Hurricane Katrina: The life it stole, and the future it gave back

Hurricane Katrina: A New Orleans tribute (3:39)

In the 10 years since Katrina, the city has struggled to rebuild while maintaining the distinct character that made it so beloved. Local musician Lynn Drury performs "City Life" as a tribute to the city. More music at lynndrury.com. Photo: William Widmer (3:39)

I ARRIVED IN New Orleans on the first Monday of August, just a few weeks before the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans. The day was an incandescent 97 degrees with a slight breeze circulating the hot air around the Central Business District. A hodgepodge of briefcases and selfie sticks dotted the sidewalk. Jazz, as always, served as the day's theme song. The smell of Cajun cooking and slightly burnt oil filled the air. A deep-enough inhale would probably clog arteries. Woldenberg Park, which sits alongside the Mississippi River, was as technicolored as a Terrance Osborne painting. In the distance, the Crescent City Connection Bridge looked fake snugged up against a cloudless blue sky, while the sun's reflection bouncing off of the river created such an alluring backdrop, I had to smile.

My city. Where I was born and raised, where the word "baby" is a greeting for everyone, not just a lover. Where we "make groceries" and "dress" our po'boys (never, ever call them hoagies, grinders, heroes or subs). Where summer and hurricane are the only two seasons.

After Katrina forced me out of New Orleans, I went on a 10-year writing hiatus. I couldn't comprehend it at 15 the way I am attempting to do at 25. Something died within me when Hurricane Katrina stole my life in my city. And I still struggle to pinpoint exactly what it is. I abandoned the black and white marbled composition books that had been my sanctuary. They contained the tales of my hardships, my heartache, my most beautiful and proud moments in a bewildering display of genre -- from poems and short stories to fan fiction. I plotted the future in those books, which included graduating from St. Mary's Academy, gaining independence at a college far away from Louisiana and becoming a journalist. Then, of course, I would find the man of my dreams and have a storybook wedding at the St. Louis Cathedral near Jackson Square. Our reception would include the brass band and umbrellas needed to get the Second Line started. (Actually, these plans still stand.) When I still had them, I kept the notebooks neatly organized on a small bookshelf in my room where I also imagined they'd always be safe.

I headed to New Orleans East, to the house where I grew up and where my mom still lives. I needed the pictures I had taken during my family's very first visit home three months after the levees broke. I said a quick prayer to St. Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost and stolen articles. The Roman Catholic in me still believes that if he can't help find something, it's not meant to be found. After some excavating in my old closet, I peered into an old bag from college and saw the navy blue photo album sticking out from beneath a mound of papers. St. Anthony has never failed me.

A picture of my favorite doll, Addy Walker, sent me time-traveling back to November 2005, when my mother, Iva, father, Ernest, and I came back to assess the damage Katrina had done to our home. I had received the American Girl doll, her books and all the accessories -- including the school desk, bed, ice cream set, lunch pail, washstand and five different outfits (including a matching one for me) for Christmas when I was 8 years old. My siblings and I never wanted for anything, but we knew our parents weren't one-percenters. Only later would I learn that my mother saved money all year to afford the $400 bill.

My mother had urged me to take her with me when we evacuated. I didn't listen, because I knew I'd be back for her. We always went back. And if I had a daughter someday, she would be able to enjoy the doll and her accessories as much as I had. But on that day in November, Addy was sprawled out on the front lawn, the apparent victim of a horrendous crime. Her eyes were closed as if in pain, and her left leg was twisted inward. Her permanently brave smile was obscured by a thin coating of mold, while her left arm reached out as if she had been waving for help that had never come. She was the only personal item on the front lawn, and I struggled, still struggle, to figure out how the hell she got there.

My mother and I were able to laugh about that photo. After 10 years, some things that hurt so badly back then didn't feel so bad. Then I flipped the page and stared at a picture of my room. The light blue walls that had been painted just two months before the storm were streaked with mold and mildew. My bed, incongruously, was still made, my book sack exactly where I left it. The shelf where my notebooks had been was gone -- most likely drowned when the floodwaters ransacked the house. The only composition book I could find was covered in sludge. The ink on the remaining pages had bled, and as it dried, had also begun to fade -- just like my past.

I still think about those notebooks. What would I have penned on the blank pages that never got the chance to be filled? I think about the future I planned at 15 years old and wonder how closely it would resemble my present had Katrina not interrupted my life. Then, I stop.

After 10 years, some things that hurt so badly then hurt just as badly now.

SATURDAY, Aug. 27, 2005

Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a test. This is the real deal. Board up your homes, make sure you have enough medicine, make sure the car has enough gas. Do all things you normally do for a hurricane but treat this one differently because it is pointed towards New Orleans. -- Mayor Ray Nagin

I saw Mayor Ray Nagin's lips moving and the rising anxiety in his eyes. I suppose I even heard what he said, but I know I dodged the weight of his words. After all, this wasn't my first rodeo. When babies are born in New Orleans, they're given a birth certificate and an evacuation route. I'm the most fearful person you will ever meet. I cower during thrillers and remain jumpy hours after I've watched them. I'm terrified of heights and anything I deem a threat to my safety, including roller coasters, driving in the snow and scuba diving. But hurricanes? Please. Nagin's plea to evacuate garnered an eye roll and a chorus of sighs as I turned to my friend to get the much more important news of what she'd be wearing that evening.

It was the day high schoolers from all over New Orleans waited for every year. About 5,000 to 8,000 students and alumni in their best outfits came together to tailgate before filling the stands of Tad Gormley Stadium to watch their favorite high school football teams battle for bragging rights. The St. Augustine Football Jamboree, or "The Jam," was taking place later that evening. The games were set; my plans were in place. My outfit was a different story. I hadn't had time to beg my mother to take me to Lakeside Shopping Center in Metairie -- the good mall. I'd had to settle for the Plaza in the East, a shell of a mall consisting mostly of shoe stores and boutiques with revealing outfits inappropriate for a teenager. The severity of whatever this monster in the Gulf of Mexico might be was not my priority. My friends and I would have the chance to laugh and catch up, scan the crowd for our high school crushes, giggle when the boys came to talk to us and -- most important for me -- watch football. But as my anticipation grew, so did the storm. ... The Jam was canceled.

I was mad as hell.

If the storm wasn't as bad as they'd predicted, the games would take place the following Tuesday. Not that the promise of a rescheduled jamboree changed my sour mood. I wouldn't get to see my friends. There would be no football to look forward to.

And in the days to follow, there wouldn't be a Jam to reschedule either.

MY FATHER STOPPED by the house with more photos of our ravaged home. He pointed to the silver buffalo chopper on a table, his commercial deep fryers on the back patio, the sander he used to shave coconuts -- all rusty from weeks of being underwater. Each item was yet another vivid reminder of my childhood before Katrina. Before the storm, my parents ran Catering Unlimited, a popular catering business that they founded in 1987. In their 28 years as vendors, Catering Unlimited's menu has boasted a variety of Louisiana favorites served at smaller events all over town and, of course, at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival held each spring at the Fair Grounds Race Course. Fried chicken and Cajun jambalaya were the most popular and are the only two items on the menu today. With most of his cooking machinery destroyed, my father replaced as many of the larger items as he could afford and scaled back on catering events.

He would never miss a year of Jazz Fest, though.

Mardi Gras comes a month or two before Jazz Fest. As a Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club member, my father took pride in participating in the Krewe of Zulu parade, where he would don the painted blackface, Afro wig, grass skirt and shoes that were spray-painted gold. I was always more than happy to help my parents prepare Zulu's most coveted souvenir: the coconut. I waited excitedly for the day my father came home with multiple sacks of coconuts that needed to be shaved, spray-painted and decorated for the upcoming parade. He would sit outside with a sander and shave the coconuts until they were smooth. I would help my mother spray the coconuts until they were evenly coated in black paint. Once dry, they were decorated with small, wiggly eyes and glittery designs.

