People who live in New Orleans like to say that the city's fragility is what gives it its soul. Half of the city lies below sea level, and it perches precariously near an eroding coastline that loses a football field's worth of land every hour to the Gulf of Mexico. For nearly 300 years it has survived siege, epidemic, hurricane, and flood, and it will no doubt suffer more as seas rise and land disappears. Yet for those who live here, to live anywhere else is unthinkable.
In the seven portraits below, New Orleanians retrace their road back from Hurricane Katrina to new beginnings in the place they love. They share persistence and optimism—good traits for people who choose to live on the edge.
The Advocate: Risking his reputation to defend the right to be wrong
Jim Cobb is a New Orleans native son and the son of a native son. So there never was any question that he would go home again. Still, the catastrophic flooding made him take stock. His law clients were scattered. His house in Lakeview, eight blocks south of Lake Pontchartrain and farther below sea level than the lowest point in the heavily damaged Lower Ninth Ward, was a sodden ruin. His children's schools were closed. Their pediatrician had committed suicide days after the storm.
"All of us who went through Katrina came out the other side damaged goods," Cobb says. "Whether it was psychological, emotional, financial, no one who got wet escaped unscathed."
Cobb's route back toward normalcy detoured sharply, adding to his difficulties. Days after the storm, he took on new clients: the owners of the nursing home where 35 residents drowned in their beds. Sal and Mabel Mangano, proprietors of St. Rita's Nursing Home in St. Bernard Parish, faced 35 counts of negligent homicide and 24 counts of cruelty to the infirm.
St. Rita's stood on what passes for high ground in southeastern Louisiana's wetlands and swamp. It stayed dry during Hurricane Betsy in 1965. Facing Katrina, they chose to stay. A wall of water hit the one-story brick building like a tsunami. The Manganos and staff managed to pull only 24 residents to safety. For weeks, cable television featured ghastly scenes from inside the empty, mud-caked nursing home. The Manganos were vilified; Cobb got death threats.
Cobb hadn't defended a criminal case in 25 years. It consumed him in ways that upset his family and disturbed his law partners. "They wondered if I'd completely lost it because of the stress of Katrina," he says.
The trial played to a courthouse packed with grieving relatives. Cobb's strategy was to give the jury someone else to blame—the government, for building shoddy levees. He called Governor Kathleen Blanco to testify, prodding her to repeat what she'd told a congressional committee: "We would not be here today if the levees hadn't failed." The Manganos were acquitted on all counts. They may have been guilty of extraordinarily bad judgment but not criminal behavior.
Afterward, the Manganos retreated to anonymity. Cobb split with his law partners, wrote a book about the case, Flood of Lies, and now practices solo.
"Your kids survive, your house gets rebuilt, life goes on," he says. "If you live in New Orleans, you live on the edge all the time. You wonder if the next storm isn't going to wipe us out. We could be gone tomorrow, the whole shebang. As you get to each and every day, it's a mini triumph that we're all still here."
The Graduate: Surviving her upended teen years made her feel invincible
Kirby Hunter's most absurd Katrina moment? Sitting in detention for violating the dress code on her second day of high school in Louisville, Kentucky. Never mind that the offending blue jeans jacket, culled from piles of donated clothing in a Houston shelter, was the only coat the 14-year-old had at the time.
"It was fall," she says. "I was cold."
Hunter, her sister, Logan, then nine, and parents, Caroline and Warren Williams, had evacuated safely to Houston ahead of Katrina's arrival. After the flood, the girls enrolled in school. But the Williamses couldn't camp out with relatives for long, so when they heard about a one-room Katrina shelter in Louisville, they moved. In 2006 the family upgraded to a FEMA trailer in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, about 60 miles west of New Orleans, and they finally moved to McComb, Mississippi, where they bought a house with fervent hopes of putting down new roots.
Four schools, four states, two years. "I just hated not being stable," Hunter says. "Going from this school to that school. Living in this state to that state. Not knowing a thing about the area, or the schools or what was expected of me."
The Williamses were tied to the region through extended family and love of place. And Warren's old job as a Jiffy Lube manager restarted. In the summer of 2007, they moved back to their rebuilt house on the city side of the Industrial Canal. That fall the girls went back to class in New Orleans. None of Hunter's friends had returned to the city. That turned out to be the norm.
