Some dates settle in our nation’s collective consciousness and can never be forgotten. August 29, 2005—the day that Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeast Louisiana, and became one of the greatest natural disasters in United States’ history—is one of them. But the devastation of Katrina extends beyond the physical, and its aftermath can be felt by New Orleans residents old and new.
To better understand the city—one so beloved by T+L readers—10 years later, we asked locals to offer thoughts on the hurricane, its destruction, and the city’s triumphs and failures as it continues to rebuild. Cedric Angeles, the NOLA-based photographer whose images illustrate this piece, puts it succinctly: “I would argue that New Orleans has the most beautiful and deepest soul of any American city.”
Here now, 40 unique voices chime in:
Alex Beard, artist:
Katrina’s too big for me to sum up in a few words. It’s either a voluminous tome or an expletive. I’ll go with the latter.
Ben Jaffe, Creative Director, Preservation Hall and bass/sousaphone player in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band:
It’s not easy talking about August 29, 2005. For those of us who lived through what’s become known simply as “Katrina,” it’s painful on many levels.
I was one of those people who, bravely or foolishly depending on who you ask, stayed behind. I saw the eye of the storm miss us entirely. The following day, I was outside surveying the damage caused by the winds and the rain of the storm, when a frantic resident on a bicycle rode by and alerted me that the levees had breached and the city was filling up with water. It didn’t take long for the situation to go from eerie to desperate. From quiet and peaceful to living hell. Nothing justifies our failure to protect our own citizens. Let’s never forget people’s lives were lost while others never even had a fighting chance. Eighty percent of our city ended up under water. Imagine a neighbor’s house catching fire. Now imagine your entire neighborhood disappearing. It was gruesome.
I am most proud of cofounding the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund, which offered emergency financial relief as well as 360-degree services to the musicians of New Orleans. We designated pillars of the cultural community and supported their return to New Orleans with grant dollars. I knew if we could get the cultural hubs of our community back to New Orleans, others would follow in their footsteps. And they did! First it was the Rebirth Brass Band and Kermit Ruffins, then the Hot 8 and Soul Rebels, James Andrews, Shannon Powell, and hundreds of others.
It took a year to get Preservation Hall back open. It took another six years before we were profitable. We survived on sheer will. That truly speaks to the strength of our city’s soul. It’s unbelievable that not only are we still standing today, but also we, the collective city, are stronger than ever. Music in New Orleans is stronger than ever.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu:
Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the federal levees were tragedies like none other. But Hurricane Katrina hasn’t been our only challenge; Katrina was just the most serious in a litany of problems that New Orleans has faced over the last few decades. Our population started declining in the latter half of 20th century and then the attacks on September 11, 2001, crushed our tourism-dependent economy. After Katrina, New Orleans also faced Rita, Ike, Gustav, and Isaac; the national recession; and, of course, the BP oil spill.
Now, New Orleans is on a roll and our progress is stronger than it has ever been. Our city’s comeback is one of the world’s most remarkable stories of tragedy and triumph and of resurrection and redemption. Our story is told in one word: resilience. We really had no other choice; it was adapt, or die. The storm laid down the gauntlet, and, with this huge tragedy, came a huge responsibility to make it right.
For New Orleans, Katrina was a near-death experience. But we rose to the challenge, resolving not just to rebuild the city that we once were, but to create the city that we always should have been.
There is no doubt that our progress has been remarkable, but Lord knows we have a long, long way to go. After all, although it has been 10 years, Katrina didn’t create all of our problems—they are generations in the making and are shared by every other part of America. But, what has emerged on the other side of 10 years is the premier example of change and urban innovation in America.
For our city, being resilient means more than levees holding back water and wetlands protecting us from storms; it means striking a balance between human needs and the environment that surrounds us while also combating the chronic stresses of violence, poverty, and inequality. We have a responsibility to get it right and to set the city on a more just and sustainable path for generations to come.
New Orleans is now one of the fastest-growing cities in America as no other city gets in your soul like we do. Tourism continues to set new records and we now have more restaurants than we did before the storm. We’re making headway on crime, construction is booming, the arts, music, and shopping are thriving and there is a new sense of life and vibrancy everywhere you go. But, we still have work to do.
So as we approach the city’s 300th anniversary in 2018, we are building a better, stronger and more resilient New Orleans. And, we are doing it as one team, one fight, one voice, one city—just like we always should have done.
Emeril Lagasse, Chef and restaurateur:
New Orleans is renowned for its architecture, music, culture, and cuisine. It’s undeniable that we have a long history that is composed of many influences and backgrounds that have blended together giving us a unique identity. New Orleanians keep our history and spirit alive by sharing experiences through food. We have always been serious about food and the saying definitely holds true here: “Live to eat, don’t eat to live.” Looking at New Orleans 10 years post-Katrina is a great reminder of how food is the heart and soul of the city. It always was and it always will be. Today, the food scene has exploded—not only by the sheer number of restaurants, but also by what it is the chefs are doing. We are pushing the envelope on what “New Orleans cuisine” means yet again. Yes, Cajun and Creole influences are still part of our foundation, but now we are really playing with what’s expected. And look, we may be expanding on what’s “traditional,” but we approach it with the same amount of love. Post-Katrina, we have added a whole new host of influences that are evolving our cuisine and redefining the food scene. To me, this evolution is yet another example of our resiliency and strength of character.
George Kourounis, Adventurer, storm chaser, and host of Pivot’s Angry Planet:
It took some time before we realized that history had just been made.
Being a professional storm chaser means that I’m used to seeing the ferocity of Mother Nature firsthand. I’d been chasing tornadoes for years, and had been in the middle of hurricanes before, but 2005 was different. The U.S. experienced four major hurricane landfalls that year, one a month from July to October, and I was there for each, filming the storms as they came ashore. But Katrina will always stick out in my mind.
There were a small handful of us who had teamed up and found a steel-reinforced concrete parking garage for shelter. I didn’t think any other structure would be strong enough to withstand the inevitable wind, flying debris, and flooding storm surge.
