10 Years After Katrina, New Orleanians Reflect On The Return Home | WABE 90.1 FM

10 Years After Katrina, New Orleanians Reflect On The Return Home

Aug 28, 2015

This month marks a decade since the devastating hurricane known as Katrina. The category 5 storm killed nearly 2,000 people and losses exceeded $100 billion. 

  In the days leading up to Aug. 29, 2005, many families left their homes in New Orleans for shelter and came to Atlanta. By Aug. 31, 80 percent of the city was under water, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported. 

Aerial views of one of the damaged levees on August 30, 2005, the day after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
Credit Jocelyn Augustino / FEMA

WABE’s Candace Wheeler had several relatives temporarily relocate to Atlanta, to live with her and her parents, following Katrina. This past weekend, she went to New Orleans to visit her family and talk to them about what their lives are like 10 years later.

In the years since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans ─ or the Big Easy as it’s affectionately called ─ has seen a lot of changes. So much so that longtime residents, like my family, often call it the new, New Orleans.

But it doesn’t matter how many new skate parks or city parks or bike lanes are built ─ there are still reminders of Katrina all around the city.

Just on the drive to my grandmother’s house in Gentilly, a suburb in New Orleans where there was 9 feet of standing water, the streets are so riddled with potholes that our car rocks back and forth down the street like a seesaw.

Patches of abandoned homes ─ all in various states of disrepair ─ are pocked with eerie X marks on the front indicating the date they were searched, by whom and if rescue teams found any dead bodies.

The Decision To Leave Home

The people in Atlanta - I thank those people for their help. They made you feel like you were doing them a favor coming to them and that they were able to help you. That was the beautiful part of it.

As I sit with my grandmother Agatha Collins and my aunt Jacqueline Belfield in my grandmother's dining room and start to talk about what it was like for them when they first decided to leave their homes just days before the hurricane, it’s clear they don’t need any reminders.

"It was a case where you leave home thinking you would come back and everything would be like, you know, small hurricane," says my grandmother. "It was kind of like a party atmosphere when we left. You’re frightened because they were saying it was going to be bad, but you had no idea what bad was."

What my grandma didn’t know at the time is that she’d be living with my parents and me in Atlanta for the next two years.

"The people in Atlanta ─ I thank those people for their help," says my grandmother. "They made you feel like you were doing them a favor coming to them and that they were able to help you. That was the beautiful part of it."

Salvaging Memories And Mementos 

A couple of months after the storm my grandmother, aunt Jacqueline and my mother returned to my grandmother's house in Gentilly to see what could be salvaged from her one-story home where the water had flooded as high as the ceiling.

My grandmother remembers going into her bedroom to find that her favorite shoes had been ruined.

Agatha Collins’ damaged Stuart Weitzman shoes sit lined up on the floor.
Credit Courtesy of Candace Wheeler

“I used to love Stuart Weitzman shoes, and Lisa lined them up all on the floor and she said ‘Mommy, I’m going to take a picture, and I’m going to send these shoes to Mr. Weitzman; and maybe he’ll send you just one pair back," my grandmother laughs. "That’s how you have to console yourself – you’re doing this, you know it’s gone, and there's nothing you can do about it.”

Some of the memories are too hard to laugh through.

My grandmother tells me about her family Bible that was ruined in the storm. It kept all of my family’s history on my mother’s side in one place. After Katrina the pages were stuck together and falling out. She brought it with her to my parent’s house in Atlanta to salvage what she could.

"I think it's more painful talking about it than it actually was seeing it," she says. "It's just something I don't think there's anybody I dislike in life that I would say 'I hope you go through this.' For some of the people you see now who are still struggling, you realize we were blessed – it was only things."

Beginning To Rebuild

Rebuilding was a long process, spearheaded by my oldest aunt Clarissa Evans. She traveled among an apartment she rented after the hurricane in Houston, Texas, a friend's house in Slidell, Louisiana, and New Orleans. Her four-bedroom house with a pool that sat on a man-made lake, had been covered in mold after the hurricane brought along 5 feet of water.

She says coming to her house every day, even without electricity or running water, was healing.

It was just never a question. I wanted my home. I wanted to return back to my life.

“It gave me some peace," she says. "There were days that I just sat in this empty house on a bucket ─ just to be here. But I think the healing was being able to salvage some of my items, and it kind of just gave me a reason to keep moving forward.”

