Hurricane Katrina remembered 10 years later: 'There was little light. Little hope.'
NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana— During the dark days after the levees broke, this city sat virtually empty, blackened by the hell and high water that had swept through so violently.
There was little light. Little hope. Little sense that the world as so many had known it would ever return. Eighty percent of the city was beneath floodwater. Thousands of evacuees languished at the convention center, the Super Dome and in the attics and roofs of their flooded homes for days as evacuation efforts were hampered by the mismanagement of efforts and resources.
More than 1,400 people died as a result of the storm. Families were separated. For a time, lines of communication throughout the city – including between first-responders and city and state leaders – were virtually non-existent. And in that black hole, the seeds of rumor and myth grew frighteningly fast.
The National Guard marched in with a mission to evacuate the city. But to many residents, the guardsmen seemed more like occupiers than a force of good will. That was until Lt. General Russell Honore, a Louisiana native now retired from the force, took command and whipped the situation into order.
Eventually the floodwater receded. But as the water crept back into the lake and the canals and behind the tattered floodwalls the water had breached, so went an irreplaceable slice of life and culture.
Ten years later, as slivers of hope have pushed through the darkness of those days, there’s still a sense of uncertainty here.
While the federal government has spent billions of dollars to rebuild New Orleans and a wave of new entrepreneurs and restaurateurs have helped to bolster the new economy, scars – those deep rivets dug into the city a decade ago – have proven difficult to patch.
Many people tossed away by Hurricane Katrina have yet to return, including 100,000 black residents. That’s compared to just 11,000 whites who’ve stayed away.
Charity Hospital, the old public hospital where generations of the city’s poor were born, has been torn down and replaced by a billion dollar facility. The long-troubled public school system has been supplanted by a nearly all-charter district on the path to becoming the nation’s first all-charter system. The city’s crime-plagued barrack style public housing has been converted into affordable housing.
Yet, as much of the grime that predated Hurricane Katrina has been wiped clean, a strong sense of discontent in the city remains.
As neighborhoods have gentrified, rents have risen out of reach for many native New Orleanians. Crime and violence, a problem before the storm, continues. And as the city commemorates the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina with panels and high-profile events marking the great progress made over the past decade— including a visit and remarks from President Barack Obama— many here say bone-deep bruising that remains.
“I don’t get the sense that it’s better yet. I knew it would take a long time, but I had no idea it would be more than ten years later and the housing market is just not there. The kids have no recreation. So therefore, it’s just recreational killing,” said Lucrece Phillips, a Katrina survivor who evacuated to Texas and stayed there for more than 8 years. She returned to New Orleans to be closer to family and to be back in the city she so desperately loved. But what she found has been a mixed bag of hurt and hope.
“This is not the New Orleans that I remember; not the community I remember. That when you heard the music you can walk outside and dance you know,” she said with a hearty laugh. “And everybody came out their houses and it was all love. Where is that love?”
Some have returned seeking a better life than they’d known before the storm. Some left vowing to never step foot back in the city. Many found better opportunities elsewhere. And many of those that have returned are just getting by.
“I think [the city] is a little bit better prepared now, you know, far as hurricanes are concerned. But the lack of police, the lack of people that really care about New Orleans being back here— and there’s a lot of people that’s here that do care. But there’s no leadership to bring us all together and say, okay, this is how we’re going to do this now,” Phillips said.
Obama, in his remarks ahead of the Aug. 29th anniversary of the storm, planned to touch on the lingering struggles of the city but also its progress. It’s a speech expected to be a menagerie of hard truths and hard fought victories for a city just a decade ago neck deep in floodwater and fatigue.