We laughed at those memories too. The pictures served as a reminder that items can be replaced. Our lives couldn't. There were people who were fed up with meteorologists hyping up every hurricane, urging evacuation at every turn, only for the storm to take a different path. Evacuating took planning, patience and money, which a lot of people didn't have much of. Back then, 27.3 percent of households did not have cars. But tired or frustrated, our family was going regardless. Though if it weren't for my mother, I can't say for sure I'd be here today to tell my story.

THE PROSPECT OF Hurricane Katrina sent my mother spiraling back to memories that have haunted her since August 1965. She was only 11 years old when Hurricane Betsy left her doubting she would live to see her 12th birthday.

There was little to no warning sent out as the Industrial Canal levees of the Lower 9th Ward fought to hold back the storm surge caused by Betsy. There was a breach. (Some New Orleanians maintain to this day that the levees were blown purposely to prioritize the sanctity of rich white neighborhoods over predominantly African-American and poorer ones.) The flooding raged through surrounding neighborhoods -- swallowing homes and cars, animals and people, anything in its path.

Ankle-deep water flowed into the little white house with green trim that sat atop cinder blocks in the 2600 block of Alabo Street as if it were an invited guest. The five children in the house, including my mother, frolicked gleefully in what had been the living room but was now their own personal kiddie pool. But the shrieks of joy turned to fear as the calm, steady stream of water from the canal turned into an angry tide, forcing its way into the house from all directions. Her parents and two older siblings led the children up to the attic. Moments later, the water followed as if it were playing hide-and-seek.

The last option was the roof. My uncle punched out the aluminum turbine ventilator, creating a hole big enough to pull everyone up and out to the highest point. As they sat there through the night, water began to lap at the parts of the roof that sloped downward on each side. The only dry area was the spine of the roof, and nine people -- four adults and five children -- lined it. Only two of them knew how to swim.

It would rain for the entirety of their 15 hours up there. Tears blended with raindrops. Silent prayers begged God to intervene. They gripped the roof as tight as they could, all while watching those people not so lucky yell for someone, anyone, to help them as their heads bobbed in and out of the floodwaters. Some victims resurfaced, while others were never seen again. Boats came and went. Boats overturned. This process was repeated until they were rescued the next day.

There would be no protesting or pleas to ride out Hurricane Katrina at home. We were leaving.

SUNDAY, Aug. 28, 2005

This storm is intensifying and still pointed towards New Orleans, and there's not a meteorologist or an expert that I've talked to that says that this storm will not impact New Orleans in a major way. As a result of that, I am this morning declaring that we will be doing a mandatory evacuation. -- Mayor Ray Nagin

At 9:30 a.m., a mandate, one that had never been ordered in the city's 287 years, went into effect. By then, New Orleans had been in our rearview mirror for hours -- our third evacuation that year. I left with just my red Samsonite boarding tote, which held a weekend's worth of clothes. My St. Mary's Academy gym uniform -- a gold T-shirt and blue shorts -- served as my pajamas. I left everything else: the notebooks, baby pictures, my toy poodle Juju (he stayed with my uncle due to lack of space in our car) and my book sack. It was two weeks into my sophomore year of high school. The plan was to pick up where we left off with classes as soon as the storm passed.

There were five of us making what felt like our monthly trek to Sugar Land, Texas -- a suburban city 25 miles southwest of Houston where my cousin's home became our safe house -- my sister, Natalie, and her fiancé, Gerald, my mother, my brother, Ernest Jr. ("EJ"), and me. Earlier that morning, I hugged and kissed my father goodbye. His shelter was his sister's home in Powder Springs, Georgia, and that's where he was headed with my aunt, grandmother and grandfather. This was life. It didn't bother me. We would go away for no more than three days and reconvene in New Orleans like nothing had happened.

