On August 23, 2005, the world paid little attention to news of Tropical Depression Twelve over the southeastern Bahamas. The next morning, it was upgraded to tropical storm status and dubbed “Katrina.”
It eventually became a monster storm bearing down on the people of New Orleans.
Residents were ordered to evacuate the city. Many—some who had experienced big hurricanes before and survived—decided to stay and wait out the storm. Some wanted to leave but couldn’t.
New Orleanians who were carefully tracking Katrina breathed a sigh of relief on August 29 when it became clear the storm would not score a direct hit on New Orleans, although it had devastated Louisiana’s southeastern parishes and then a large area to the east.
Then the levees broke.
There were 53 levee breaches, putting 80 percent of the city under water. The floods devastated tens of thousands of homes and other structures. We lost two thousand souls to the storm. The water covered whole neighborhoods in some areas, with nothing to indicate that life had once stirred underneath.
What has shaped the City of New Orleans since Katrina has been the heroism of countless people—of every class and color—who have used all the means at their disposal to save their neighbors from the floods. There were some who lost everything and often took it upon themselves to rebuild their neighborhoods and their lives as best they could.
I’m ashamed to admit that during the time of Katrina, New Orleans became for me a kind of screen onto which I projected my own prejudices about the South, my caricatures of powerless victims and heartless government officials, and my self-righteousness about matters of race.
I was grateful when New Orleans finally became a mirror rather a screen, when I understood my own complicity in the events that were unfolding on my television set many miles away in Washington, D.C.
Even though people in New Orleans still refer to events as “pre-K” or “post-K,” the city has come a long way both physically and psychologically in the last five years. The Gulf oil spill did little, in my view, to temper an increasing hopefulness about the future of the region. While the deep poverty and racial divisions remain, long-time residents and newcomers, young and old, have rolled up their sleeves to create a more equitable, more vibrant, more sustainable city.
A Super Bowl victory, a new mayor committed to healing our divisions, improved public schools, high levels of civic engagement all buoy our spirits. We remember also the thousands of people—individual donors and volunteers, nonprofit leaders, foundation staff members, and CEOs—who gave so much to help us rebuild and who have stuck with us these past five years.
This August 29, on the fifth anniversary of the hurricane’s landfall, the world will recall the most harrowing images from Katrina. I’ll gratefully remember those acts of generosity and kindness. Your sacrifices have meant the world to us. From the very bottom of our hearts, thank you.
Albert Ruesga is president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation