10 years later: New Orleans residents reflect on life after Katrina

  • James Rainey stands in the front yard of the house he rents with his fiancée on Forstall Street in the Lower 9th Ward. “Most of the people haven’t come back, the people I know. Some of them died, some of my friends have. Where I came up at, there’s only one house on the block, and that’s the house I came up in. It’s a trailer now, it’s not even a house no more.” He added, “Well I’m not involved with celebrating this 10 year anniversary. It didn’t mean anything to me, because you know I’m not excited about it. I don’t benefit off it, no one’s offered me anything. I basically just survived it, and dealt with it. It’s as simple as that – ha – it’s hard to describe, but that’s the way I look at it.”
  • Bridgette Kronlage holds her dog, Luca, in the front yard of her home on Argonne Boulevard in the Lakeview area of New Orleans. “We used to tease, kid around, all of our neighbors, and we called it ‘All Gone Street.’ Because it was gone. I think people, after this happened, were like ‘We gotta go home! How are we ever going to live anywhere else? We can’t live anywhere else. How are we going to live anywhere else?’“
  • Geneva P. Ruth stands in front of her home, built after Katrina by Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation, on Forstall Street in the Lower 9th Ward. Ms. Ruth was born 1928 and has lived on the same lot most of her 90 years. “I told the lord, ‘Lord, I want to go back home.’ I said, ‘Now, see if you want me to come back home, you must show me. And I prayed. Well, now I’m gonna be frank with you. A lot of people say they don’t like ‘em. [They] have some that looks nice – it’s just different style, that’s all I see, a different style which they’re not used to. They’re used to shotgun houses and double shotgun houses and little bungalow houses or somethin.”
  • Ashley and Louis Mohren with their children Evie, Jonah, Charlotte, Caroline and Grace in front of their home on Marshall Foch Street in Lakeview. “We kind of went back and forth with the idea of moving back to Lakeview … When we evacuated, we’ve been in other cities, we love Atlanta, we liked Macon while we were there. But, it’s really hard to put into words, we didn’t fit. New Orleans has a different type of people. We never really felt comfortable other places like we do here. So New Orleans has a ton of ugliness – we have poverty, we have crime, we have racial divides – we have all that stuff. But at the end of the day we have more beauty than we have any of that stuff.” 
  • Bobbie M. Payne sits in the driveway of the house he rebuilt on Reynes Street in the Lower 9th Ward. “We had flood insurance and homeowner’s insurance. Flood paid off right away, homeowner’s – sadly to say, we had to sue them. I didn’t expect for the Lower 9th Ward, or New Orleans, to take so long to come back as a city. “ He says, “Explain to me what the word anniversary means. Can you explain it to me? What are they celebrating about? We’re still in poverty down here.” 
  • Erin Stahnke, her son Shaw (L) and husband Jim in front of their home on Argonne Boulevard in Lakeview. The family was one of the first on the block to return after Katrina. “We were really lucky. We had good insurance, we were able to get our insurance proceeds very quickly, able to get some Road Home money – we were very fortunate with that … What most surprised me about New Orleans is the number of people who actually came back. I’m born and raised in New Orleans, my parents were born and raised in New Orleans and I think it’s a New Orleans thing – ‘you were born here, you were raised here, and you die here.’”
  • Errol and Esther Joseph stand in front of the house they are rebuilding on Forstall Street, a decade after Hurricane Katrina flooded their previous home in the same location. The Josephs have struggled to navigate the Road Home and other disaster recovery programs, but are finally making progress on their home with help from LowerNine.org, a community based non-proft organization dedicated to the long-term recovery of the Lower 9th Ward in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the levee breaches of 2005. The organization helps to facilitate volunteer labor, and the Josephs have received help from volunteers who have come to New Orleans from around the world. “This is a community. Tight knit. This our home. This is not just somewhere where you go to an apartment, sleep there, that’s it. This is our home. And I want to be at home.”
  • Gerard and Pam Keller in front of their house on Argonne Boulevard in Lakeview. “I have absolutely no complaints and I don’t think my wife does either about Road Home and my insurance company – they paid, and as a matter of fact, when they said it was OK to come back into Lakeview. I told them where we lived, and of course they knew, 12 feet of water in here. So they said, “fine, we’ll give you the full amount of your policy.” We could not have done this without government assistance and our flood insurance. We were very happy – never had to live with anybody else, never had to live in a trailer – very lucky. As post Katrina stories go, we were very fortunate.”
  • Mary B. N. Jones stands in front of the house she owns on Forstall Street in the Lower 9th Ward. “I got my house rebuilt since Katrina, the first house was washed away. The only houses and churches in the 9th Ward that stood were brick houses – all the wooden houses was washed away.” She says, “We don’t have no groceries, we don’t have no clinics down here … no drugstores or nothin’ down here no more. If it wasn’t for the volunteers, we all would be in a bad spot … They were very helpful to everybody.”
  • Janis and Wayne McGaw stand in front of their home on Argonne Boulevard in Lakeview. “My neighborhood was a great place to live, pre-Katrina, and post-Katrina it’s a great place, 10 years after. It was an idyllic setting … wonderful schools, good families, nice people. None of that has changed, but it took a long time to get back to it. All the physical structures were destroyed, the homes were flooded – I knocked my house down and started over – but we’re happy, like we were before.” He continues, “One of the surprises to me after the storm was the influx of young people with an apparent love for the city and dedication to it, although they were not native, and they’ve brought excitement, new ways of thinking, industry.”
  • Burnell Cotlon stands in front of his house on Tricou Street in the Lower 9th Ward. Cotlon is a lifelong resident of the neighborhood and in spring of 2015, he and his wife opened a small grocery store which now serves as the only place to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables in the Back of Town neighborhood. “According to the US Department of Agriculture, the Lower 9th Ward is considered a food desert and that’s because there are no grocery stores here … The rest of the world don’t know this because when they turn on the TV they see Bourbon Street, they see French Quarter, they see Mardi Gras and they think New Orleans is good to go, but it’s not – because the Lower 9th Ward is a part of New Orleans … There’s a lot of people back here … there’s people but there’s just no infrastructure.”

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NEW ORLEANS - On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina broke land against Louisiana’s coast at 6:10 a.m. The category 3 hurricane brought with it 130-miles-per-hour winds, a nearly 30-foot storm surge and an additional 10 to 12 inches of rainfall that, combined, collapsed the already weak New Orleans levees.

A catastrophic collision of nature and human error, more than 1,800 people died along the coast. More than 1 million houses and businesses were destroyed, and residents were displaced—approximately 277,000 of whom never returned.

Ten years on, the city has bounced back for some, but the recovery has been uneven for others. In short, according to Louis Mohren, a 36-year-old Lakeview resident and father of five, “we aren’t where we need to be as a city.”

“There’s still a ton of areas in the city that are still struggling,” he said. “There are places in the city that are thriving—I’m fortunate enough to live in a place in the city that is thriving—but we have lots of neighborhoods, lots of areas that aren’t, that are struggling just to have homes rebuilt.”

And that appears to be the larger sentiment, according to two studies recently released by the Louisiana State University Public Policy Research Lab and the Kaiser Family Foundation, respectively.

Both reports found that there are significant racial gaps in attitudes about the city’s recovery, with more white residents than black residents feeling that the quality of life has improved since the storm. This, they say, depends largely on where in New Orleans residents were living when the storm hit. 

“According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Lower 9th Ward is a food desert and that’s because there are no grocery stores here,” said Burnell Cotlon, a lifelong Lower 9th resident who opened the only grocery store in the area after Katrina.

“I’m embarrassed to say, but if you walk around the Lower 9th Ward it’s like walking around a third-world country,” he continued. “The rest of the world don’t know this because when they turn on the TV they see Bourbon Street, they see French Quarter, they see Mardi Gras and they think New Orleans is good to go, but it’s not—because the Lower 9th Ward is a part of New Orleans.”

But Janis and Wayne McGaw have had a different experience, and they said their Lakeview neighborhood was a great place to live not just before Katrina, but 10 years later as well.

“It was an idyllic setting,” Wayne McGaw said. “Wonderful schools, good families, nice people. None of that has changed, but it took a long time to get back to it. All the physical structures were destroyed, the homes were flooded—I knocked my house down and started over—but we’re happy, like we were before. 

The biggest change since Katrina, he added, lies in the vitality of the neighborhood, with a large number of younger families and new businesses moving in. When asked to describe what the recovery looked like, he became emotional and paused before continuing: “Post-Katrina, the city has been revitalized by the old-school folks who have been here a long time and by a lot of new people with enthusiasm.”

Smithsonian magazine has reported that 40 of the city’s 72 neighborhoods have, since 2005, recovered 90% of their pre-Katrina populations, and some residents have said progress has been made in repairs to the levees.

As the 10-year anniversary approaches, the city has plans for various events to mark the date. President Obama will visit New Orleans on Wednesday, followed by former President George W. Bush, who was at the center of controversy around how the federal government responded to the emergency, and former President Bill Clinton, who will attend the main remembrance event on Saturday.

Photographer William Widmer and producer Jeanne Firth captured the feeling in New Orleans today with portraits of Katrina survivors who experienced varying degrees of damage and recuperation from two divergent communities, the Lower 9th Ward and Lakeview.  

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography

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