EJ's phone rang right before we were due to hit the I-10. He had begun working for the Orleans Parish Civil Sheriff's Department under Paul Valteau only two months earlier. As the new guy, staying behind was mandatory. I was devastated. We had never left anyone behind before.

There were no sandbags lining the outside of our house to keep floodwaters at bay. No tape (although this method has proved ineffective time and time again) or plywood covering the windows to prevent glass from shattering.

The skies were clear and the sun was bright during our five-and-a-half-hour journey. There was a slight force in the day's breeze that hinted at something larger on the horizon. Katrina had officially been declared a Category 5 by 11 a.m., its winds blowing frenziedly at speeds of about 175 mph, its center 225 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River.

A storm would be arriving soon.

AFTER LEARNING THAT I'd be in town for this assignment, EJ and Natalie made the eight-hour trek from Dallas to meet me in New Orleans. They both relocated to Texas after Katrina and have no plans to ever move back to New Orleans. We are all scattered now. This was the first time my parents, siblings and I were all together in NOLA in at least four years.

Such is my life after Katrina.

Upon joining the family reunion, my brother pulled out an old Sony Digital Handycam and a light brown plastic bag from his luggage. The gold, slightly scratched camcorder looked like a relic of ancient times. EJ rewound it to his first moments inside the Superdome. Heavy winds and rains pounded the outside of the Dome before taking a dramatic turn to darkness. The camera is pointing upward, where there are two visible holes in the Dome's roof. The video pans to water pouring in from different levels.

I looked closely at the light brown bag and read the label: the word "meal" is written horizontally in a large font. "Ready-to-Eat, Individual" straddled the edge of the package's right side.

Menu No. 17: Beef Teriyaki

My brother takes out his camcorder, the MRE (Meals Ready-to-Eat) and his work badge every year just to look at them, then tucks them all neatly back in the closet. There are a quick glimpse into a past that he can put away physically but cannot shake mentally. It reminds him of where he came from and where he is now. It reminds him of the people he tried to save. It reminds him of the elderly woman who died before she could tell him what would be her last words. It reminds him of the NOPD police spokesman who killed himself during the storm.

It reminds him that he is a survivor.

MONDAY, Aug. 29, 2005

It's moving to the east of New Orleans, but the western eyewall is clipping primarily the eastern portions. ... This is all consistent with a Category 4 hurricane. The wind damage can be near catastrophic but, at least, extreme. -- Steve Lyons, Weather Channel hurricane expert

Every television in that little house in Sugar Land was tuned to a major news network. Live shots of New Orleans looked like every other storm that hit in the years prior to Katrina. Heavy winds caused the palm trees that lined Canal Street to sway back and forth, some in danger of snapping. The cascading rain danced in an oblique fashion down the street like a free spirit going any way the wind blew. Thunder boomed and clapped.

Mother Nature had formed her own second line.

I kept in touch with EJ by phone and by text messaging, a fairly new concept at the time. By then, he was stationed in the Superdome, instructed to help keep thousands of evacuees in order.

Something had gone terribly wrong in New Orleans, beginning with the Superdome's roof. Video showed pieces of the roof flapping as if invisible hands were prying it open. The hole was large enough for a long beam of sunlight to break through, creating a natural spotlight right along the 1-yard line. Rainfall forced evacuees who camped out on the Dome's football turf to move to higher ground.

The two major holes in the Dome's roof would prove to be minor compared to the problems brewing outside. Why was the water rising so quickly now? Were the pumps not working? What was the city doing? Back in Sugar Land, we watched in horror as aerial views showed various parts of the city underwater. When cameras panned New Orleans East, we used St. Maria Goretti Church as our landmark. My aunt's house was right around the corner. It wasn't looking good.