The worst part was the anticipation. We waited an entire night in the garage, not knowing what the next 24 hours had in store for us. The National Weather Service in New Orleans issued warnings about the possibility of household appliances and small cars becoming deadly, airborne missiles, and that tall buildings could sway in the wind to the point of collapse. At this point Katrina was a category five storm, the highest on the scale. Not a lot of sleep was had.
At daybreak, the storm started to slowly ramp up, and by the afternoon, we were getting blasted with wind gusts approaching 200 mph. There were pieces of metal spinning through the air like helicopter blades, and each raindrop felt like the point of a needle. I had to crawl from place to place or else get blown away by the intense winds.
When the storm eventually passed, the destruction left behind rivaled that of many tornadoes I’ve seen, but more widespread. Driving out of Gulfport, I had to navigate around boats, Jet Skis, downed power lines, and gas leaks. It wasn’t until I got halfway home to Canada that I learned how bad it had actually been.
Luckily, Katrina weakened from a category five storm to a three in the last hours before landfall. New Orleans never took a direct hit; if it had, the damage would have been much worse. It’s hard to imagine, considering how bad things got there. In the 10 years that have passed since the 2005 hurricane season, the U.S. has been lucky to avoid another major hurricane strike. I truly hope the people of the Atlantic Coast do not forget the lessons learned from Katrina. It’s been a long time, and memories fade, but the storms will return.
Big Freedia, Bounce Artist and author of God Save the Queen Diva!:
I think everyone in New Orleans has PTSD from Katrina and always will to some degree. I remember it like it was yesterday. I had just moved to a new apartment and was cooking crawfish and shrimp with my Uncle Percy, my sister and her newborn baby, and my brother, when my momma called and told us to evacuate.
We’d been warned countless times before. “Shit don’t never happen when we leave,” I remember telling her. “Except my house gets robbed.” By nighttime, the storm had come and gone, but the next morning, the levees breached. That’s when all hell broke out.
The only reason we lived was because we were on the second story of an apartment—we were able to bust open a hole in the roof, where we sat for days. Eventually we made it to the 610 Bridge. Baby, it wasn't pretty. It was sweltering hot; women were out of food and diapers for their babies; my beard grew. I was the farthest thing from a Queen right then. Thank god, we eventually got rescued and made it to an army base in Arkansas.
After Katrina, I was displaced and lived in Houston and that’s how Bounce started to spread. I was doing club appearances there three to four nights a week. My best friend—the transgendered Bounce artist Katey Red—went to Dallas. At that point, Bounce became more than a style of dance or music. It was a way to channel our pain and grief because many of the people who came out to the clubs were also Katrina refugees. I think that energy has stayed with Bounce and that’s why it still resonates with so many people. Like I said, I think we are all still a little on edge after Katrina. Our city is changed forever. But Bounce was our salvation. It saved us.
Dr. John, New Orleans native and six-time Grammy-award-winning musician:
I was on the road during Katrina and I had to call and tell my kids that it was serious. Some things are better now and some things are worse. In parts of New Orleans you wouldn’t know it happened, but the Ninth Ward is still not fixed. A whole part of New Orleans that was here—one that was part of the soul and spirit of New Orleans—is gone. Where are all those people now?
Dr. John's musical response to the state of New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, The City that Care Forgot, won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2008.
Liljose Tompkins, Make It Right foundation homeowner in the Lower Ninth Ward:
People don’t realize the mental anguish that we went through in the Lower Ninth Ward. It was not just about the devastation, but also the mental anguish of the city telling us that we were not allowed to come back to our area. A lot of people wanted to return—I know that for a fact because I worked as a caseworker in Houston for those displaced by the storm—but they couldn’t because they didn’t have the support of the city, nor Road Home, or any other programs.
Some people started calling us refugees—well, we were treated like refugees, not like citizens. But I can assure you that I’m a citizen. In our neighborhood people were always taught to be an active part of the community, to learn how to own your own land, and to be the best that you can be. We are a community of people that love one another and care for our neighbors.
So it has been devastating, and it is still devastating—there is a lot of work to do and we don’t know if it ever will get done.
But I thank god for the Make It Right foundation. If it hadn’t been for Brad Pitt coming in and investing in the area, I think the city would have taken it under eminent domain. He may not realize that he really saved a lot of lives by rebuilding this area. His foundation gave the Lower Ninth Ward the shot in the arm that it needed to come back and survive, and for that I’ll be forever grateful.
Eve Troeh, News Director, WWNO:
“Resilience” has become the buzzword of this Katrina anniversary, and I think we need to pick apart that word. To be resilient, you have to have gone through something; you have to have examined what was weak and what was strong, acknowledge the weaknesses, study them and systematize things so that they can become stronger.
Now, some things need to be made more flexible—recovery funding is a great example of this, where resilience means allowing funding to flow more freely and to be more flexible in the ways it can be used so that a new city can be envisioned, rather than simply replacing what was there before. In some cases resilience means making things more firm—like evacuteer.org, where we have established a system to help those in need of evacuation, but who don’t have transportation outside the city. Formalizing systems and processes is important, so that there is a structure in place.
We should use the word “resilience” to mean not just that we are wiping away the bad things that happened—you can’t sweep under the rug everything that happened, whether that’s losing a family member, losing a job, or not being able to return to New Orleans. When we talk about resilience, it should be an invitation for everyone to hold up their weaknesses and their strengths as individuals, institutions, or government offices, and really examine what happened and what can be done to ensure that it never happens again—so that we will never again go into that dark place where we are afraid that we will lose the things that we love most.
Michael Hecht, President and CEO, Greater New Orleans, Inc.:
My family roots in Louisiana go back to the early 1800s, but my mother married a Yankee, so I grew up in icy New York City. I corrected this adventure in my family tree at the suggestion of my wife. Fifteen years ago, we set off on a 10-week, 15,000-mile cross-country journey in a VW camper. When we arrived in the Big Easy, Marlene turned to me and proclaimed, “We should move to New Orleans—it is the only place in America where you know where you are.” She had a point.
