10 Years Later: Katrina Survivors Remember the Hurricane

Katrina 10
Members of the local community listen as U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the Andrew P. Sanchez Community Center in Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans on August 27. Obama heralded the progress New Orleans has made rebuilding since Hurricane Katrina battered the area 10 years ago, but said more needed to be done to overcome poverty and inequality. Carlos Barria/Reuters

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, Newsweek traveled to New Orleans to meet some of those who lived through the storm and some who helped rebuild the city afterward. As New Orleans now approaches its pre-Katrina population total and a milestone anniversary, many lifelong residents spent this summer remembering the difficulties of living through Katrina and the harrowing experiences that followed. These are some of their stories.

Irby J. Hornsby, Louisiana Rehab Services Manager, Stuck at the Super Dome

"I had been at the Super Dome twice during other storms. I had a few people show up but nothing happened. I arrived at the Super Dome on the Saturday before the storm and by Sunday, things started to get bad. We stopped counting after 300 people showed up. Communication was down, electricity was down, cellphones were down.

On Monday afternoon, I was standing at the command center down on the dock of the Super Dome. Water started rising, it just kept coming. It was within a few feet of the dock. We tried to move the disabled and special needs people across the street to where we thought they had running water. And they did for a time. Until they didn't.

We had planned to have have a food supply from the New Orleans Parish prison. Well, of course, that prison flooded so that went out the window. Everything we planned went out the window.

A few days later, the National Guard shows up and at the very least, they had some outdoor places for us to go to the bathroom. But we still didn't really know what was happening. It wasn't till about Wednesday or so that I was able to get on a landline to Baton Rouge and find out that the 17th Street Canal levee had broken—three blocks from my house. The communication was so bad, we didn't know about the levees or the mayor, we didn't know about the police chief saying babies were getting raped at the Super Dome.

On Thursday, they promised they would get us out by helicopter. They kept landing, taking off, landing, taking off. But we weren't allowed to go. By that point, people had been wading through water, dealing with taking food from concession stands. It was a really hard time. Friday, they were finally able to helicopter us out. We had a group of 33 but the pilots would only take 30 of us. Me and two guys had to wait behind, hoping a helicopter would come back. They finally did, three hours later."

Mike Cooper, Stagehand, Stuck on His Roof in Lakeview

"I'm not completely crazy for staying. I worked for the international alliance of theater and stage employees, preparing sets. My business agent asked if I wanted to work on the Wheel of Fortune set that was coming to town. I said yes and I start on Friday night before the storm. It was almost 20 tractor trailers' worth of set, all mimicking the French Quarter.

On Friday night, we film five shows. Saturday, I was sitting backstage with the head carpenter from Hollywood and the carpenter was showing me Katrina in the Gulf approaching Louisiana on his computer. On Saturday night, the producers decide to pull the plug. [Wheel of Fortune's] Pat [Sajak] and Vanna [White] got into a limo and we start taking down the set. I worked through the night Saturday and on Sunday. I was exhausted. We stopped work and they told us the mayor had ordered an evacuation. I remember saying, 'I don't want to die packing Wheel of Fortune.'

I was so tired driving home I almost fell asleep while driving. A buddy of mine said it took three hours to do a usually 20 minute drive to get out of town—I said I can't do that, I was sitting on the sofa having a beer. I thought I'd just unwind. A brother told me that I had to get out of there but I was just too tired and said I'd hunker down.

I got up at 5 in the morning and I had no electricity. At 7, it's raining heavier and at 9, all hell started breaking loose. By the time the water got to my steps, I was starting to freak out. I lived in a raised house about six blocks from Lake Pontchartrain. I remember getting an inch of water in my house. I brought up dozens of gallons of water, my food, a few things but initially, I didn't think it would get much deeper. Then it was ankle deep. Knee deep. Waist deep. Then it just overwhelmed me. I climbed the stairs, went up to the attic and I had a flash light.

You're like a rat, you're looking for higher ground. I kicked a hole in my roof as it was getting very hot in the attic. I remember thinking, 'This is something else I'll have to fix,' bitching at myself that I was kicking a hole in my own roof. I got on the roof, looking around and started to realize that hole was the least of my worries. I was on that roof until about 9:30 at night and I crawled back in to sleep. I was traumatized.

I had a portable radio and I wanted to listen to symphony music but the only station was WLL, a news station, and I didn't want to hear their plight. I heard Garland Robinette telling me what happened at the Super Dome. Then I turned it off. About a half hour later, a Coast Guard helicopter spotted me. They pulled over and they're right over my head and they go to drop the hoist to pick me up. I thought they might bring me to the Super Dome and I waved them off.

On Wednesday, I hear this guy screaming at me. It was a neighbor in a three-story house across the street. He says, 'I'm Skip.' I say, 'I'm Mike.' He asks if I have food and water and he asks if I wanted to swim over. I said, 'Skip, I am not in the mood for a swim but if we aren't rescued by 3, I'll swim over.' About an hour later, a boat was coming up my street. It was two guys, Dave and Mark, they saw me. I said we gotta go get Skip. The only thing I had to my name was a backpack with a T-shirt and a pair of shorts."

David Spielman, Photographer, Stayed at the Saint Clares Monastery

"I was, as everyone was, watching the storm. It went into Florida so we all kind of thought, 'Oh well, end of story.' And then Katrina popped out on the western side of Florida into the Gulf of Mexico. It was just growing exponentially, growing, growing and growing. I don't know if we were thinking or wishing that it was going to turn. At that time, I was single and living up by Audubon Park. I had made, early on, the decision that I was going to stay. My hindsight is perfect, my foresight is not.

I had been friends with the Poor Clare nuns and as I was helping my girlfriend, who is now my wife, getting everything together, I started helping the sisters to batten down the hatches, to close the cyprus shutters. In the last minute or so, my wife's father and mother decided they would leave. But I said I would stay, as the nuns had offered me an opportunity to stay in their monastery. I had no reservations about it getting blown away just because of the scale and size of the thing.

I vividly remember thinking, 'Wow, we dodged a bullet.' The radio station was off the air, telephone service was out, cellular service was out. It was in somewhat of its early ages, this was 10 years ago. So we weren't getting any news. Later in the day, I put on my running gear and went out to run to get my eyeball survey of what the immediate area was. I ran by my house; my house was fine.

The next day, I tried to go by [my wife's] parents house and the water was coming up. I stopped, talked to a few people, and they said the levees had broken and there was looting all over the city. There was no way to confirm that. Later, I went out again and saw a bunch of young men walking along Magazine Street, kicking in doors, going in, getting stuff, and pretty quickly, you started to sense that something was really going wrong. Again, no communications, no radio, no nothing. It was very different. It became apparent that the sisters should probably get out. It was not going to be quick and it was not going to be orderly.

The sisters invited me into the house meetings. They told me that this was one of the very few times that a man would be invited into a house meeting. I wanted to convey the seriousness of the situation. I suggest they consider leaving. They had a way to get out over the Mississippi River bridge. I told them very sincerely and very seriously not to stop and help anyone, because of the reports of carjacking and mugging. I knew it was their nature to help people, their most endearing quality, but it was not the time to do it. They left that afternoon. I would stay in the monastery and protect it from looting.

I would run my generator one hour a day, the idea was that I would sustain my fuel as long that I could. I would sustain my cellphone battery and a little refrigerator. I would continue to go out, look around and try to get a feel for what was going on. I was trying to figure out how I was going to document this so I started sending a daily email to everyone I knew, I used a phone jack to get Internet.

In the first few days, it was very few people. Those first 10, 12 days, if there were a dozen people uptown, it would've been a lot. It was really, really deserted. I was almost carjacked while out taking photographs. The police were invisible. We survived the hurricane but we did not survive the major levee system failure. We had a complete breakdown of social services and law and order. It was frightening. It was intimidating."

Jim Pate, Executive Director of New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity, Organized Largest Post-Storm Volunteer Group

"I live in the Upper Ninth Ward in the Bywater neighborhood. We are most likely the largest volunteer group, we've recruited and deployed over 150,000 volunteers since the storm. It has been in virtually any configuration you can imagine. We have had individuals who stay for three, four, six months at their own expense.

After the storm, we got our first 250 beds through the offices of then-Senator Mary Landrieu. We had beds at what we called Camp Premier, that was in December 2005. By May of 2006, we had access to an elementary school that we converted to basic housing. That housed up to 450 volunteers a night. Within six months, we had another camp in an old high school. There were 800 to 1,000 volunteers a night. We were the third largest 'hotel' in the city. We were the only Habitat affiliate in the world that had a paid chef on staff. We kept that open until the hotel and lodging industry got back on its feet, then we closed it as we didn't want to take business from them. In the early days, the communication was all done by phone or fax.

We ask for sweat equity, in lieu of a cash downpayment. Its 350 hours of sweat equity, 250 hours on other houses, 100 hours on their own house. We have rolled through eight to nine neighborhoods about three times each since the storm."

Dr. Johnny Lopez, Coastal Preservationist, Lost His Home on Lake Pontchartrain

"I quit the Corps of Engineers just months before Katrina in 2005. We bought some property in the north shore of the lake, we were outside of any levee protection. Our house was lost, we came back to a slab and the neighborhood was gone.

We had been through a number of smaller storms and we generally did evacuate. It's always a bit of a wait and see. Evacuation is the preferable thing to do in general. It's also kind of a disruption. You have to go under the right circumstances.

On Friday, we went to a Saints game; in the fourth quarter, my wife called me and said the storm is coming here, get home. My brother and I immediately left the Saints game to come home and we knew it was a bad situation. We started making the last minute preparation to evacuate. We went to a friend of mine that lives in Mississippi inland about 30 miles away. Well turns out, the eye of the storm came over us. It was dead calm but it took us a week just to clear the driveway so we could drive home.

I didn't see a lot of the live footage out of New Orleans—we had no TV, radio went in and out. One of the worst things was during the crisis, just the bad information. There were so many rumors. The normal news sources weren't there. We didn't know what to believe. Some things were true, some weren't. We were in limbo.

Before we went up to Baton Rouge, I had heard the I-10 bridge was heavily damaged. As soon as I heard the I-10 bridge was damaged, I realized we had lost our house. As a coastal scientist, I just knew. It felt like social order was just breaking down all over. We contemplated whether we should have a 24-hour guard on the property around our house, someone standing outside on the yard with a gun. That was the low point. That social network just seemed like it was breaking down at that time.

We could see where the house broke apart in our neighbor's yard. My wife had a depression glass collection and my wife's collection was littering our neighbors yard. We were able to salvage some things from it. The glass was heavy and sunk, we just walked around trying to collect it. But everything else, wood, furniture, floated away."

Alan Arthur, Opera Studio Stage Hand, Evacuated and Returned to a Flooded Home Even Though He Lived in a Raised Neighborhood

"I've been in the city since 1973. For Katrina, my wife had said, 'I'm going to Baton Rouge.' We had three boys and my dad, she said, 'You do what you want.' So I said, 'Well, I'm coming!' It took about 8 hours to get out. We took a suitcase, nothing major. One of my sons had actually thought to grab old photo albums. We had a camel back, one room is higher than the rest in the back of the house. We brought all our albums upstairs and sure enough, the bottom floor had flooded but the upstairs was alright. It was about two feet of water, just enough to ruin everything.

It took me about a week to get back into town. I went to the opera studio, where I was working at the time, and they still had water. There was an EPA person standing there, stopping people from walking in that water. 'It is properly toxic, if you don't have rubber boots, don't go in it,' he said. I happened to have a pair of rubber boots, I got a truck out of the studio and I took that back with us. The inside of the studio only had about eight inches of water, enough to ruin all the scenery and costumes, but we only lost one set out of 24. We got a crew together to go in and take everything out. We did that for close to eight months, trying to decontaminate things.

Because my house was all locked up in the heat, the mold was taking over. Fortunately, mold doesn't like plaster and I had plaster walls. I only had a few rooms were Sheetrock. The insurance companies were helpful, I was lucky. I was lucky all the way through this thing.

We thought about moving a lot at the very beginning. My brother-in-law said, 'Now is your chance to get out here.' But there were 80,000 flooded homes—who was going to buy mine? I owed money on it. It wasn't a choice for me. The people that came back were the younger adults and the ones who had older children. If they had small children or were elderly, they didn't come back. I had three healthy teenage boys, they helped me with the house. We did all of the gutting of the house, emptying all the personal belongings. I had decided since the flood doesn't really affect plaster just to take the first four feet out. I did all that myself. Then, there were no electrical contractors available. There was so much damage. I found a contractor that would approve my work if it was up to his standards. We had a FEMA trailer in the front, I studied electrical work at night and rewired the place in the day.

I've never really trusted the Corps of Engineers. I don't trust it and never did. This one storm, it wasn't the rain that had anything to do with it. It was the fact that it was slow moving, pushed all the water into Lake Pontchartrain, into the canals. And then the levees broke. They found breaks everywhere. They put all of these structures at the beginnings of all of these canals. They have all these structures now to stop it but that's yet to be tested. We basically take a chance living here—there's no doubt."

Byron Mouton, Architecture Professor and Building Business Owner, Constructed a Hurricane-Safe Home Weeks Before the Storm

"On Friday, I had a building under construction and I was preparing it for my final inspection to happen on the day Katrina hit. I was finishing a project that I had to board up and prepare for a storm and that was in the Black Pearl neighborhood. I was working near the river on a three-story residence when I learned the storm was on its way. I had built this place to withstand winds of up to 135 mph, that's the current code. It moved a little bit, some of the floors cracked, but it did not blow over and it didn't leak.

I did own a rental in Midcity that took on a few feet of water. I got caught in last-minute traffic, I was stuck on the highway and out of the blue, an old friend called and I was close to him. So I stayed in Baton Rouge. I'm on the phone in Baton Rouge speaking with friends who had stayed and they say, 'Things are fine.' Then they call again and things are not fine. We thought we had weathered another storm and then we heard the news of the levees breaking. That was devastating.

I was able to get into town before they put up the border crossing, my neighbor is a river boat pilot. He had to get into town for business. Every river boat pilot is accompanied by their driver or an apprentice. He took me along with him as his driver. We got in, emptied our fridges. It was strange, the entire city was being patrolled by the National Guard and humvees. It was intimidating. I got in to get clothes and things and we had to get out right away. We stayed in an 1973 old airstream trailer parked in a lot in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Then Tulane, where I work, sent me to Phoenix, Arizona. We had to relocate all of our graduating class to Arizona State University and put together a fall semester curriculum to keep our students on track to graduation.

I stayed in Arizona and I would return every other week, I have a design/build practice so I was able to work with my partner and we started picking up work repairing damage. That crew was able to get back into town to start working as early as three weeks after the storm. September through December, I was going back and forth between Phoenix and New Orleans. It took all of that time just to get back on its feet, to get power and water.

The contracting side of our business, we were busy and we are still busy. There is still much to repair. But the design side, it was not immediately busy. People were trying to get on their feet. Something started to happen about nine months after the storm. People were finally back in town, they're looking around, and they're saying what we have here and what we are working to preserve. People live in New Orleans because they love the nostalgia of the place and didn't want new, modern things. But all the sudden, after Hurricane Katrina, that attitude changed. People wanted other options and ideas. Then it became a very interesting place for progressive thinking architects to practice. It's good and bad. It's good for people like me who are dedicated and committed to the place. But then it's bad because you have this influx of architects from all over headed into this area and being opportunistic. Some people understood it was important to preserve the culture, but others just saw it as an opportunity to try new things.

Dr. Brobson Lutz, Physician, Stayed in the French Quarter During the Storm

"That Friday, I did what I always do when something is going on and I need more information: I go to Galatoire's and have lunch. They have waiters that have been there 20, 30 years and it's the best place to get information. I think they closed after lunch on Friday and planned to reopen the following Tuesday. I live in the French Quarter and always have since 1981.

When the hurricane came, there were five or six people here. The electricity went out. One of my doors blew open. The grounds, the gardens, had 6 inches or so of leaves and other items blowing in. After it passed, we figured the electricity would be back in a day or so and started cleaning up. On Monday, later that day, we started hearing that the levees broke. You always hear these kinds of rumors. Going outside, we did see where water was getting a little high just outside the quarter in the Treme. I had never seen that area flood before. I saw down by Canal Street, there was water in the street and there's when we thought it was more than the usual storm.

