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Katrina: Five Years After

Anniversaries are those points on a calendar when people reflect, for better or worse, on all that has happened since a major event occurred. Whether out of celebration or somberness, reflection occurs on those dates for the people who were part of the event, either directly or indirectly. Such was the observation of the five-year anniversary of the largest and most costly natural disaster in American history.

Striking in the early hours of Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina would forever transform the geography, economy, politics, and people of the U.S. Gulf Coast. Five years later, the wake left behind is still being sifted through as people and communities continue to wrestle with recovery and moving forward.

It remains an open debate among many on the Gulf Coast as to what the real ground zero of Hurricane Katrina was. Most Americans immediately think of the City of New Orleans, remembering the raw and emotionally powerful images of human anguish at the Superdome; the rage at the Convention Center; the watery carnage of the Lower 9th Ward; and the dramatic rooftop rescues by U.S. Coast Guard helicopters that seemed to go on for days.

As awful as each of those events were, similar catastrophes were experienced by communities outside of New Orleans in places called St. Bernard, Jefferson, Plaquemines, and more. Overlooked and practically forgotten about is coastal Mississippi. As devastating as the broken levees, physical destruction, and human suffering were to southeast Louisiana, it could not compare to the Hiroshima-like conditions that occurred to the east. Towns called Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, and Long Beach were literally wiped from the face of Earth. The destruction was beyond catastrophic.

An all-too-common sight along the Gulf Coast after Katrina and Rita, “stairs to nowhere” dot the landscape, the homes they fronted swept away. Photo by Rich Cooper

Five years later, smaller piles of debris remain littered on the sides of back roads on the Mississippi coast, but a short drive along Beach Boulevard, Scenic Drive, and a few other coastal lanes will tell you that people are here to stay. Along these aforementioned streets you will see homes that would easily be the envy of an HGTV production as they stare out along a soft coastline. Many of these homes, now built up on platforms 15 to 20 feet above the ground, are emblematic of a quieter, more genteel way of life when compared to the excess and hedonism of New Orleans, just 60 or so miles to the west. These homes are indeed the fortunate few. For every one of these restored and rebuilt architectural dream homes, dozens of vacant lots remain: nothing but empty slabs of concrete, many with old brick or steel frame staircases rising up to nowhere. Parked FEMA trailers also remain as reminders of lives still not fully repaired.

As one longtime resident described it, “After you’re done fighting with the insurance companies on whether it was wind or water that took your home and they pay you so you can rebuild … if you’re lucky, you find out getting homeowner’s insurance on a new home where you used to live is like taking out a second mortgage. You just can’t make it work so you just best move on.”

As a result of these very real financial circumstances, there are plenty of empty lots to dot the landscape where beach cottages, single-family, and historic Southern-style homes once stood proudly before Katrina and all her fury took it all away.

For Lynn Francis, who has lived in Bay St. Louis on and off for nearly 15 years, the physical scars of five years ago remain a haunting reminder. All that remains of the first home she owned are shattered tiles on a concrete slab and structural debris tossed among the overgrown trees, shrubbery, and weeds. While Adrienne Court may have a freshly paved road to take you in and out, there’s not a standing home on it.

Having moved away from the area in 2000 for a job in Colorado, she returned to the area a year after Katrina to be closer to her family and work as a support contractor with FEMA, doing geospatial information systems work. Now living in an apartment not far from her former home, she can smile with ease at the great memories of good times on her screened-in porch, but the anguish is all too apparent when she surveys how it was all brutally swept away.

She has no idea what the family she sold her home to is planning to do with the property. Like all of the other residents of Adrienne Court, they are facing a future with more questions and personal financial uncertainty in times where no answers are easy or obvious.

Positive attitudes, though, like Southern charm and grace, run deep here. People are proud of who they are and what they’ve done to get the area going again. Whining in any form is not part of their nature, nor will it be tolerated. That probably explains a lot about the region’s recovery process.

Despite the ongoing challenges that residents wanting to rebuild and restart their lives continue to have with insurance companies, the recovery efforts in Mississippi remain in full swing and are more than impressive. New construction is always under way. Many of the destroyed retail spaces, bridges, and roadways that were beyond recognition in the days, weeks, and months after the storm have already been completed or are in the finishing stages.