So nine years ago, following Hurricane Katrina, we made the move. It has been the best decision of our lives. In New Orleans we’ve found an exceptionally rich and welcoming environment, where the only apparent sin is being boring. Professionally, we found a place where we can have access, impact, and appreciation—and project it on a global scale.
There is a reason why we see our friends from New York more now than when we lived in Brooklyn. New Orleans is one of the most human cities in the world. Like some people, it took a near-death experience—Katrina—to teach us how to live again. But we are back: still imperfect, but better than ever. After a decade of dedication from the community, the “new” New Orleans is ready to welcome the world.
Ralph Brennan, Restaurateur behind Brennan’s, Napoleon House, Red Fish Grill, Ralph’s on the Park, and more:
The aftermath of Katrina was a surreal, unthinkable time, no matter how you look at it. For a city like New Orleans—one that is so ensconced in the rich culture of its cuisine—to have shuttered its restaurants for one month felt like an eternity.
At last, on day 31, we aggressively pursued the development of a sanitizing solution for clean water, which allowed us to receive the first FDA license to reopen our French Quarter restaurant Red Fish Grill, which helped others to open thereafter. Folks lined up outside the door, eager to have whatever we were serving, even if it was served on paper plates. They were very basic needs we were fulfilling: feeding people, employing people, and providing gathering places for those who were still reeling, truly reeling, from the shock of it all. That sense of community was building again from our doors to the streets of the Quarter.
It took about a year before the grand old restaurants of New Orleans opened up again—Commander’s Palace, Brennan’s—but once they did, the industry was reenergized, with a new style of restaurants opening at an accelerated pace. No one could have foreseen the terrific boom in independent, chef-driven establishments that are squarely focused on local ingredients, local talent, and local heritage. They’ve shown us, once again, how much we have to be proud of here, and what a special place New Orleans has become to the country, if not the world.
Ashley Longshore, Artist, gallery owner, and entrepreneur:
In life, difficult times or challenges can inspire art. Ultimately Katrina really served as inspiration—it inspired people to help one another and pull together, and it inspired artists to be more creative. It caused so much pain and trauma, but a great way to relieve that pain is to create art. New Orleans is such a great city because it is founded on and surrounded by the arts—be it visual, musical, or culinary. It’s raw and edgy, and that’s inspiring. There is an undercurrent here of amazing growth happening right now. This is a city that celebrates art. We really embrace weirdness and I think that’s why for artists of all genres this is such a great city in which to grow. The city allows me to be my ultimate self, and to blossom and grow as an artist.
This city is like one giant love affair—you come here and you fall in love with it, it’s like a marriage. Hurricane Katrina came and it was horrible, but it was just a hiccup in this lifelong love affair that I have with New Orleans. I’m not going anywhere.
Charlie Gabriel, Musician, Preservation Hall Jazz Band:
I believe that music is the most healing thing we have. Everything that we feel comes out in music—in rhythm and in song. It nurses each and every one of us. Jazz is at the center of New Orleans. It’s a national treasure—the only art form that we truly created. We nursed this spirit of music here in New Orleans, and we have kept it alive.
There was a big price to pay for Katrina. New Orleans will never be like it once was. This is a very strong city, with a lot of love and spirit—but something was lost somewhere along the way, I don’t really know how else to say it.
It’s beautiful though, because a lot of people still come to New Orleans and I’m very happy now that there have been some great steps to rebuild the city. New Orleans is going to be beautiful, even better than before. But it’s always been beautiful to me. If you close your eyes, New Orleans is the most beautiful city in the universe.
John Besh, Chef and restaurateur:
It’s been 10 incredibly long years, and perhaps the shortest decade I’ve known, since the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. Ten years since the burning buildings, the windblown rubble in the streets, the sunken neighborhoods, and the chaotic scramble of people searching, rescuing, praying, desperately trying to evade the wrath of the storm.
I’ll never forget the burning rage I felt when I watched the news for the first time a month after our beautiful city had been so devastated. I heard them search to blame: “It’s Bush’s fault!” “It’s the Democrats’ fault!” “It’s the Mayor’s fault!” or “It’s the Governor!” I heard political pundits question the validity of rebuilding New Orleans, and I heard things like, “What’s so special about the Crescent City?” My soul screamed, STOP! We will rebuild, it doesn’t matter what race, political party, or religion you are—we are New Orleans!
And so we did, dish by dish, plate by plate. We fed each other and rebuilt a great city. The passion that stirred in us all defied both Mother Nature and the failed federal levees by creating a better city with more opportunities to share in her culture and where dignity for all was a priority. I saw chefs come from all over to rebuild restaurants and I saw those restaurants employ and give hope to others. Soon we had new housing, schools, streetcars, hospitals, and churches. I saw a city rebuilt through food and hospitality, hope and love. I witnessed the laughter, the tears, the dancing, and the frustration and have been in awe of the resilience of our culture.
A city is more than just a collection of buildings. It is the collective souls of those who dwell there. Here’s to our city, New Orleans. A beautiful, complex, and delicious mess. May we never go through this again and may we be ever thankful for those that helped us rebuild a better place than before… And sure, there is still work to do, but at least we know that tomorrow will be better and that the red beans will taste just the same.
Scott Bakula, Co-Executive Producer, New Orleans, Here & Now, and actor, NCIS: New Orleans:
I’m sure there are thousands, if not millions of Katrina stories. Everyone I bump into that was here during that time has a story. I hear people on set saying, “I’m going to be fine as soon as we get past August 29.” That date is like 9/11 down here. Most of us watched it from afar… It’s been really interesting to be here and to get to know the people and the geography of the city, which is so critical to understanding what happened. When I first arrived in New Orleans, they were just getting ready to host the Super Bowl, and the city’s been booming ever since. I think the film industry has been a big part of that. This city has a natural pull, but they’ve got to follow up—they’ve got to make it cleaner and safer. And hopefully with all that comes the influx of more money. Whatever happens with our show, I will always have a relationship with this city; it will keep me coming back for a lifetime. New Orleans is a unique place—one that becomes a home away from home for so many. Here, you always feel welcome.
