Katrina Plus 10: Looking Back, Looking Forward

photo of Claire Loup and colleagues

I am the quintessential "New Orleanian." I was born here, live on the same street where I grew up, and would never consider living anywhere else. While I was personally spared the physical devastation of Hurricane Katrina that so many of my family members, friends, and coworkers experienced in August 2005, that day—and all that followed—was simply incomprehensible. I heard it summed up like this: It was worse than the worst that could be imagined.

Vive La Nouvelle Orleans!
August 29, 2005, has gone down in history as the day that changed our world. It changed the look of the land and its people from Louisiana to Alabama. In the greater New Orleans area, it changed the way we express our connection to our hometown and one another. It changed our perspective, vocabulary, building codes, and school system. It changed our art, humor, celebrations, and memorials. It changed the way we prepare for the unexpected. It changed the way we mark the passing of time. No longer would we simply count in years and decades. A new era on the historical timeline had been born. Time and events would now be measured in terms of "before Katrina" or "after Katrina."

Not long after Katrina, I was traveling on business (can't remember where) and someone asked me (can't remember who) how long I thought it would take to rebuild. I do remember my answer: "Decades." Well, we've closed the books on decade number one. We've come a long way in restoring what could be or needed to be saved and in laying the foundation for our new New Orleans. We are a work in progress and I'm encouraged by how the city has evolved.

Statistical measures abound on the recovery of the city and all of the coastal areas destroyed on that day. But you don't have to read them; you can see them in action. A simple walk around the area that surrounds the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's New Orleans Branch, the central business district (CBD), reveals a pretty good snapshot of some of the positive changes. There is redevelopment and new construction of mixed-use buildings driving resurgence in residential living and new retail opportunities in the area. In the past, a walk around the CBD on weekends would look like a ghost town. Today, there are people out and about who are walking dogs, going to the supermarket—things normally found in the suburbs.

We live to eat and our options—and waistlines—are always expanding. While we probably have more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the country, apparently there's always room for more. The idea of a food truck was something we would only consider at a parade or fair, but now they are commonplace and a sought-out option.

We've had a significant influx of young adults who are revitalizing once-blighted neighborhoods. They're here teaching in our schools, forwarding green initiatives, and riding bicycles. Bicycles, bicycle racks, and bicycle lanes are popping up everywhere!

The task to rebuild was and is enormous and we welcomed the kindness of strangers. After Katrina, the number of nonprofits focused on community rebuilding and support services seems to have exploded. Volunteers came from far and wide to help. And they keep coming, year after year.

New Orleans is supportive of entrepreneurs, especially local ones. After Katrina, the fleur-de-lis and almost anything nostalgically symbolic of New Orleans became big business and can be found on anything from T-shirts to tattoos and everything in between. It was and is our mark that proves we're here to stay.

Our resilience in the aftermath of Katrina proved that despite the odds, miracles can happen. Our spirits were raised and they lifted our beloved New Orleans Saints to triumph when the Superdome reopened just one year after its darkest hour as a refuge of last resort for thousands who were unable to evacuate before Katrina made landfall. And just when we thought we'd seen it all, the New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV!

This 10th anniversary of Katrina is bittersweet. There is the reminder of tremendous loss, deep sadness, and lasting anxiety. But there is also the opportunity to look around and see tremendous progress. We are far from perfect, we are far from whole. But we are stronger, we are prouder, we are still here.

I often wonder how long we will continue counting and marking time in reference to "the storm" because after all, it has been 10 years. Wow, 10 years! Sometimes it seems like yesterday and other times it seems like a lifetime ago. But regardless of how much time has passed, for those in the Gulf Coast region, for those who took us in, and for those who took part in the recovery, the date will be forever etched in our collective minds. August 29, 2005, is the day our world changed.

There is a wealth of statistical data and economic updates that chronicle the destruction and rebirth of the regions devastated by Hurricane Katrina. To learn more about the greater New Orleans' area recovery, check out these resources: