Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast region, killing nearly 2,000 and displacing more than 250,000 others from Louisiana to Florida.
Millions watched it on television, helpless, as those caught in the storm climbed on top of roofs and waited to be rescued. Countless others drowned.
Katrina is among the costliest disasters in U.S. history and the costliest hurricane on record, according to the National Weather Service. To this day racial, political and socioeconomic disparities still impact the lives of those in hardest hit New Orleans.
So just how far has New Orleans come since the hurricane 10 years ago? Many say the division has never been wider.
“You’re going to hear a lot of folks say things are so much better, the economy is so improved, and other people are going to say it is so much worse,” said Allison Plyer at the New Orleans-based think tank The Data Center. “And both those realities are true.”
It is not uncommon for people to talk about a renaissance and about those who didn’t recover in the same breath. “The “new” New Orleans is whiter and more expensive to live in. African-American neighborhoods across the city still struggle, especially the chronically neglected Lower 9th Ward, a bastion of black homeownership before the flood walls failed. And the homicide rate is rising again,” The New Orleans Advocate reports.
Former New Orleans Saint, Joe Horn, recalled his experience when the storm hit:
“Katrina hit while we were still in California, and we saw the incredible images on TV. The actual storm was nothing compared to the flood damage caused after the levees broke. When those four levees were breached, people were like "Whoa, we’re stuck here now!" It was crazy being in California. . .I was trying to get back to the city and give my life if I had to.
“Leaving Cali, we flew into Houston. We couldn’t even get into New Orleans. Displaced folks were everywhere across the country—and Houston was a destination, with the Astrodome being the only hub. When I walked in the dome, I broke down. I was the first so-called celebrity the people saw after the storm, but I’m just a real dude from the hood. When I got out the car, folks bum-rushed me, and I handed out money. When I saw the kids, my mind wasn’t on football. I was thinking of a way I could stay in Houston for an extended period and help the people get what they needed, like water, tissues, toothpaste and feminine products.”
Anyone appraising New Orleans’ health 10 years later would have to look at the extent to which abandoned properties still choke the city’s neighborhoods. This is probably the most accurate barometer as any, and an indication of the number of families that have been able to return. It also speaks volumes about the city’s economic well-being and ability to overcome legal and bureaucratic obstacles to repairing the damage.
Superstar Brad Pitt was one of the first celebrities to reach out to hurricane victims and one of the few who has stayed the course 10 years later. His Make It Right Foundation has built 109 mini houses to date, meant to sell for less than $100,000 each. Focusing on New Orleans’ hardest hit Ninth ward, Pitt said the building project has given him a lot of pride.
A part-time New Orleans resident and amateur architecture enthusiast, Pitt wanted his homes to be colorful, sturdy and eco-friendly. “I drive into the neighborhood and I see people on their porch, and I ask them how is their house treating them?,” he said. “And they say, 'Good.' And I say what's your utility bill? And they'll throw something out like, '24 bucks' or something, and I feel fantastic.”
Pitt recently listed his and Angelina Jolie's five-bedroom French Quarter home for $6.5 million.
This week, President Obama, President Bush, President Clinton, Members of Congress, federal officials and other dignitaries will conduct site visits, participate in events and conversations with community members that honor the lives of those lost, explore the city’s progress and resilience planning, and examine the challenges the city is focused on tackling in years to come.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, President Clinton joined forces with President George H.W. Bush to establish the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, which raised over $130 million in contributions to support relief and long-term recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast. It’s a drop in the bucket.