To watch New Orleans Here & Now, a six-part docuseries featuring post-Katrina New Orleans, visit Time.com.
Archie Manning, Former NFL quarterback for the New Orleans Saints:
When they reopened the Superdome and the Saints started playing again, it lifted the entire city. They had a good team, which made it to the Championship Game, and that made it even better. During that game there was a big interception, and it almost felt like it was destiny. When the Super Bowl happened in New Orleans, it was pretty bizarre for our family because Peyton was playing for the Colts. But looking at the big picture, it did so much for the people of New Orleans—it was such an emotional lift for everyone. It was a way to forget some of your troubles.
Every part of that win seems related to Hurricane Katrina. There have been stories in other cities, but I don’t know if there has ever been one quite like this—where a city has gone through one of the worst natural disasters in our history, and its team turns around to win the Super Bowl.
The newspapers today are full of tales from Katrina; I find myself reading them, but I almost don’t want to. We’ve been through it once, and there’s a lot that you don’t want to rehash. But it’s also a time to reflect and count your blessings. I don’t call this a time for celebration by any means. Now is a time for reflection.
My husband and I often sit on the back steps in the morning with our coffee and try to come up with a short list of places we’d move to if “the big one” happened again. I’m the cockeyed optimist who believes that it’ll never happen and he’s the voice of doom. We’ve been having this same discussion for the last 10 years and still haven’t figured out any place we’d rather be. Why? Because despite the violence, which ebbed for a while and is now back in full force, the gentrification, and the sad, gap-toothed reality of neighborhoods yet to be rebuilt—this is still a unique city of friendly and interesting people, funky culture, and great food that appears to be on the upswing.
But this is a simplistic overview. How are we really doing as a community? We have tons of new restaurants and bars, but are we taking care of the things and the people that need to be taken care of? Even before Katrina, we have had such a problem with public education and now education is a huge part of where we need to focus right now. That’s why I’m trying to work with groups like Liberty’s Kitchen, which is just one of many grassroots organizations that are doing good work.
I think it’s important for all of these new small, chef-owned restaurants to start giving back too. Whatever you can do! I know that it’s hard for small restaurants to give, but you have to find a way, even if it is just giving your time. A lot of people depend on us to step up and help.
Cedric Angeles, Photographer:
My first encounter with Hurricane Katrina was far away from New Orleans. I was on a shoot in Miami when Katrina made landfall. The power went out in Miami, and, not wanting to face the mess at the airport, my assistant and I drove our rental car home to New York.
Days later, from my apartment in Brooklyn, I would watch, along with the rest of the world, the devastation of New Orleans.
I returned in 2006, on assignment for Travel + Leisure to shoot a portrait of a resident of the Lower Ninth Ward, where the worst flooding occurred. Driving through it, I remember seeing empty plots, cars on top of houses, just total wreckage.
The subject of my photograph was living in a FEMA trailer while his home was under construction. He showed me his home, bare to the studs. As we walked around his living room, he told me how he climbed into the attic of his house as the water rose quickly. He told me how he clung to the roof of the home in order to be seen and rescued. When I asked him why he still wanted to live there, when most of the houses around him were either destroyed or gone, he said that this is home, that nothing could take that away. All he could do was rebuild.
One has to understand the history of the city to know that most of the families have been there for generations. You can feel history here in everything. And Katrina has become a part of New Orleans’s history.
I like to think that the Hurricane had a hand in my own story—I met my wife, Mia Kaplan, at a gallery she was running on Julia Street in 2008, when I returned to New Orleans to photograph a travel story on the city. I had to take a portrait of her. She spent time with me during the shoot. She showed me the city. She walked me through the Marigny, to the French Quarter, to the CBD very late one night, describing her favorite things about the city.
I fell in love with her. I fell in love with the city.
Fast forward to now, we live in Lacombe, a small town north of New Orleans, on Lake Pontchartrain. New Orleans was just one part of the city that flooded during Katrina. The outlying parishes also flooded. My wife’s childhood home had five feet of water in it. Her mom had to rebuild. They did not leave.
This city came back because of the people. There is a sense of acceptance here; being unique is a badge of honor. This place is a magnet for those who are comfortable in their own skin. This is what New Orleans is for me—a symbol of hope, of the love of life. Laissez les bons temps rouler is a Cajun expression, meaning, “Let the good times roll” in French. Perfectly fitting for this city.
I drove around the Lower Ninth Ward yesterday, and most of the houses are still abandoned and the lots are empty and full of weeds. But then, you drive around the Bywater, the Irish Channel, Mid-City, even parts of the Ninth Ward, and houses are selling for half a million dollars. You hear the word “gentrification” being used a lot. I don’t think anyone really has an answer; everyone is just trying to rebuild the best they can. People talk about the soul of a city. I would argue that New Orleans has the most beautiful and deepest soul of any American city.
Tim Williamson, Cofounder and CEO, the Idea Village:
I am very proud of the progress New Orleans has made 10 years after Hurricane Katrina. Entrepreneurial activity in the city is currently 64 percent above the national average, as cited by the Data Center. I’d say New Orleans is well on its way to becoming the strongest hub of entrepreneurship in the South. Sure, you have Silicon Valley on the West Coast, and New York and Boston on the East Coast, but New Orleans is ripe to become the third coast for entrepreneurship. How? Imagine a Mardi Gras for ideas...
New Orleans is already the best in the world at connecting people. We’re a city of rhythms and rituals all organized around a unique cultural calendar, and each year the city is on a global stage for innovation and new thinking, as New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW) has become a don’t-miss event in March. NOEW leverages the Mardi Gras model of setting a date, creating a platform, and inviting everyone to the party—using business as the means for convening. Last year’s event engaged 10,585 individuals. Building on that momentum, the global technology conference Collision just announced its relocation to New Orleans, which strategically falls on the heels of NOEW, in April.