Katrina created the largest American diaspora since the Dust Bowl, scattering tens of thousands of families around the United States. But the most dramatic impact was the loss of children who never came home. It took the until 2010 Census for the true size of that loss to become clear. The overall population of New Orleans declined 29 percent between 2000 and 2010, but the population of children declined by 43 percent. In that decade, New Orleans lost 56,193 kids younger than 18.
Ten years on, the number of children remains disproportionately lower. Families with children are less likely to move to New Orleans. This makes the achievements of those who successfully navigate Katrina's upheaval even more remarkable.
Hunter graduated from high school, then from Southern University at New Orleans, where she earned her bachelor's and master's degrees. Now 24, she's a social worker at Tulane Medical Center.
Katrina didn't steal her childhood, Hunter says. "If I could push through that," she says, "I can do anything."
The Booster: Fighting blight one house at a time
In early 2006 Ron Wright was finishing plans to repair his house, which had flooded up to the dead bolt on the back door, when he first heard about the controversial proposal to shrink the city's footprint. He didn't take the news well.
"We were upset, angry, and disappointed in the politicians," he says. "But we had already made up our minds what we were going to do."
Wright, now retired after a 36-year-career with Xerox, lives in the large expanse of middle-class subdivisions known as New Orleans East—not far from where the CLOSED FOR STORM sign still stands at the entrance to the ruined Six Flags amusement park, a symbol of abandonment and decay.
The plan to shrink New Orleans arose because after Katrina the city's population had shrunk by half—from 494,000 before the storm to 230,000. The city couldn't afford to provide services to such a sparsely populated area. The plan also sounded to some like an attempt to reengineer the racial makeup of the majority black city by turning low-lying African American neighborhoods into green space. In New Orleans East, home to much of the city's African American middle class, momentum to return slowed.
"It left the perception that New Orleans East would be closed for development," Wright says. "That really discouraged a lot of people who were trying to decide whether to come back and created a huge risk for those who did."
Wright and his wife, Evelyn, moved home in November 2006, joining a New Orleans police commander at the end of the block and another couple nine houses away. The isolation of living in a landscape of unoccupied homes was almost tougher than the storm. There were no streetlights, no nearby stores, no open schools, no mail delivery. Wright cut the grass around the houses on either side of his. When the neighbors on one side threw in the towel, he bought the house, gutted it, renovated it, and sold it.
"Some of us had to be the ones who started to bring the neighborhood back," he says. "It was like-minded people who helped others make up their minds. I never thought the neighborhood would not come back."
Today, every house on Hardy Street has been repaired and reoccupied. Six new schools are under construction, and one of the city's largest parks has been replanted and repaired. But large swaths of blighted homes and commercial properties remain.
Wright now serves as head of a citizens blight committee that patrols the commercial zone to report violators instead of waiting for city code enforcers to discover them. The approach is working. Overgrown grass has been mowed, and trash has been disappearing. But he wonders how long it will take before developers bring businesses back. Large properties that once held apartment buildings, hotels, grocery stores, mini-malls, and the large Lake Forest Plaza Mall remain empty.
Wright is optimistic. He believes that the area's population—now hovering around 70,000—should be enough to persuade developers to buy in. "If New Orleans East was its own city," he says, "it would be the sixth largest city in the state."
The Builder: Restoring the Superdome's symbolic luster
Doug Thornton rode out the storm in the Superdome and watched with growing anxiety as the city began to fill up like a glistening lake. The back-up generator had fuel to last only another day and water was seeping under the door of the control room, threatening to swamp it. To lose the generator would plunge the dome into total darkness and chaos. National Guardsmen delivered fuel, then using seat-of-the-pants engineering, kept the generator dry. The power stayed on.
When Thornton returned to inspect the dome a week later, the squalid scene he found was even worse then when he left.
"The place was absolutely a cesspool," he says.
Mountains of debris had piled up. Floors were littered with quilts, ice chests, food. Toilets had overflowed. Abandoned dogs and cats walked around dazed.
The iconic sports stadium had also become a symbol of all of Katrina's despair. More than 30,000 people with nowhere to go sought refuge there, then huddled in semi-darkness and punishingly humid heat for five more days, as food and water ran out. Ten people died.
As Thornton picked his way past ruined stadium seats and looked up at the gaping holes Katrina had punched in the roof, he wasn't sure the stadium could be repaired or would be. Because of the trauma that occurred inside, people had begun calling for it to be torn down.
