside during the eye of the storm, and then go back in until the storm had passed.

But of course Katrina was no ordinary hurricane. When the storm’s size and strength became evident and the orders to evacuate (finally) came down, they knew that riding out the storm in their house was not an option.

At the time, my stepfather was the restaurant manager for a luxury hotel in downtown New Orleans, and because the hotel sat on relatively high ground, it was fully booked with New Orleanians and tourists who, for whatever reason, had not evacuated. Needing hands to keep the operation running, the hotel management offered rooms to any employee and his family who agreed to stay. Thinking the hotel would be a pretty safe place to be, my parents took the hotel up on its offer, packed a few days’ worth of clothes, and left their house without so much as taking the milk out of the refrigerator.

As it turned out, the hotel was a good place to be, as the edge of the storm passed over the city. It was an incredibly strong hurricane -- a few times, my mom belly-crawled from the bathroom to look out the hotel room window and, as she later told me, was treated to a scene right out of the Wizard of Oz, with random parts of buildings and houses flying by. But they were safe, they had an electric generator, a nice hotel room, and, amazingly, landline phone service. All things considered, they were pretty comfortable.

Then, of course, the levees were breached and everything changed. The events that unfolded over the next few days are well documented, so I won't rehash them here except to say that my parents, who couldn't watch TV, were more calm than I was. As the hours passed, I called them, increasingly panicked, to tell them about the mayhem Anderson Cooper was reporting about -- people airlifted off rooftops, old ladies and children just down the street at the Superdome with no water, food, or working toilets.

On August 31, my parents saw the water making its way up Canal Street toward the hotel, and that's when they knew it was time to go. And so they left, making it out on the one un-flooded highway headed for Dallas.

They weren't able to stop by their house before they left; their neighborhood, Gentilly, had been closed due to the breach of the nearby London Avenue Canal. So for days they sat in Dallas watching the devastation unfold, having no idea whether they would have a house to go back to. And even if they did, what kind of city they would be returning to.

When they were finally given the okay to return, six weeks after the storm made landfall, it was an occasion for both relief and sadness. On the one hand, their house was one of only two on the block that hadn't been flooded. A few minor repairs and the house itself was livable. On the other hand, their neighborhood was in shambles -- and other areas of the city were every bit as bad, if not worse. A house down the street, where an older woman had lived by herself, had flooded to the rafters. They didn't know whether the woman evacuated or not, but they never saw her again. In fact, most of Gentilly was empty and quiet. There were no streetlights. They had to use a generator for electricity. Hardest on my mom were the constant reminders of how much worse the outcome had been for others -- the marks on front doors left by rescue workers looking for bodies, the overpass near their house with SAVE US spray painted on the side.

Despite all the aid and money that subsequently poured into the city, redevelopment efforts in my parents' neighborhood moved at a glacial pace, and before long they decided they could no longer wait for things to get better. So they sold their home (an un-flooded house in post-Katrina New Orleans turned out to be something of a commodity) and went back to Dallas to pick up the pieces and make a new life. It was hard, to be sure, but their network of friends and family helped make it possible.

It's impossible to say how many of their neighbors were as lucky. Who knows what stories they have to tell, or how many of them will ever return to live in New Orleans. My parents returned, once, after that. They hung out in the French Quarter, ate beignets at Café du Monde, and visited friends. But they didn't go back to Gentilly. Instead, they chose to dwell on their pre-Katrina memories of the city, and the diversity, great food, and special joie de vivre that makes New Orleans New Orleans and which Katrina could never wash away.

(Photo courtesy of Greg Wesson's Esoteric Globe)

-- Lauren Kelley

(For more about the post-Katrina recovery effort in New Orleans and the Gulf region, check out the Foundation Center's newly updated Focus on the Gulf Coast Hurricane Relief page, read our Newsmaker interview with Greater New Orleans Foundation president and CEO Albert Ruesga, and weigh in on what PhilanTopic contributor Tony Pipa has to say about the foundation response to Katrina.)


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Posted by E. Robbins  |   August 31, 2009 at 04:34 PM

Lauren, thanks for your riveting story! From the remove of a clear, beautiful, 70-degree New York City day, our sympathetic horror at what this season could unleash is so small compared to what the residents of New Orleans experienced four years ago, and their continuing challenges.

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