On August 20, 2005, after attending a conference in New Orleans, I took off from Louis Armstrong International Airport to return home. As we flew across Lake Pontchartrain I remember looking back to the strange, little city that I had ever-so-slowly grown to love. At that point, Katrina was a small tropical storm forming in the Atlantic. Little did I know that nine days later, it would change the city that I left behind forever.
Six years after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent failure of the levee system, much of the east coast is waiting and watching Hurricane Irene as it inches northward up the coast. As a North Carolina native, I know that there will be stubborn folks on the Outer Banks who’ll stay behind, because that’s what they do. And I suspect that my alma mater, East Carolina University in Greenville, will be unofficial host to more than a few hurricane parties. However, during the intervening years, governments and emergency management agencies have studied and learned from the myriad of failed responses to Katrina. And hopefully, what they have learned will help reduce damage and loss of life from this impending storm.
And on this anniversary, we still need to remember the people of the Gulf Coast. Six years, millions of volunteer hours, and billions of dollars in aid later, there are still communities and neighborhoods that will never be the same. From New Orleans eastward to Alabama nearly 2,000 people lost their live in the flood and thousands more evacuated and never returned. And weeks later, along the bayous to the west, Hurricane Rita, prolonged the regional agony. Six years hence, much has been done, but there is so much more that needs to be done.
In the Upper Ninth Ward, this week’s opening of the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music punctuates the end of construction at Musicians’ Village; however, hundreds of houses in the neighborhood have been torn down, while other blighted structures remain unclaimed and/or unoccupied. And this is true in varying degrees in neighborhoods throughout the City.
To this day, many of the streets in the Lower Ninth Ward are dirt, gravel, or broken pavement. Sidewalks, if they existed at all, are cracked and overgrown. On the sixth anniversary of the storm, New Orleans has secured $45 million to repair streets in the Lower Ninth and to assess repair needs in other parts of the City. So progress, albeit excruciating slow, continues.
And this is a victory for the past, current, and future residents of the Lower Ninth. As some proposed that the area be bulldozed and returned to wetlands, residents fought for their generations-old community; it was something that belonged to them and they fought to let others know that is was something worth saving. In August 2005 and afterwards, they were betrayed, not by nature, but by their own government. Nevertheless, they will gather this weekend to remember and celebrate, as neighborhood pleasure and social clubs, Mardi Gras Indian gangs, and brass bands come out, not just to recall the death and destruction, but to celebrate their determined survival as a community.
So, from Biloxi, MS, to Shell Beach in St. Bernard Parish, from New Orleans East to Lakeview in New Orleans, and from Metairie, LA to the Texas border; residents will be thinking of and praying for those along the east coast. But in addition, they’ll be remembering what happened to them in 2005, all the while taking stock of their own survival, stubbornness, and resilience.