I encourage everyone to come to New Orleans this spring, where you’ll still experience our great food, unique culture, and incredible spirit.
Bryan Batt, Actor, author, and interior designer:
What people don’t know is that there are so many unsung heroes who did great things during Katrina. The policemen and the firemen and the Coast Guard—all those who stayed behind. Everyday citizens who did what they could. I remember the city rallying; there was this optimism. You cannot stop the soul and the spirit and the heart of this city. When something is that pure and that honest and that original, it is unstoppable.
There are horror stories, yes, but the people who survived are here to tell the story and make sure that this never happens again. We always see the capacity for human hatred and human ills, but human kindness and generosity is stronger, and that is what really helped this city come back.
I think that New Orleans is better now than ever before. There are so many beautiful, historic things here, but I think we can build on that. I love the influx of new people trying to create something here. I used to have to go L.A. and New York to work, and now I’m filming here. It’s wonderful that I can live in my hometown and be a part of the rebirth and the renaissance of New Orleans and also get to do what I love. There’s always been the same beat running through New Orleans, now it’s just jazzed up a little more.
Wayne Curtis, Freelance writer and author of the Last Great Walk:
“Don’t worry about us in New Orleans. We’ll be fine because we hate your music and we can’t stand your food.”
That’s what local jazz trumpeter and composer Terrence Blanchard told audiences when touring in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It always got a laugh. But it also goes a long way toward explaining why the city has rebounded as well as it has in the 10 years since the floodwalls failed.
Any visitor to the city quickly learns that the culture of New Orleans isn’t like that of anywhere else. You won't find it in grand marble edifices, or in orchestras or operas. Instead, it’s found in musicians on the streets, in clubs so small you need to duck to avoid the trombone slide, in the countless tiny kitchens where home cooks pull out tattered recipes inherited from their great-grandmothers.
Above all, its culture is not static, something spoken of by docents when enlightening us about “how it used to be.” The city’s cultural life remains alive and vital and evolving. New Orleans is a living, growing thing, not an inanimate monument that serves as a backdrop for selfies.
Among the key lessons from Katrina: It’s not enough just to prepare an evacuation plan, or make sure your insurance premiums are up to date. You also need this to survive: a culture you love enough to rebuild.
Terence Blanchard, Grammy award-winning trumpeter and composer:
When I think about Katrina now, 10 years after the fact, I’m amazed at the perseverance of the citizens of New Orleans. In the immediate aftermath, there was a lot of discussion about whether or not the city should even be rebuilt. The levees themselves were not being maintained properly, and the media was treating the people of New Orleans like “refugees.” When you put all those things into play, it’s amazing to realize that people still have a strong enough connection to want to return home. None of these factors determined the way that we feel about our city—its culture, food, music, art, and celebrations. These are the things that really make this city what it is.
We learned a great deal, because the water didn’t discriminate. If you were in its path, it took you out. A lot of people realized, at the time or after the fact, that we’re all in this together—we’re all in the same boat.
I’m amazed at how far we’ve come, not to say we’ve fully recovered, because we still have work to do. But to have people come through and be still looking forward is a feat in itself. We are not looking back. You don’t hear people in New Orleans blaming their situations on Katrina. People are thinking about how to move forward and how to be a more progressive city. And I’m extremely proud of that.
John Barry, Author of Rising Tide:
Because of Katrina we are conscious of what needs to be done to protect our city, and we have the plans to do it. Implementing the plan is the challenge, as well as getting the money to pay for it, and defusing any opposition. All we can talk about now is risk reduction. The risk is still there; there is plenty of risk. The concept of “100-year flood protection” is Orwellian—sounds safe in theory, but it’s actually the lowest standard of protection. It was only a standard for flood insurance.
But you also have to put this issue into context. It’s not about just New Orleans. New Orleans is in the news because of the devastation of Katrina, but that’s not to say that this type of disaster couldn’t happen in Houston or Miami or Boston. Depending on the rise in sea level, no coastal city is truly safe. The irony is that New Orleans has a better shot at safety than most cities, but the question is whether it will actually be protected by the implementation of such a plan. And that is a political question.
John Barry is also a former member of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East and the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which was formed in 2006 to oversee levee protection in the Greater New Orleans area, and filer of a lawsuit in 2013 against dozens of oil and gas companies for coastal erosion damages.
Grover Mouton, Director of Tulane Regional Urban Design Center and Adjunct Associate Professor of Architecture:
When the storm hit I was in California, but my wife was in town, and had been taken to a hotel by a friend. She was in the room when all the windows blew out. The next day, she was driven to Baton Rouge, as the water came down Canal Street, flooding the city.
Several days after the storm hit, the phone rang—it was Judge Gorbdy, Chairperson for the St. Bernard Citizens’ Recovery Committee, asking if I could construct a recovery plan for the Parish. When I returned a month later, the water level had gone down enough that I could enter the Parish, where no one was allowed without permission. The area had flooded completely and was devastated—whole streets were gone, buildings destroyed, the contents of peoples’ homes splayed out in their front yards. We were told that many of the people who lived there were former residents of the Lower Ninth Ward who had moved downriver to St. Bernard.
The existing landscape had been completely altered, so the plan was to simply break the areas into manageable districts and write guidelines for each. It was a moving experience to feel like something was being done, but still challenging to see buildings destroyed. I asked my students to develop recommendations for the Parish and present as a class exercise to the committee, which was good for them and for the citizenry at large.
The storm peeled back the veil and exposed the city’s innards—the brutality of life for the urban poor. It gave the city a chance to see the reality, the things that most people pay no attention to. The storm gave the city a chance to become a new place, full of young people, a new cultural and economic structure, trying to reestablish itself.
Harry Shearer, Actor, radio host, and author:
I adopted New Orleans and it adopted me. I came here and I fell in love with it.
