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