It was supposed to be a day of kayaking and bird-watching in New Orleans, but Mother Nature had another idea. Rains started at dusk the night before and I woke early to learn that our tour, launching from the lip of the Bayou in the Lower 9th Ward, was cancelled for safety reasons.
A more profound adventure of a completely different kind unfolded as the tour driver suggested she drive us around the landfall epi-center of Hurricane Katrina. Leann was one of the lucky ones and escaped the storm in New Orleans but Hurricane Katrina changed her life.
Before Hurricane Katrina hit
“We rode out storms all the time and assumed on Friday that we’d see each other on Monday.”
Leann worked at a radio station when the storm warnings came in. She fled New Orleans at the last minute, finding refuge in a Texas hotel until she was allowed to return. There wasn’t much to return to as her station was closed due to water damage. With severance pay she moved onto to work at a TV station in Baton Rouge until the glass ceiling had her looking for another job. Moving back to New Orleans, closer to family, made sense.
As I looked out over the bridge into the lower 9th ward, my heart sank. Leann paused the car in the middle of the deserted bridge for me to see the levee walls. It was clear that the 9th Ward was built well below the water line.
Now, weedy green overflows vacant lots where homes full of families lived. Celebrities and government agencies have rebuilt some streets. President Obama visited when the new Andrew P. Sanchez & Copelin-Byrd Multi Service Center opened. Actor Brad Pitt founded the Make It Right Foundation to create 150, flood-proof, environmentally-sound homes. Other homeowners returned with insurance money to rebuild but many did so in the same style as before. I imagine they’ll be vulnerable to devastation the next time flood waters breech. The contrast was startling.
A chance encounter
Leann showed us her last packet of rations passed out by FEMA after Hurricane Katrina. She carries it as a reminder in her cab. On one street she pulled the taxi over. “Hey baby,” she softly spoke to a man walking the sidewalk. I thought they were friends, but it’s a familiar NOLA greeting. Her easy call brought Wendall over and the questions began.
Here’s the video of the encounter:
As Wendell finished recounting his rescue and rebuilding traumas, Leann asked if he’d accept a donation and he nodded yes, with a slight smile. She passed him the packet of rations and some cash we’d collected. Blessings were exchanged and we drove on to see the Musicians Village across the bridge.
I’ve waited a year to tell this story. There have been scores of reporters and gawkers wandering through the 9th Ward. The ten year anniversary passed in 2015 with reviews and photo journalists’ galleries full of what’s left of the neighborhood. I didn’t plan to join them but it’s important to remember, especially as new life-changing floods have returned to Louisiana. That encounter continues to impact how I travel.
“Nothing else we could ever describe would allow us to meet any other way.”
Just Getting Through
A pair of girls in jeans and t-shirts pulled their hoodies close as we drove past. I imagine them growing up after the storm tore through. They have to walk out of the house every day, past empty lots and houses still waiting for demolition. Whether they stay in the ward or join the diaspora, the daily routine midst the scars of Hurricane Katrina remain. As Leann knows well, it takes energy to keep on, “Just getting through.”
I offer this as a remembrance and a request for those of us more fortunate to take action, to help when we can. My words are my means.
How to make a difference in the Lower 9th Ward
Five years ago David Young came to the Lower 9th Ward to volunteer. He felt a calling to stay and has founded Capstone Gardens on more than 25 vacant and blighted lots. The fruits and vegetables grown there are given to organizations serving the hungry.
As the area is considered a ‘food desert,’ where locals need to take several buses to buy fresh produce, David has begun selling his harvests at a local convenience store, Galvez Goodies. If you can’t visit to help in the garden, check out his honey. His bee hives are helping the plants and trees flourish.
Ready to adopt a beehive and help Hurricane Katrina survivors?
- Adopt a beehive and support food empowerment on Lower 9th Ward vacant lots
- Get a certificate of support or give it as a gift
- Donate to the Gardens
- Read more about David Young’s work and volunteer gardens at NOLA.com
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what a wonderful post and sad reminder of how our fellow Americans are NOT being helped enough. Thank you for this and for posting links on how people can help.
Thank you, Vicki. We do need to keep our country men and women in mind when it comes to disasters.
As we absorb the latest flooding disaster in Baton Rouge and environs, this very timely post reminds us that Katrina is not over.
Thanks, Suzanne, the recovery for the entire region will be long. Our world is in flux.
Wow, a heart-moving post. Its been a long time since this happened and the scars still remain 🙁
Thanks, Danik. It was one of those serendipitous encounters and I was so grateful.
Thanks for writing this post – I find the even bigger tragedy is that we hear about it on the news for all of 15 seconds and then everyone who wasn’t directly affected by it forgets. There are press, celebrity and presidential visits in the direct aftermath, and rememberance on 10 year anniversaries, but those who were affected struggle every day. Thankyou for highlighting that there is still much to rebuild XXX
I’m glad you found this helpful, Meg. It’s true we’re bombarded with so many disasters daily that it’s hard to remember the ongoing struggles to overcome them once they’re no longer headlines.
It is sad to see that it still affects the people there. Such colorful and old houses looked so cute.
The houses are charming! I only wish we could’ve seen them in their intact glory. Slowly the Lower 9th Ward is reviving.
“I offer this as a remembrance and a request for those of us more fortunate to take action, to help when we can. My words are my means.” This really hit me. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you, Lauren. I hoped that wasn’t too purple, too emotional, but writing and witnessing can make a difference.
I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to go through Hurricane Katrina–I feel so much for the people of New Orleans. It’s sad to hear that so many are still dealing with the trouble the hurricane caused so many years ago, but I’m glad to hear about organizations such as Capstone Gardens that are helping the area!
There is some good news with Capstone and the houses that have been rebuilt. Now if only the neighborhood can keep growing and recovering economically too.
Wow, thank you for sharing this.
Appreciate that Carmen. It’s definitely the other side of New Orleans and the luxury is in the kindness of the people, like Leann and Wendall.
I visited here a few years ago and have been keeping a watching brief in the media on this area ever since. We had a similar flood event ion our city in 2011 and the devastation was similar so I have first hand experience at how all this plays out and the difficulties many face for years to come when everyone else moves on. Great article.
Kerri, thank you. I’m so sorry to ehar that your city was hit by a major flood. My hope was to respectfully remind readers that the recovery is a long, long process, especially for those with few means.
This is touching and so inspiring. Very interesting to hear about Leann’s story and get a glimpse of the lower 9th ward.
Thank you, Natasha, It’s hard for me to share this but I feel important especially now as Louisiana is facing another devastating flood. The recovery takes so long and so much is needed.
It’s really great that David is making something out of those vacant lots and selling the vegetables to those who can’t get out. At least someone is making a difference. It’s devastating what happened and how it’s been so hard to come back from it.
I love that he’s pushing back on the food desert in the Lower 9th Ward. It seems to be working well and good, fresh food is a right not a privilege no matter what your economic status, I feel.
Hurricane Katrina seems to have happened so long ago and yet people are still struggling. it’s a little sad, to be honest. I am glad, however, that so many people are still working hard to make a difference.
It’s terrifying to hear that eleven years later the neighborhood is still struggling to recover, isn’t it? Makes me realize more viscerally how much disaster survivors the world over face.