The building was repairable. But projections were that it would take more than two years. Thornton, senior vice president of SMG, the firm that operates the Superdome, was put in charge that fall. In December the NFL asked if he could accelerate the construction schedule so that the New Orleans Saints, the city's revered football team, could play on September 25, 2006.
Thornton was flabbergasted. "I didn't know whether this was possible," he says. "We hadn't hammered the first nail." But he said yes.
The project, which cost $336 million in FEMA, state, and NFL funds, would show the world that Louisiana, with its reputation for government inefficiency, could move nimbly. The symbol of despair would be transformed into a symbol of resiliency.
Thornton went into overdrive. The Dome became one of the busiest construction sites in the city. All the tasks involved gargantuan numbers: 16 million square feet of new carpeting laid, 800,000 square feet of ceiling tiles replaced, and 750,000 square feet of drywall installed. Replacing a 9.6-acre roof took five months.
Meanwhile, in Thornton's flooded neighborhood in Lakewood, not much was happening. He and his wife, Denise, were living in the second story while their main floor was rebuilt. But many neighbors, overwhelmed and bogged down, had yet to return. Denise decided to take matters into her own hands.
In their stripped-down living room, she launched Beacon of Hope, a citizen's group founded on the simple premise that volunteers working together could get their neighborhood restarted faster than the government could.
Both Thorntons were now working long days to repair their city, but on vastly different scales. Doug oversaw 35 contractors that employed 850 workers, while Denise ran around in rubber boots cutting back overgrown weeds, one house at a time. To Doug, she complained that the emphasis on restoring the Dome was misplaced.
"I would come home, and she would say, 'Why can't we focus on putting people back in homes?' I viewed it differently. We had to get commerce back, otherwise people can't afford to come back," Thornton says. "She would scold me, and we argued about it. She was angry with me."
The argument continued until the Saints took the field to cheering crowds and a palpably upbeat mood in New Orleans.
"When she saw the symbolism it created, this sense of resiliency and strength, she changed her mind about the project," Thornton says. "But she never let go of the fact that citizens had to take control of the recovery."
The Musician: Losing his songs, but saving his music
For Michael Harris, a lifelong New Orleans musician, there was no house left to rebuild. All Harris owned had drowned in the Lower Ninth Ward. The torrent that gushed through the ruptured levee on the Industrial Canal ripped through his house with such force it knocked the structure off its concrete slab.
Lost was a folder of 20-some songs he'd been writing.
"My goal was to record that original material," he says. "For the past ten years, I have been trying to pull it out of my head, out of my heart, and get it back down."
Harris, 61, plays bass guitar with a versatile range from gospel to blues to funk. He was on tour in Brazil with Sunpie Barnes and the Louisiana Sunspots as Katrina took aim at the Big Easy. He caught up with his 15-year-old son, Mike, in Houston the day before the storm. Watching CNN, they saw the water rise to the rooftops in the Lower Ninth as Harris tried to locate his extended family by phone. The entire 504 area code went down. "That's when I learned how to text," he says.
In the urgent scramble to find housing back in New Orleans, Harris lucked into a tiny apartment in the Lower Garden District. It came with the bare essentials: electricity, air-conditioning, a toilet, stove, and clean drinking water.
"I went through Betsy in '65. We lost everything, and I know what it's like to internalize that," he says. "The most important thing was to get Mike stabilized. To give him an opportunity to put his life back together, even though it would never be exactly the way it was."
Father and son slept on air mattresses and dined at the food trucks that dotted the city.
Their fortunes changed when two of New Orleans' most famous musicians, Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis decided to help the city's displaced musicians come home. They partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build Musicians' Village in the Upper Ninth Ward.
Harris and Mike moved into one of pastel-colored houses in 2007. Harris made the down payment with sweat equity; Harris worked as a carpenter on several of the houses in addition to his own. Former President Jimmy Carter worked on Harris's house and signed one of the beams. Mike, now 25, is a night bellman at the Marriott on Canal Street.
The village, which has a recording studio, is alive with music.
"New Orleans is that kind of city," Harris says. "Music is our universal language, the great equalizer. It doesn't matter your background or status. The only thing that matters is, can you play?"
The Chef: Fleeing chaos on Canal Street to cook in the kitchen
René Bajeux, a French chef, was cooking for stranded hotel guests the day the levees failed. He watched out a window at the Renaissance New Orleans Pere Marquette as floodwaters engulfed the hotel. The water rose two feet in Rene Bistrot, his restaurant, and killed the stove.