There were a million questions that were pointless to ask. I turned to my mother and asked them anyway. I looked to her for guidance about everything, and she always had the answers. What does this mean for us? What does our house look like? When will we be able to go home? The helplessness in her eyes was all the answer I needed. For the first time, she knew only as much as I did.

Back in the Superdome, chaos ensued. Misinformation spread quickly. The atmosphere was turning into what felt like a war zone before EJ's eyes. He was two months on a job that supposedly required him to deal only with civil matters. Hurricane preparedness had not been part of the job requirement. Looking at the water surrounding the Dome, he had the same thoughts as everyone else. What does this mean for us? What does our house look like? When will we be able to go home? The high temperature combined with his thoughts and his stress swirled into a lullaby. EJ drifted off to sleep.

A sharp nudge from his partner jarred him awake. Frantic screams pierced the air as people raced in every direction. He watched helplessly as a woman was shoved, her body flipped over one of the railings as the stampede continued. Disoriented, he turned to his partner for answers.

There was an active shooter in the Dome.

According to stories that were told to him later, an evacuee had snapped. EJ heard that the man had taken a National Guardsman's M16 rifle, shot him and ran, disappearing into one of the locker rooms.

My phone alerted me to one new message. I flipped it open.

"There's a shooter in the Dome. I love y'all."

I saw the movies and TV shows, and they all ended the same way. When a person tells his loved ones he loves them, it was always the last message before death comes to visit. I knew my brother was dead. No one would be able to convince me otherwise. I stayed up the whole night, waiting for some type of confirmation. I texted him how much we all loved him. I urged him to be safe. Oh, Lord. Please protect him. Anything. Crying. Praying. Crying. Praying. Crying. Five hours later, my prayers were answered.

"I'm okay."

EJ was never directly in contact with the shooter, because NOPD handled the job. He was told that the shooter lay dead in the locker room in which he had barricaded himself until sunrise. We could try to rest a little easier now.

AFTER REALITY HIT, when we knew there would be no easy way home, my family started on Plan B. Hearing my relatives make phone calls to apartment complexes and insurance companies -- looking for a new home and making plans for the old -- was a ridiculous concept to me. New Orleans was still home. We always went back.

My father remained in Atlanta with his parents and siblings. After a few weeks, my mom and I were the only two still living in my cousin's home. Tearstains tattooed the curves of my cheeks. The urge to cry hit me in waves throughout each day and sometimes well into the night. I faked an illness every other day, and when I did attend school, I did my best to leave early. My absences concerned my mother, teachers and friends. I didn't care. On the first day of school in Texas, my cousin and I were introduced as refugees from New Orleans. I laughed at the thought of being a refugee in my own country. New Orleans was only five and a half hours away. I didn't have the energy to correct them. I didn't feel like defending myself every time the Texas students wanted to pick a fight with the New Orleans students. It's not like I asked to be here.

I didn't want to be anywhere. This had to be what depression felt like. I was never suicidal, but something about going to sleep and passing to a beautiful place comforted me. It's still scary to think that dreams of death were the only things that helped me sleep at night.

NOTHING COULD HAVE prepared me for the first trip back to the city three months after the storm -- not even my keen sense of homesickness could prepare me. The neighborhood was reminiscent of the worst postapocalyptic movie. Desolate. Dead. There were no people walking around, happily taking pictures and admiring all New Orleans had to offer. No pleasant scents from nearby eateries. No jazz music playing in the background. My city had been silenced.

My father thought it would be best to begin the process of gutting the house -- removing the furniture, fixtures, drywall and flooring -- as soon as possible. When he opened the front door, the pungent smell of floodwater penetrated the surgical mask I wore to prevent me from inhaling the mold that had grown all over our closed-up house. That smell, a musky cross between mildew and rancid water, lingered in my nostrils for days. Sometimes I can still smell it.

