You remember exactly where you were when those historic events in life occur. 10 years ago I was at a fitness conference at the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas. I remember walking past the flat screen TVs in the lobby and seeing a CNN report about the level 5 hurricane named Katrina. As time ticked by, the water kept coming and reports became more intense as Katrina struck New Orleans early in the morning on Monday, August 29th.
The devastation was unreal, unbelievable. The storm itself did a great deal of damage, but its aftermath was catastrophic. Levee breaches led to massive flooding, impacting hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. People were displaced from their homes, and experts estimate that Katrina caused more than $100 billion in damage. By the time it was all said and done, 80% of the city of New Orleans was under some quantity of water.
In the days that followed, there was a mass movement of 40,000 people moving into Austin. Our Convention Center became a make shift home for refugees moving inland, a place to shower, to eat and to sleep. Friends I knew went down to the center to pass out diapers, toothbrushes and necessities to those who evacuated with nothing left but the shirt on their back. At the time, I worked for 6-radio stations and we were deluged with the outcry for many needs ranging from bottled water to volunteers. Eventually we organized a full day radiothon in the lobby of a downtown Wells Fargo Bank raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Red Cross.
December came and we had a trip planned to visit the Big Easy, we wanted to see New Orleans for ourselves. When we arrived we saw trailer after trailer and remnants of a city that had been drowned. The response by FEMA would be best described as no response at all. I’ve never been more disappointed in my country. This was a city with a vibrant history. Still, nobody showed up. The US had a responsibility. There was an opportunity to make an enormous difference. Yet we did the minimal.
The scenes of devastation were real. Neighborhoods with nothing but slabs and standing mailboxes with steps leading to nothing filled the land, block after block. The remnants of life at the New Orleans Superdome were striking. People with make shift beds, piles of clothes and their belongings dotted the sidewalks. The images I saw on TV were real. Homes were marked with spray painted Xs and Os representing the people count inside. Civilian cars were stacked by the dozens next to the freeways and on street corners all over town. Devastation was everywhere.
We hired a driver to take us around the city and we ended up driving through the Lower Ninth Ward. As we passed concrete slab after slab, we stumbled upon a three-story metal building that was fully intact, untouched. The driver explained that this was the dwelling of multiple drug dealers. Ironically they survived unscathed. Surrounding the building were cars that, well, looked like drug dealer cars. The driver went on to explain how these guys had taken boats and rescued neighbors and elderly who were trapped by the rising water.
Despite the damage, death and the destruction, this did not deter the spirit of New Orleans. The city was alive with friendliness, food, hospitality, and heart. We toured the city, the museums, and the French Quarter, and visited the acclaimed Emeril Lagasse restaurant, NOLA. One sub sandwich shop we visited was just reopening for the very first time after recovering from damage. The legendary Commander’s Palace was still closed. 10 years later, there’s still recovery to be done, but in a city know for it’s parties and parades, the heart and soul of New Orleans still lives on.