The thing that concerned me the most was when the municipal water supply stopped—that had never happened before. Never. In the quarter, there were concerns about fire. On Thursday, when the water went out, we packed up and left. We went to Alabama to my parents' home and the bedroom I grew up in. The landline telephone still worked down here. There was this wonderful woman, B.B., she worked for the New Orleans Police Department, she stayed and she had a landline so I would call B.B. every day.

Four days later, she said the water was back on, and I got right back. I got back when things were pretty much in a crisis mode and they stayed in a crisis mode until the military arrived. All of a sudden, these soldiers were marching up and down the streets with rifles. I don't know if those rifles even had bullets in them but it felt safe."

John Kennedy, State Treasurer, Traveled to New Orleans To Help With Evacuations

"Katrina is one of the most challenging things I've faced. Hurricane preparation is a bit out of my wheelhouse. I assumed like most Louisianians that our state and federal governments were prepared for it. I quickly realized they were not. When all the elected officials were called to a conference room in the state police headquarters, I knew we were in trouble when there wasn't a satellite phone in the place. It was going to be very difficult to communicate. I moved my family to a hotel in Baton Rouge. I had no flooding, I had roof damage and a lot of trees down.

The first concern we all had, as treasurer and as a statewide elected official, was to get people out of harm's way. There were people on rooftops, without water, without food, the elderly. People who were sick and refused to leave, and I don't blame them as they couldn't take their pets. After the levees broke, I headed to New Orleans like everyone else to try to get people out.

In terms of my treasurer's job, one of the first things I had to negotiate was that the national credit agencies immediately downgraded us. I was very angry at that—I thought they could've waited a reasonable amount of time before they started worrying about money. We still had people's lives at stake and they were worried about money. I was very aggravated. Then I was worried about the cash flow—we didn't know what the impact would be on our economy. We knew short term would be devastating but we thought, long term, we might be OK.

We were dealing with general financial concerns and it was also all hands on deck. I was at the causeway overpass out in Metairie. Helicopters were bringing people to the neutral ground there and we were getting people on buses. We had an enormous amount of difficulty getting people on buses because they couldn't take their pets. One lady said, 'I lost my house, my car, my job and all I've got left is my dog. You can't take my dog.' I spent a good portion of my day speaking with people and getting their names to return their dogs. That was things that FEMA and the state had not thought about. You can't ask them to leave their pets behind.

The head of FEMA came to Louisiana but for the first week, frankly, none of us thought about money. I had to think about it in the back of my mind because that's my job, but we had to get people out. We had thousands, thousands, thousands of folks on rooftops, in homes, in convention centers, in domed stadiums. We had to get them fed, get them medications and get them water. We had to deal with a lot of hysteria and damage. We had to give them hope."

John Lawrence, the Historic New Orleans Collection Director of Museum Programs, Prepared the Collection and Helped Appraise Damaged Art After the Storm

"On Thursday and Friday, I was preparing the museum. That finished up on Saturday afternoon, and then the rest of Saturday and Sunday we prepped our own house for whatever was to come. We wound up evacuating after the storm had come and gone. By the time we had finished securing the museum to that extra level and we had done what we needed to do at our house, the advisories were if you haven't left now, don't try to do it. Some evacuation paths crossed over water with traffic at a stand still. There were concerns that cars on a causeway over water might be in peril.

We lost power late Sunday night or Monday morning. By Monday afternoon, the storm had mostly passed and it was a lot of yard and tree damage. On Tuesday morning, when I went out to the car to listen to the radio, that's when we heard about the breaks in the levee and the city flooded. Thats when we decided to go. We went to northeast Louisiana, probably not quite 300 miles, to a little town called Oak Grove. The radio reports were delivered in a grim way: levees broken, city filling up, but until we saw it on television, that really hit it.

Whatever thoughts I had, they were really reinforced when I was allowed, under police permit, to get back into the city on September 9th and move the museum collection into another museum. We had to take a very circuitous route and be out by sundown. Upon arriving in the city limits, you'd see everything was covered in a grey dusty film and the only people you saw were soldiers. That's when I realized what had happened.

In the museum, we identify items that are unique to the understanding of Louisiana's history. We had to work with flashlights as there was no power and that process went smoothly. There had been planning that went in ahead of time. There were two 24-foot trucks of materials that were viewed as critical to our holdings. We were able to do that within the time we had allotted by virtue of the curfew. On the first two trucks, there were documents, books, visual materials, from colonial times to the mid-20th century.

Over the next few months, from October into early January, a number of things played out. I believe we opened to the public on October 7th. We had like three people the first day. Maybe one was a FEMA worker and two were National Guard personnel. But opening was a symbolic act not only for staff and the institution but for the city. We are not a city agency, we're privately funded, we have no public governance, but we certainly view ourselves as one of the cultural citizens of New Orleans. To be able to have that sense of normalcy of having a museum open was something we felt was important.

After a little while, we kind of looked toward how can we help people who don't know what to do with the family history that they are protectors of? How can we answer questions about what to do with flood damaged goods? We put together a list of people who work in different aspects of art and object conservation, got as many as we could who were back and who were available. We thought central points that seemed to be open were shopping malls. We did three restoration events at shopping malls. People who had objects damaged by the flood could get professional opinions on what could and could not be salvageable.

Sometimes, there were albums of photographs, negatives and slides and there was nothing you could do about that. But sometimes a painting could be saved. But whether the outcome was hopeful or dispiriting, the people who were there felt they had an answer, whether they wanted to make the financial effort to get these things restored because someone who knows had told them. That was one of the most valuable services we did in those early days."

Mike Park, Chief Operations Division for the Corps of Engineers, Worked on FEMA Recovery Mission

"I spent the first five weeks during and after the storm in Vicksburg, Mississippi to try to figure out how to cope with the event. Then I spent the next two years as part of Louisiana Recovery Field Office. It's the office of the Corps responsible for carrying out the missions assigned by FEMA for public works and engineering.

On that Thursday, I was at a change of command ceremony at a Coast Guard station just off the 17th street canal. The captain of the port was changing command and they had an event outdoors. It was August, summertime, really hot. Then Congressman [Bobby] Jindal was their keynote speaker. Following that, we were watching what was going on with the hurricane and we could see it was making a pretty aggressive approach. By that Friday, we were recognizing that we needed to batten down our homes and start making the arrangements to move up to Vicksburg to our command facility.

Preparing for the storm, my own home, was a matter of boarding up the windows. I had my mother-in-law living with us, she was in very, very frail health. She was in a hospice environment in our home. It wasn't until Saturday until we were able to make arrangements to have her evacuated to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. I had an infant son who we had just completed our adoption of on the 16th of August. We had three cats, a small dog, a sister-in-law, and my wife. By the time we got out on Sunday, it took us nine hours to make the trip. It was gridlock. It was pretty arduous with all of our menagerie.

The first reports of the levees breaking began to come in on that Tuesday. I remember receiving a call from Louisiana State Police and they reported to me that there was a breach in the west side of the London Avenue canal. I remember thinking, because it was within a half of mile of where my house was, that chances were that my house was flooded. Information was coming in piecemeal. Communications were very challenging. Cellphones did not work. Other communication systems, hardwired, were all down. The grids were all bogged down. We were trying to communicate by satellite phone and that was not very reliable under the circumstances. We were getting a lot of our information by watching what we could see on television. It was pretty challenged.

When we realized that there were breaches in the system, in the flood walls, we immediately went into acquiring the very large sand bags. We began game-planning how we would seal those canals off from the lake. We wanted to place sheet pile along the bridges. We knew we couldn't really begin to work on the system until we plugged these holes and got the city pumped out. Our immediate focus was on getting the water out of the city and you couldn't do that while we had all the breaches—you couldn't pump.

We were going to acquire every pump we could get—small pumps, large pumps, as many as we could. We wanted to restore the large pumps that were in the city as well. We managed to pump the city out in a much shorter time frame than we originally estimated. It was just because we just didn't turn away any pump.

I was able to get into the city for about two weeks after the storm by helicopter. I got the fridge and freezer out of the house—it was a science project by then. My mother-in-law died the day after the storm and we had no capability to recover her body. She was processed through the disaster mortuary. We were only able to have a funeral for her a few months after the storm."

10 Years Later: Katrina Survivors Remember the Hurricane | U.S.