Bajeux and his family fled to a sister Marriott property as a chaotic scene unfolded around them. Looters broke into shops along Canal Street, the main thoroughfare skirting the French Quarter. Unarmed National Guardsmen and heavily armed Blackwater private security guards took up positions. A cop gave Bajeux a gun.
"It was unreal and intense," he says.
Two days later, Bajeux and his family boarded a bus brought in by Marriott to ferry guests and employees and their families to Baton Rouge. He still vividly remembers the forlorn face of another passenger—a young black boy, carrying only a plastic bag filled with water and his pet goldfish.
Bajeux's wife and two children moved to her parents' house in Madison, Wisconsin. Bajeux returned to New Orleans. He grilled food for first responders in the street in front of his damaged house in Broadmoor, then oversaw its repairs.
"Looking back, it would have been easier to move," he says. "We loved our house and our city. We had to find out why we wanted to stay."
The house was finished in 2006. But Rene Bistrot never reopened at the Pere Renaissance. For several years, Bajeux found work in restaurants in the Caribbean and Texas. By the time he tried, and failed, to give Rene Bistrot another go, the restaurant scene was starting to revive. But he never imagined a resurgence as robust as the one going on now.
Last year 9.5 million tourists visited New Orleans, triple the number that visited a year after the storm. The city has 600 new restaurants, including an expanded array of ethnic and contemporary cafes that has diversified the culinary scene beyond traditional creole and Gulf seafood.
Bajeux, now 58, was born in Lorraine in France and is one of a small coterie of French master chefs in the United States. This summer he joined five other chefs assembled by restaurateur Dickie Brennan to run an in-house cooking school and train the next generation of chefs at four Brennan restaurants. Bajeux teaches charcuterie, sausage making, and how to debone a chicken, a bit of a lost art.
Ten years after Katrina, Bajeux still occasionally has one of those Katrina moments. "When I talk about the kid with the fish, it makes me want to cry," he says. "You figure out your priorities pretty quick. It's not the kind of car you drive or how much money you have in the bank. You could be a dishwasher or a doctor. Eventually, we all end up on the same bus."
The Data Shrink: Using numbers to put New Orleans on the couch
If New Orleans had a therapist over the past ten years, it would be Allison Plyer. She's a demographer and executive director of the Data Center. During the confusing stretch known as the "bleary years," Plyer countered rumors and misconceptions with numbers that proved them wrong. She calls herself the data shrink.
"We were all living in a strange new world where nothing made sense," she says. "I would give presentations and explain trends, demographic shifts, recovery funding, and so on. People would tell me afterwards I made them feel better. As if presenting data was therapeutic for folks."
Before Katrina, the Data Center was a tiny, obscure nonprofit that helped social agencies with grant writing. It had never done disaster analysis. On the day of the storm, several of Plyer's colleagues created an elevation map of the city and posted it on the center's website. The next day the levees broke. Traffic on the center's website quadrupled.
"Suddenly everyone in the world wanted our data," she says.
The center's website posted simple instructions to help evacuees navigate complicated government websites. An "Ask Allison" feature took inquiries on every topic—from federal agencies looking for local population counts to people searching for a missing aunt. The team mapped schools and clinics as they reopened, publishing them with a "Best Used By" stamp, like the ones on milk cartons, because they quickly became obsolete.
Plyer also helped mount a successful challenge to Census Bureau population estimates for 2007 and 2008, using U.S. Postal Service counts of the number of homes receiving mail. The adjustment, an increase of 75,000, steered an additional $60 million in federal funds to the city.
"Why do people need to know about disaster data?" she asks. "Because this is going to happen to you."
Plyer counseled New York after Hurricane Sandy and helped officials in Italy and Japan refocus recovery efforts after earthquakes. The Japanese had loads of data but didn't know how to best use it.
Plyer advised her hosts to listen to what their citizens were talking about as they tried to jump-start their lives. In the swirl of misinformation that inevitably follows a disaster, people make major decisions about returning or rebuilding based on rumor, gossip, conjecture.
"I told them to look at the data to see if these assumptions were true or not, then put it together so people can then make decisions based on what's true," she says.
Ten years now Plyer now collects new data to help New Orleans move beyond Katrina recovery and establish itself firmly as a leader in coastal management and water issues—a growing global industry as oceans rise and coastal storms become fiercer.
"Things are not going to go back to what they were," she says. "We have to think about what we are going to create for the future, because it's going to be different. We're not going back to July 2005."
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