New condominiums are also rising up, as are new casinos – this time on land as opposed to the floating barges where they used to operate. Buses continue to bring people in to try their luck at the slot machines and gaming tables in hopes of striking it rich. In fact, the casinos were some of the first structures to re-open on the coast. The income and jobs they create for the region were central to the plans that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and local leaders had for the area’s recovery. Getting them up and operating again was critical for the coast’s economy, and the bet seems to be paying off gradually. While the tourism numbers aren’t what they were prior to Katrina, they continue to climb up with each pull of the slot-machine lever.

Trapani’s Eatery, a tradition in Bay St. Louis, Miss., is being rebuilt at its old location after being swept away by wind and water in 2005. Photo by Rich Cooper

As important as restoring the foundations of the coast’s economy are, so is keeping hold of the region’s past. Just down the road from Bay St. Louis sits Beauvoir, the last home of the Confederacy’s only president, Jefferson Davis. Located in Biloxi, the nearly 160-year-old home had seen its fair share of storms.

Having survived Hurricane Camille in 1969, the storm everyone in Mississippi used as the measure of all other storms prior to Katrina, Beauvoir sustained nearly catastrophic ruin from Katrina. Besides wiping out the Presidential Library that stood adjacent to Davis’ home, Beauvoir’s caretakers estimated that out of the 55,000 items in the estate’s collection, between 60 to 70 percent of them were lost in the storm.

Despite losing irreplaceable items such as Davis’s Mexican War saddle, two personal carriages, and the catafalque on which his coffin lay at his New Orleans funeral in 1889, Beauvoir is once again welcoming visitors to its grounds. Its grand front porch is a comfortable and welcoming spot. With the construction of a new Presidential Center under way, it is hoped it will be even more welcoming in another year.

Everywhere you look there is rebirth and renewal, but as much as the residents of the Magnolia State are humble about the achievements of bringing their communities out from under catastrophic ruin, they are all too quick to point out who deserves the lion’s share of the credit.

From the moment Katrina’s surge waters receded, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from around the United States poured into the region. Bringing tools, supplies, money, and many hands willing to do hard work, these organizations went to work. Rotted homes would be gutted, debris removed, foundations repaired, and new structures would go up. Groups like Habitat for Humanity (which is now the largest home construction firm on the Gulf Coast), Catholic Charities, Rebuilding Together, and others have brought people from all age groups, all 50 states, and from around the world to work in coastal Mississippi –  and throughout Louisiana as well.

Driving through the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, it is still possible after five years to see vanloads of volunteers hard at work. This section of New Orleans is not unique when it comes to the generous service of others. The entire Gulf Coast region has also become a Spring Break destination for college students and service organizations seeking ways to make a difference. Every day of the year, individuals, service organizations, and others travel to the region, where there still remains a lot of work to be completed. For every board nailed and piece of drywall raised, lives have been changed – be they the residents who live in newly repaired structures or those who came to lend a hand. And the results are obvious.

Five years later, traveling through areas of historical infamy, it is hard not to notice what now stands in place.

The Crescent City Connection bridges, which survived intact, overlook new waterfront development in New Orleans. The city has been committed to building better and stronger following Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Rich Cooper

The I-10 Twin Bridge Span, which crosses Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana, and Mississippi’s Bay St. Louis Bridge (US-90) – two of the region’s most important economic and transportation arteries – have been entirely replaced. Both structures, which had been smashed into dozens of unrecognizable concrete pilings, now stand higher, wider, and stronger than ever before.

The New Orleans Convention Center, home to political conventions, a papal visit, business meetings of all types, and the final refuge for so many of New Orleans’ poor and forgotten, shows no stain or remnant of the filth, frustration, and misery that occurred there. Directly across from it, along Convention Center Boulevard, stand restored and gleaming hotels and casinos that bear no evidence of the post-storm riots and destruction that made them all but uninhabitable.

The ear-splitting noise erupting from the Louisiana Superdome in 2010 is a far cry from the howling winds and cries of anguish that punctured its walls five years ago. The one-time shelter of last resort and ultimate symbol of dysfunction is now a place of pride for the NFL Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints fans and the “Who dat?! Nation.”