It has been an unpredictably successful recovery powered not by any big plans—in fact, the only two big plans that have been carried out here, the closing of the housing projects and the closing of charity hospitals, have not necessarily contributed to the recovery. The secret of the recovery was that it was done by one person, one family at a time rebuilding their own house or their own business, with the help of their neighbors and the help of volunteers. Given all the lies that were told about how New Orleanians acted during the flood, I think it’s important for people around the country to know that this city has bootstrapped itself back into a recovery.
New Orleans couldn’t have gotten a worse deal after Katrina. Compare how New Orleans was treated after 2005 to the deification of New York after 9/11. The feeling was that this city had been orphaned by the country that it thought it belonged to.
Today, New Orleans is dealing with the problems of success rather than the problems of failure. We are not dealing with empty neighborhoods or crumbling infrastructure in the way that, say, Detroit is, or the way that we were afraid we were going to be. We’re spending a lot more time talking about gentrification, which is a problem of a successful city.
Amanda deLeon, Fashion designer:
I am a Louisiana native. I always knew, or at least dreamt that, I would end up in New Orleans. But when Katrina hit I feared that it would never happen. At that time I was living in North Carolina and just getting started with my fashion business, not knowing what to do with it yet. Eventually, we decided it was time to move back home, and where else would we go but New Orleans. The inaugural event of New Orleans Fashion Week had just been announced when we arrived. Since then, I have seen both the local fashion and manufacturing scenes become more than just passing trends. These businesses are becoming a viable part of rebuilding what was lost in the storm, and more. Designers and manufacturers in the area are creating jobs for people in the community, and inspiring a new generation of entrepreneurs and craftsmen. It started out with, “This is quaint,” and has moved into “This is the real deal.” It’s an uphill battle to get serious eyes on a fashion industry in the South, but I feel that we are making moves in the right direction.
The art world responded to us very generously after Katrina. There were benefits for the New Orleans Museum of Art in New York that raised a lot of money. It was a wonderful experience to have them reach out and help us in our hour of need.
Another thing that came out of that time was Prospect. Arthur Rodgers hosted a panel at his gallery in 2006, where he brought together members of the art world to ask where we go from here. Curator Dan Cameron suggested putting on an international art biennial in New Orleans that would bring back monied collectors from all over the world. It was an audacious thing to propose to this broken city.
But Prospect.1 was a phenomenal success, and it did just what Dan suggested it would do. Now we’re preparing for Prospect.4 in 2017, which will be one of the first events of the city’s tri-centennial celebration.
The city’s biggest fear after Katrina was that we were going to lose our unique identity because of all the people leaving—the musicians and the artists. But I’m happy to report, we were wrong. We came back. The storm and the floods couldn’t destroy the culture of New Orleans.
Ann Koerner, Founder, Ann Koerner Antiques:
We were living in an old house on the beach in Pass Christian, Mississippi, when Katrina hit. What it did to our house was not pretty. It looked like a teardown, but we persevered and restored, saving lots of broken furniture and objects for several years while work went on, and then getting them out of storage, seeing they couldn’t be fixed and throwing them away. Katrina had a way of letting you know what is important. Things? No. People? Yes.
The people of New Orleans suffered more severely, from the storm itself but also from manmade causes. Some of the stories were horrifying and some were touching in their humanity. Some were funny—New Orleanians are resilient in that way. Many people were displaced and had to leave. Some came back because they could and this is home.
Katrina spotlighted the good and the bad—cultural gifts New Orleans gives to the country that are conjured out of the place itself and the people who have lived here, as well as issues relating to our infrastructure that need fixing.
There is a certain sense of impossibility of living in New Orleans that seems both foolhardy and a desirable order of things. I’ve never read anything that adequately says why this is so, though many try. After Katrina, everywhere I went, I kept measuring other places against New Orleans, but New Orleans always won out. When I am away, I miss it—I know what it means to miss New Orleans.
Kit Wohl, Artist and author, as told to Laura Itzkowitz:
New Orleans has had its fair share of tragedies and fires and the occasional hurricane. I would say this was absolutely the worst. To see the amount of work that’s occurred in a decade is stunning. We have a new spirit of entrepreneurship. There’s a tremendous influx of young, creative people. I have friends opening galleries left and right. Old neighborhoods are facing new development. New companies are springing up. Our children used to go to college and leave for Atlanta or New York. Now they’re coming from Atlanta and New York and setting up companies here. It’s a vital creative community. It’s always been a fabulous place for creatives—look at Tennessee Williams and Faulkner. New Orleans thrives on creativity; it’s the best part of the city. We put our strange people out on the porch and give ‘em a cocktail.
Dee-1, Hip-hop artist and former middle school teacher in New Orleans:
My motto is: “Be Real, Be Righteous, Be Relevant.” For me, Hurricane Katrina forced me and others in New Orleans to “be real” with ourselves about what matters most in life. Did we lose our houses and our material possessions? Yes. Will our city ever be the same? No. But are we still able to make the most out of every day we have here on earth, and is that ultimately what matters most? Yes.
Hurricane Katrina has reminded me to “be righteous” during the 10-year recovery process. I didn’t begin rapping until after Katrina struck our city, so from day one, I got into the music industry with the mindset of being a change agent, a source of hope, and an inspiration for others who were dealing with the same stresses I was.
I’m excited about the future of New Orleans because we have a strong desire to “be relevant” as our nation grows over the next century. People the world over adore New Orleans’s culture, and we want to continue to show them why there’s no place like the Big Easy!
Lizzy Okpo, Cofounder, Exodus Goods and William Okpo:
New Orleans welcomes everyone to her beautiful city. Almost instantly, like a wonderful date, she offers you so many things minute by minute: start off with some beignets, then you stroll, then a shrimp po’boy for lunch, then you stroll, gazing into the most spectacularly styled homes, the streets so tight that you feel as though you’re embraced in a big hug. You continue to stroll. After a daiquiri or two, a home-cooked meal, and some jazz at Preservation Hall, you began to feel as though you’ve found your new home, so you stay.