In the kitchen, the refrigerator had floated loose of its moorings, landing on its side after the waters receded. Now the putrid smell of rotting meat and other spoiled food assaulted my senses. We walked slowly, careful not to slip on the sludge that coated the floors.

I snapped pictures of every room, amazed at how water had turned my home into a science project. I was in awe of how some things were completely destroyed while others remained in the same spot, virtually untouched (the clock perfectly on the wall, dishes in the drain, the door torn off, but cups still in the cabinets, pictures still in place). I

made a note of where the floodwaters rose and settled for weeks before draining. Our area sustained eight and a half feet of water, which covered our attic. We lost everything except a clear plastic container filled with pictures, just not the good family photos we were hoping to salvage.

AFTER RETURNING TO Texas, I was still in a very dark place -- when would I go home still uppermost in my mind. All that I lost still my greatest fear. Concerned, my mother called Natalie. There was one available apartment in my sister's complex in North Dallas, and we took it. We moved to Dallas after five months living with my cousin and his family in Sugar Land. Five months after believing I would be there for just one weekend, we moved even farther away from New Orleans.

Being around Natalie and Gerald gave me a sense of familiarity. A feeling of normalcy. Though my life was nowhere near what it used to be, it began to improve. I was still angry. Writing was impossible. Misguided anger and frustration were now being taken out on the things that I'd always relied on as my source of comfort. The poems and short stories that once healed me were gone. When Katrina washed my notebooks away, it took my passion too.

I questioned God, which I was taught to never do. I couldn't help myself. If he loved me so much, why would he destroy everything I loved? Why would he hurt me like this? I felt forsaken but still remained as faithful as I could while facing such adversity. Surely if I could withstand this test, I could withstand anything. I depended heavily on that motto until I graduated high school in 2008. Before Hurricane Katrina, I wanted to finish high school and move far, far away.

Now I didn't want to be anywhere else but home.

I WALK UP and down the streets of the French Quarter taking in scenes that I once took for granted. Musicians on the corner. The smell of a fresh batch of beignets being delivered to patrons at Cafe Du Monde. Tourists asking if I can take their pictures in front of the city's best-known landmarks. Ten years ago, these details annoyed me. Now I'm more than happy to partake. I peek into the open doors of the redbrick building that sits on the corner of Decatur and Esplanade. Workers are busy breaking up tile and emptying the rubble into a Dumpster on the corner. A familiar, musky smell permeates the air and I stop. I look back. Floodwater.

I still hold on to remnants of Katrina. My St. Mary's gym shorts are now a comfort object. Although I never returned to St. Mary's, I wear the shorts to sleep on nights I'm missing New Orleans the most. Pictures of my friends and family I took with me the day we left are kept in my apartment in a small, clear plastic container with a white lid, similar to the one that floated during the storm.

My red Samsonite boarding tote sits in the corner of my room in Connecticut. It serves as my reminder that nothing lasts forever. Change is constant. Sometimes we must be forced out of our comfort zones to discover ourselves.

Ten years later, I'm still discovering myself. I was asked how I felt before beginning this assignment. This is something that I'm familiar with. This is my story. That night, I sobbed uncontrollably. I realized how much I've overcome and also how much healing still needs to take place.

Depending on the circumstances, I'd rather not attend funerals. I want to preserve the memories I have of that person when they were alive. The last view of someone you loved lying stiff and lifeless and different and watching the lid of their casket close is so ... altering.

Looking at pictures of my home after Katrina evoked the same feelings. The weight of the photo album in my hands was just as heavy as a casket. I slowly let the cover of the album drop until I could no longer see the images -- the last memories of my old life.

Death is never easy, and once grief settles in, it blooms into a never-ending process. I can spend my days demanding the stolen time Katrina wrapped into its watery grip. I can spend my days thinking about everything I've lost over everything I've survived. I can spend days driving myself crazy creating scenarios that will never change the outcome of my reality.

Instead, I choose my sanity.