Along the repaired levee walls of the Lower 9th Ward are new environmentally conscious homes built by Hollywood superstar Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation. The new, innovative, single-family homes are pushing a city known for its culturally unique and historic architecture into newer, greener, and more inventive horizons.

New Orleans’ public schools, long known as one of America’s worst educational systems, have been completely overhauled, with new buildings, new leaders, and new reforms. The city is now the first in the nation with a majority charter school system. Giving everyone hope that a new page has been turned is the fact that test scores are rising and student and teacher performance are improving to levels never witnessed before. People from every corner of the city believe when it comes to their school system, more success is on its way.

These cosmetic and infrastructure changes are not the only things that are new to the region five years after Katrina.

A new era of leaders as well as new populations of residents are rising from Katrina’s ruin. New drive, focus, and energy in the form of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, a Democrat, and Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, have put everyone on notice that a new era of action is at hand.

Kay Wilkins, the CEO for the Southeast Louisiana Chapter of the American Red Cross, sees it every day. “We’re all tired of the ‘woe is me’ stage, but people should know that we’re not the same old New Orleans that people think of. We’re better prepared in so many ways.”

In describing all of the positive and proactive steps that have been taken to improve the region’s overall emergency readiness, Wilkins noted that “we’re creating the next generation of leaders here.” To back up her claim, she pointed to the fact that portions of the greater New Orleans area were actually getting younger and noted the increasing numbers of 18- to 24-year-olds who “come here to rebuild a home, or help out on Spring Break and make a difference. These people see hope and opportunity here and end up staying.”

Beauvoir, the last home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, has been extensively rebuilt following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Rich Cooper

She added, “We need leaders for the post-Katrina era, and we are building them right here in our communities.”

Organizations like the Southeast Louisiana Red Cross Chapter she leads, as well as the other NGOs that have come into the area to help with community assistance efforts, are all doing their part to strengthen the capacities of the region to be ready for whatever comes next. “It’s just incredibly hard to be resilient, but it’s something you have to do if you want to go forward.”

The first major test of that regional resilience happened on Sept. 1, 2008, when Hurricane Gustav, the largest hurricane since Katrina, struck the Louisiana coastline. Nearly three million people were evacuated out of the storm’s path, and Wilkins shared an obvious pride in the success of those coordinated efforts. With memories still raw from the lack of resources and coordination before Katrina made landfall, Wilkins heralded the new-found cooperation and partnership that existed with groups such as hers with federal, state, and local agencies and NGOs to get people to safer places. “There was a dignity to it [the evacuation]” and “a love for people who are often not loved.”

Wilkins’ pride for how the region has come along since Katrina is as obvious as it is infectious, but so is her use of metrics that everyone along the Gulf Coast uses. Progress is measured from where things were pre-Katrina and where they stand post-Katrina.

The things that people knew this area for – jazz music, great restaurants, a good time, and parties that have no end – remain constants, but amid the new construction, repaired history, volunteers coming to repair broken homes, and population demographic shifts, something else has changed.

A healthy case of cynicism has taken root in every Gulf Coast community when it comes to looking to the future. Collective frustrations at the failure of government at every level to be able to respond in their worst hours and being powerless to make any of the immediate aftermath better has neighbor looking out for neighbor and individuals looking out for themselves in protecting their futures more than ever before. The sense of ownership of what was lost and what’s been restored is strong.

There is also no interest anywhere along the Gulf Coast in rebuilding or restoring things that were in disrepair or dysfunction before Katrina’s roaring winds and waters took them away. What there is interest in is making things the way they should be and not the way they once were.

That distinction gives their cynicism hope and makes it healthy. Katrina revealed to many people and communities what really mattered and what made them unique. Every resident and business along the Gulf Coast knows that they are fully at risk for another destructive storm to lay waste to what they repaired and restored. What that future storm will not do, as Katrina failed to do, is rob them of their identity and spirit.

Some things can never be taken away, regardless of the powers that attempt to sweep them aside. They exist purely because they have always been there and always will be. That is one of the greatest lessons anyone can learn when looking at Katrina and the lives that have continued to move forward.

This article was first published in The Year in Homeland Security: 2010-2011 Edition.

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Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...