Five years ago, my life, like the lives of millions of others, changed. I was one of the thousands of people who went to the Gulf Coast to try to help, to do anything to address what can only be called the summer of ultimate hell. Two monster hurricanes, Katrina and Rita, smashed into the coastlines of Mississippi and Louisiana killing hundreds, costing billions and forever changing our nation.
This week I’ve come back to the Gulf Coast to retrace many of the steps I took five years ago. Along the way, I’ve reconnected with people I worked with back then and have taken a good look at the lives, land and future of one of the world’s most unique places. For as much as the news media will offer their five-year retrospectives on the anniversaries of these two unprecedented and tragic storms, it can’t begin to capture how much lives have changed here.
While the street cars still go up Poydras Street, the music and debauchery overflow on Bourbon Street and the glass and facade of the Convention Center in New Orleans are pristinely intact, the wounds left by Katrina remain raw for some.
In some parts, any mention of the word “FEMA” will give you an almost instant reaction of fury. Like flipping on a light switch, some of the people you speak with will almost instantaneously recount for you their nightmares of frustrations, paperwork and bureaucratic battles that boggle the mind. After they finish releasing their angst about FEMA, many of them will then go into a blistering listing of the faults they see with the State and local governments who weren’t ready to deal with any semblance of Katrina’s fury.
If you talk to business owners and their employees in New Orleans and ask them how business is going, many of them will smile and look at you with a brave face and say, “Everything is fine.” But in the next breath they admit that things aren’t as good as anyone would like. Doors may be open but cash registers and sales are not ringing up.
Despite the tremendous rebirth of New Orleans with its new and refurbished hotels and restaurants, the crowds of tourists and conventioneers that once made the Crescent City one of the country’s most popular destinations, people just aren’t coming here.
Whether it is because of the country’s lingering economic woes, fears about the ongoing violence and crime wave that the city has encountered, or just post-Katrina and Gulf oil spill fatigue and wanting to stay away, I couldn’t help but recognize how light the crowds around the area were. Even from the moment I arrived at New Orleans International Airport, I noticed how empty the airport was. Even the plane coming here was smaller than the one I took just a year ago… and even that wasn’t full.
All of the things you think of when you say New Orleans – jazz, great food, debauchery, Mardi Gras, beads and more – are all back and in vibrant color with one exception: crowds of people.
Every community that goes through a traumatic Katrina-like disaster experiences some type of fluctuation with its population and tourism, but I couldn’t help but feel a sense of lingering fear among the friends and people I’ve met along the way, all waiting for the other shoe to drop.
While it would be easy for anyone of us to point to this summer’s Gulf oil spill as that shoe, especially given that it is just down the road for many of the area’s residents, the fear that there is something else that is going to happen seems to hang over the heads of many of the people I’ve spoken with.
People here are genuinely frustrated and suspicious of government, and it’s hard not to blame them. They’ve heard so many promises, seen so much corruption, and been plagued by bureaucracies and incompetence for so long that they just don’t want to hear from Washington, Baton Rouge or City Hall anymore.
In contrast to those experiences, they have seen and continue to see the incredible warmth, care and generosity that comes with having so many people and different service organizations rebuilding homes and restoring properties that most of us would have abandoned long ago. That, along with the victory of their beloved Super Bowl Champions, the Saints, has given them all a bit of hope that they can overcome any remaining obstacles.
But amongst that hope and football pride there is also a sense of exhaustion and looking for a break. Not to sound like an old country song, “but if it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.” This could easily be the refrain of the anthem that has been playing for them over the past five years. While New Orleans and the overall region are no longer knocked to their knees as they were during Katrina, they are certainly looking for that moment that gives them the second wind they need to keep moving forward with confidence and hope.
Maybe you, your family or your friends who are paying a visit might help bring that second wind along.
In fact, I’m thinking of going out to Mothers for Po boy and Pat O’Briens for a hurricane. Why don’t you join me?
Check out the other pieces in this series.