I’ve heard from so many people how their visit to New Orleans turned into a long-term residency. It happens in an instant; we’ve all fallen deeply in love with this city. Its rich history, vibrant infrastructure, and loyal community—New Orleans is like no place else. She stands alone and proud. I cannot speak to Katrina as I was not there, but I am happy to share that we were welcomed with open arms. I believe in the generosity, the grace, and the love that the people of New Orleans give. The city has been this way forever and always will be.
Pastor Tom Watson, Senior Pastor of Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries:
I, like many other natives, continue to refer to our beloved New Orleans as the “Tale of Two, or maybe Three, Cities.” Recent news articles have described New Orleans’ economic expansion and job growth as strong but wages and education funding as lagging. New Orleans is a very different place 10 years after the storm. Because I was born, raised, and educated here, I can really see and feel the difference. I believe that as a community we are even more segregated than before, in spite of all the great efforts to bring about a so-called “one voice.” In my humble opinion, I believe the biggest crisis in the black community (and maybe the white community) is one of effective, credible leadership in various sectors, be they religious, political, civic, or social.
I hope and pray that our city will move forward over the next 10 years with some sense of equity so that we don’t leave so many others behind. Our goal for the next decade is to hold hands with partners throughout this region and beyond as we pave the way for the next generation. Because we want to ensure to the best of our ability that the next generation is a lot better off than this one.
Kermit Ruffins, Trumpeter, musician and composer:
I wonder how time flies so quickly. It feels just like yesterday that we were evacuating. It’s bittersweet, because while the city is coming together, there are a lot of people that never came back here.
I always said if this had happened to any other people, it probably would have taken a toll far greater than it did on New Orleans. We are a strong people—deeply rooted in our family and in our culture. Back in the day everybody used to help each other out so much. And Katrina kind of brought that back, briefly, as people really tried to give a helping hand.
But music is something that will never die in New Orleans, even in the face of a tragedy like Katrina. Today, there are more kids studying and playing jazz in high schools than ever before. There are kids—trumpet players—that put me to shame! I didn’t know that stuff in the fifth grade—it’s incredible.
We can’t do anything but get better right now. The culture, the food, the passion, and the love for one other and our people, it’s still there. You gotta pass it all to the kids.
When I came home a month after Katrina it was obvious that things were never going to be the same. Overnight, my neighborhood and the neighborhoods around me had transformed into either privileged enclaves of people with the means to recover their property and livelihoods, or they had become literal ghost towns—devoid of power, populace, and pretty much everything except National Guard patrols.
Very slowly, people returned. Positive change seemed a possibility. Good things happened. This was comforting, until it started to look like the same old dysfunctional city we all remembered, now burdened with the weight of well-heeled development, alongside crumbling, crushing poverty and unresolved traumas.
It’s almost too much to try to say what it really feels like. Do you really want to know, world-out-there?
Do you want to know that when I hang out with black young adults in New Orleans that they tell me about losing a friend a week to guns? Do you want to know that music in the neighborhoods is edging towards becoming a thing of the past due to changes led by “quality of life” advocates who have no respect for the vitality of culture unless they can place a dollar amount on it? Do you want to know that the school system has upended the family structure of the city? Do you want to know that untreated PTSD is hurting everyone (directly or indirectly) here and across the Gulf coast? Do you want to know that food prices are still unreasonable (where there are grocery stores at all) and that we nearly lead the country in almost all the damning indicators of social, physical, and sexual health? Do you want to think it’s just Mardi Gras everyday, everywhere, all the time?
I don't believe it’s too late at all, but I’m devastated by the fact that the traumatic events in our recent history have yet to create a catharsis that can engender the empathy and compassion necessary to stabilize our home and build futures for all of us.
Donald Link, Chef and CEO, Link Restaurant Group:
It almost seems like the last 10 years have been a blur. So much has happened; it has gone by really fast. My first order of business after the storm was to reopen Herbsaint as quickly as possible, which we did five weeks later. Lots of people chipped in and it was difficult, but at the same time it was very fulfilling and exciting.
I have been fortunate to be part of an industry that has rebounded and excelled post-Katrina. There are neighborhoods that are still struggling, and the hurricane brought to light other issues—like crime, poverty, corruption, and poor education systems—that we continue to face every day. Some progress has been made, but more positive is the gained sense of purpose that did not previously exist.
As for restaurants, we are the lucky ones. There has been a renewed interest in the food, music, and culture of New Orleans. I think the old saying, “you never truly appreciate what you have until it’s gone,” is very appropriate here. Now, more than ever, there is a greater variety of dining options as the influx of new blood, combined with local rediscovery, has elevated the energy in this city through renewed pride and adopted pride. New Orleans has always been a place that draws creative types, and it is this renewed energy of young creatives that continue to make New Orleans exciting—not just in food, but also in technology, film, art, music, and more.
I feel New Orleans is having a renaissance. There is an overall vibe of possibility in what we can be, along with a general embrace of our history. The restaurant scene is a great example. We don’t all have to cook the same food to be New Orleans. Creole has always been a mix of different cultures and ideas, and it is in the true essence of Creole that New Orleans continues to evolve.
Christopher Alfieri, Partner, Christovich & Kearney, LLP and Founding Executive Board Member, Prospect New Orleans:
I practice in the area of art law and I also collect the work of emerging artists from the South, especially Louisiana. The thing that I am really excited about is the St. Claude Arts District. I think it’s safe to say that the few miles between Elysian Fields and Poland Avenue on St. Claude are home to more artist collectives, DIY spaces, galleries, and nonprofits than almost anywhere else in the United States right now.
Many of these artist collectives had been around since before the storm, but it was really Katrina that galvanized them. Of course these artists were producing work before Katrina—New Orleans has always been a place for young artists—but Prospect came in and asked, how can we pull the city out of its economic malaise using art? It was like a revelation, and suddenly there were these amazing art installations all over town.
