Five Years Later

How Katrina changed New Orleans and the way I think about my hometown.

Also in Slate, read about the lasting  environmental impacts of Katrina and the effects of Katrina and the BP oil spill on Louisiana National Guardsmen deployed overseas. Read our complete coverage of Katrina from 2005. 

This month marks the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

It’s been a long time since I thought about Katrina every day. As part of the New Orleans diaspora, I’m never confronted by visible reminders of the destruction—the abandoned buildings and the empty lots and the houses that still have death tolls spray painted across their front doors. When I put on my gold Saints cap, I think about the Super Bowl, not the team’s near-departure for Los Angeles or San Antonio the year after the storm. But a fleur-de-lis isn’t just a fleur-de-lis. A week ago, a man sitting by himself on the bus spotted my hat, took off his headphones, and told me he left New Orleans as the hurricane tore through—that he’s desperate to move back but hasn’t been able to make it happen. He thinks about Katrina every day.

When I mourned New Orleans in August 2005, my thoughts turned to my family and the places that felt most like home: my grandparents’ house, Audubon Park, Rock ‘N’ Bowl. Five years later, Katrina’s legacy seems less tangible than I’d imagined it would be. While the storm did alter New Orleans’ physical landscape, its effects have been as much internal as external. Katrina was a collective disaster endured in private, a tragedy that caused a rupture in time for every New Orleanian. Lives are now divided into pre-Katrina and post-Katrina segments, with everything after the hurricane connected to the stuff before it by a jagged line, if it’s connected at all.

For my grandmother, Katrina is bound up with taking care of my grandfather. As the winds and rain menaced the Gulf Coast, they left their house with some medicine and a few days’ worth of clothes. They made it back to New Orleans after five months in Houston, but they were never able to go home again. The house they’d lived in for a half-century was flooded, moldy, and unlivable. They moved into a new, smaller apartment, and the mementos they were able to salvage—the dishes and the books and everything else you accumulate over 57 years of marriage—were packed into boxes. My grandfather died a year after they moved back, and my grandmother thinks about Katrina every day—whenever she thinks about him.

Everyone has their own Katrina story—what you saw, what (or whom) you lost. It’s this collection of millions of unique experiences that has made the storm so deeply personal. The rebuilding of the city and the Gulf Coast was also a personal undertaking. By necessity, Hurricane Katrina bred a culture of self-reliance. When the flood waters receded, the Road Home program failed to provide the funds promised to desperate homeowners, while Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin loudly blamed each other (and FEMA Director Michael Brown) for a lack of coordination and progress. Families and grassroots groups did for themselves what bureaucrats could not, reconstructing their neighborhoods with little more than force of will.

The enforced self-sufficiency of post-Katrina New Orleans has changed the city’s psyche and its politics. Joseph Cao, an immigration attorney, had never been involved in government before the hurricane. After the storm, he helped engineer one of New Orleans’ biggest success stories, the rapid rebuilding of the city’s Vietnamese-American community in New Orleans East. Cao parlayed his post-storm leadership into a House seat in 2008, beating bribes-in-the-freezer incumbent William J. Jefferson. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, too, won office on the promise that, unlike their predecessors, they will never succumb to inaction. (This philosophy has come to the fore during the BP oil spill, with Nungesser insisting that he and his fellow officials do “everything physically possible to save coastal Louisiana.”)

This crusade against inertia could turn out to be a mere rhetorical device for another generation of corrupt New Orleans pols. It feels, though, like something more substantive is afoot. Before the storm, New Orleans’ problems—a horrendous school system, crumbling infrastructure, high crime rates—seemed systemic and intractable. Katrina showed, in the worst possible way, that the way things are is not the way they’ll always be. At the same time, the hurricane gave New Orleanians an unprecedented opportunity to remake a city that wasn’t working.

The changes in the Crescent City since Katrina have been sweeping. Soon after the storm, the state assumed control of New Orleans’ lowest-performing public schools. In 2007, the city council voted to demolish 4,500 units in the city’s housing projects, with the promise they’d be replaced by mixed-income residences. This year, Landrieu and the city’s new inspector general’s office have moved to reform City Hall’s notoriously corrupt contracting process. And the Justice Department and the FBI, among others, are assisting efforts to reform the New Orleans police force, which the mayor portrayed upon taking office this May as “one of the worst police departments in the country.”

These reforms have won loud acclaim from good-government types. “The New Orleans Index at Five,” a new series of reports from the Brookings Institution and the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, argues that the city has grown more resilient since Katrina. In the aftermath of the storm, Brookings and GNOCDC say (PDF), neighborhood organizations have assumed a stronger civic role, more children have gained access to good schools, and the long process of reforming the city’s public housing and criminal justice systems has taken its first steps.

For everything that’s been done, New Orleans’ structural problems haven’t gone away. Before and after Katrina, there’s been a perpetual tension between the city’s unbreakable culture and its fragile economy. Brass bands and social-aid and pleasure-club members have come back to the city in force, showing a will to re-establish the traditions that make New Orleans unique. The city, though, hasn’t been able to modernize an economy centered on tourism, oil and gas, and shipping. A nationwide recession, the BP oil spill, and the announced closure of Avondale shipyard have made those revenue generators look more tenuous than ever.

Katrina also exacerbated New Orleans’ existing racial tensions. The hurricane, whose consequences fell disproportionately on poor, black residents, diminished the share of African-Americans in Orleans Parish from 67 percent in 2000 to 61 percent as of 2008 (PDF). Landrieu, New Orleans’ first white mayor since his father Moon Landrieu in 1978, won office with sweeping black support, declaring that his victory “[struck] a blow for a city that decided to be unified rather than divided.” Still, the city’s divisions can’t be wished away. The 2007 public-housing demolitions were viewed by some community leaders as a plot to rid the city of low-income African-Americans. And the harrowing reports of racially motivated shootings in the days after the levees broke—a white ex-New Orleanian was recently indicted on hate crime charges for spewing epithets before shooting three black “outsiders” in Algiers Point—have reinforced the idea that racial reconciliation is an impossible dream.

Though there are plenty of reasons to be cynical about post-Katrina New Orleans, the city’s near-death experience has a way of changing your perspective. Each trip back home now feels more precious, a chance to visit the treasured spots I imagined washing away in 2005. But I also venture more widely than I did when I was growing up, checking in on the progress in the Lower Ninth Ward, meandering through Gentilly and New Orleans East, and admiring the extravagantly beaded Mardi Gras Indian costumes at the House of Dance and Feathers. Katrina was a personal disaster, but it also allowed me to appreciate all of the ways New Orleans, and New Orleanians, are interconnected. More important than the Saints and the music and the culture, I now see, is the fact that everyone’s riding it out behind the same untrustworthy floodwalls and levees.

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