She tells me she always knew she was returning home. About 62 percent of Louisiana's evacuees made that same decision, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

"It was just never a question. I wanted my home. I wanted to return back to my life,” she says.

It took nine months before my aunt could find a contractor to begin working on her and my grandparents’ homes, but eventually they were rebuilt.

A Tour of the Ninth Ward

The same can’t be said for the rest of the city. Ten years later some places look like Katrina just happened. 

About 70 percent of New Orleans housing units were damaged in the storm or by the flooding that followed, according to The Data Center, the research arm of Louisiana's Nonprofit Knowledge Works.  

On an early Saturday morning my uncle Marcus Wheeler takes me, my dad and my best friend on a tour of the Ninth Ward ─ one of the places in the city hit hardest by Katrina.

We turn right down a street and almost immediately we come upon a house where the roof has partially collapsed onto the porch and yellow caution tape surrounds the entire property. 

A house in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward with its roof partially collapsed onto the porch.
Credit Candace Wheeler / WABE

“It’s 10 years later and you still got stuff like this," says my uncle. "Instead of the owner, or the city, or whoever letting someone buy the house and renovate it ─ they just let it decay. That house could have been redone. It's a lot of them like that."

The owner of the house next door is sitting outside feeding the neighborhood chickens when he tells us that crews are coming by in an hour to tear down the house after years of neighbors complaining.

Once we leave the house with the collapsed roof, we spend nearly two hours looking at one abandoned house after another. During the drive the scenery becomes a repeat of empty lots overgrown with weeds and garbage. In the neighborhoods we never see any children outside playing.

 Neighborhood Recovery Slow Going 

Along the way we meet Randolph Thomas. He’s the only African-American owner of a convenience store in the area and came back to rebuild just two months after the hurricane. He chats with my uncle for several minutes, but when I approach him with my microphone, he becomes quiet and doesn't give me much more than one word answers to my questions.

When we’re back in the car my uncle Marcus Wheeler tells me why.

"They’re like little fish in the bowl," he says. "They're getting so many people riding around now during this 10 year anniversary looking at what they look at every day. I feel bad for them, so imagine how they feel. Y'all looking at us but nobody's really coming to do anything. You come taking your pictures and everybody comes and talking about it. We're on the news this week, when the anniversary's over we won't see you all until you come back on the 15th, 20th anniversary. But the city and the government is not doing anything ─ period."

We're on the news this week, when the anniversary's over we won't see you all until you come back on the 15th, 20th anniversary.

He also tells me that Thomas is upset about the Lower Ninth Ward, which is historically African-American, not recovering in the last decade as much as an area just a few miles away called, Chalmette, in St. Bernard Parish.

“They’re the whites, but they've recovered," he says. "It was the same devastation, the same water, the same level, but they're [the Lower Ninth Ward] not living the same way. So how are you going to jump over and repair that and miss this? Because if you're riding the bus or whatever way you're coming from in New Orleans you have to pass here to get there." 

So we drive about a little over 2 miles down from the Lower Ninth Ward to St. Bernard Parish, and it's pretty idyllic. There are hardly any abandoned homes. The lawns are manicured, and children are outside playing. There’s also a park that’s been built with a rock climbing wall, a playground and foot pedal boats on a small lake.

There we meet Edward McDonald who is feeding ducks in the park when we drive by. He’s lived in the area nearly all his life. He says it took his family three years to rebuild their home, but that they got a lot of assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

He also says only 50 percent of his neighbors returned, and a lot of the properties have been bought from people not originally from the area, which has changed the community.

“It’s not the same, and we're actually going to sell our house," he says. 

In New Orleans For The Long Haul

The many changes in the city since Katrina are something all of its residents talk about ─ a lot. Changes that span from slow rebuilding to corrupt politicians.

Jacqueline Belfield, left, and Agatha Collins share a smile as they embrace.
Credit Candace Wheeler / WABE

But my aunt, Jacqueline Belfield who, along with my grandmother, also moved to Atlanta for nearly two years before returning home, says things in the city aren’t perfect, but they have gotten better.

"New Orleans is back," she says. "I mean from the 10 years from what it was, it has definitely grown leaps and bounds, but I do think our politicians have to do better than what they're doing. I love my city, I'm not going anywhere."

Despite the challenges — the hipsters moving in, rising housing costs and crime ─ all of my relatives say they’ve been in New Orleans all their lives, and they're in it for the long haul.