New Orleans has traditionally been a place for decorative arts and antiques. So getting local collectors and arts patrons to appreciate contemporary art has taken time, but it’s really taking hold, as people now know there is a place in the city they can come to for contemporary art.
Stirling Barrett, Founder and Creative Director, Krewe du Optic:
New Orleans has always had such a vibrant art scene, but artists are entrepreneurs too. So I think New Orleans has a real history of entrepreneurship and in choosing what you want to do. So much of what’s great about New Orleans is the ability to be who you are. Krewe was founded as a New Orleans-based brand, with the intent of presenting the city and its culture to the world, which is something we strive to do every day.
Oil, banking, and law have always been the predominant industries in New Orleans, and we are really excited to be a part of the national conversation of design-driven companies that are impacting, ultimately, the way that people think about New Orleans.
The cultural conversation that takes place in this city is extremely special. We want to spread that to the world.
JT Nesbitt, Motorcycle Designer and resident of the St. Claude Neighborhood:
August 29, 2005: The pole of moments when my life became a book of two chapters. A before, and an after.
It is a hardening experience to have everything taken away. I was at the height of my career that summer of 2005, regarded by many in the industry as a rising star with a fresh approach to motorcycle design. A seemingly endless parade of journalists, producers, editors, all wanting the story of the bike that had just launched. I was softening, believing my own hype, becoming comfortable and arrogant. And in an instant it was all gone, the factory destroyed, the team scattered, my phone no longer ringing.
Who was I to hold responsible for my misfortune? How could I even ask that question? The shame of knowing my own solipsism and self-centered egomania in the face of those in abject misery, and those floating. How can one even cast blame? Hollow answers to hollow questions that led nowhere. I was cleaning bathrooms and serving drinks for a living. I was 33 years old, and back where I was when I was 23.
Once more, this time starting with even less, I was rubbing two sticks together to create a studio capable of executing motorcycle design and production. Bienville Studios came from that chaos with the same goal of making motorcycles in New Orleans. After all the years of executing the improbable, I am still here, more committed than ever. “Made In New Orleans” has a deep and lasting meaning for me, a truly fulfilling and lasting endeavor.
Ever the temptation to relax creeps in and settles like a cataract, making everything out of focus and comfortable by finding happiness in the absence of pain, and trying desperately not to examine the terrifyingly short arc of my life.
What have I learned from the storm? My lesson is this—I have the strength to transcend tragedy without fear, that passion is the only thing that truly has value, and that the act of creation requires a mantra: “Today I will not be afraid of the work, today I will not be afraid of the work.”
Robbie Vitrano, Entrepreneur and co-founder of Idea Village, Trumpet, and Naked Pizza:
As someone who didn’t grow up among the uptown elite of New Orleans, I view the city pre-Katrina as pretty much dominated by an inside crew of people. They weren’t bad people, but they were playing an offensive game—the proverbial pie was shrinking, and every slice needed to be defended. So, as a result, any new idea was perceived as a threat.
This colloquial attitude was broken by a combination of factors: new ideas were flooding into the city, but it also played on the better angels of those people who were playing defense to be open-minded. There was common ground in collaboration, as they saw an opportunity to use their resources for the better. On top of that, you had this influx of interesting new ideas, talent, and art, combined with overwhelming compassion for the city. With new people came new perspectives, which was like a great discovery for the locals through the eyes of these newcomers. That was something that opened people’s eyes to a sense of possibility.
It’s hard not to categorize Katrina as a near-death experience. The things that go through your mind—what you should be spending more time on—become much more clear. Katrina was a time of rawness and clarity.
Thomas Beller, Associate Professor at Tulane University and author:
When I was a kid growing up in Manhattan I treated the physical landscape around me like it was a jungle, scary but also exciting and ripe for exploration. Then I got to my senior year of high school and realized that the perimeter of my world—uptown Manhattan, basically—was a rather boring preserve. The action was elsewhere, downtown. I began commuting to my social life. Eventually I moved down there. When I tell people I moved from the Upper West Side to, in essence, the lower west side, they look at me as though I am crazy to make that distinction, but from my point of view, it was a big deal.
A decade went by, and then, unexpectedly, I moved to New Orleans. I was no longer a kid, but had kids of my own. I live again in Uptown.
There are many fantastic places in Uptown; it’s near Audubon Park, Tulane University, and the streetcar. But the action is elsewhere. By action I don’t just mean the famous sights of the French Quarter, the Garden District, or even the streetcar views of wedding cake houses lined up on St. Charles Avenue Uptown. I mean the sense of vitality and energy that comes from a neighborhood where people are creating things, including their reputations, or trying to. For this, I have to get in the car and head down to the Bywater and the Marigny, where things are happening and where you can feel free.
I recently discovered the newly revitalized St. Roch Market, with its myriad food options and outdoor seating, on St. Claude Avenue. It’s so pleasant to wander the food stalls inside, the familiar urban clamor augmented by live music on some nights, and to sit outside in the soft dusk with friends and food, everyone comparing notes on what they got.
Not long ago I took a stroll after dinner with my four-year-old. We walked past the brand-new windows of the Market that had been shattered by some anti-gentrification vandals, but only partly, since it was shatterproof glass. Back behind the market I discovered the beautiful boulevard of St. Roch Avenue, and the pretty, human scale neighborhood of St. Roch. The small bungalows and palm trees stretched out into the distance. Sometimes New Orleans feels so vast in its charm, eccentricity, and capacity for rebirth. The housing is an endless tapestry of fascinating shapes and styles. The mood is open, encouraging, liberating. But peering at this little Shangri-la of St. Roch I thought, for some reason, nothing lasts forever. This, too, is an undercurrent that is ever present in New Orleans.
Thomas Beller's most recent work, J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist, won the New York City Book Award for biography and memoir this past May.
Additional reporting by Lauren Zanolli and Laura Itzkowitz.