Hurricane Isaac 2012: Storm Reprises Painful Katrina Memories in New Orleans

ByIngrid Norton

Tropical Storm Isaac is heading toward the Gulf Coast of southeast Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama on a course eerily similar to that taken by Katrina seven years ago this week. At present, Isaac is expected to be a Category Two hurricane or tropical cyclone when it slams into the coast late Tuesday: Heavy rains and winds and flooding are expected, but storms in the Gulf of Mexico, especially large ones like Isaac, are fickle: Isaac could move east or west and intensify or weaken. New Orleans’ leaders have given instructions for residents to prepare to shelter in place. Throughout the city, many have evacuated. Others have lined up at local stores to buy bottled water, are cooking food that could go rancid during a power outage, and have filled up their gas tanks and readied their valuables in case the storm is worse than expected.

More difficult are the emotions dredged up by the coming storm. I authored the article below six years ago, when the pain of Katrina was fresh, half New Orleans’ residents still displaced, and the physical damage from floodwaters that submerged the city constantly palpable. The future of the city was up in the air. Over the past seven years, however, the damage has gradually and decisively receded, aggressively erased in some cases by federal rebuilding projects. New Orleans has regained three quarters of its residents and the metro area 90% (families were least likely to return: The city has 44% fewer children now than before Katrina). The X’s on houses from government checks for bodies were once ubiquitous but are now uncommon, sanded off by those who returned. Some Louisiana residents have permanently shifted to states like Georgia and Texas, which received the lion’s share of evacuees. Others have only come back in just the last year or two, abetted by programs like Road Home and the recovering economy. Many friends of mine here who were hit by Katrina are still working on repairs for their houses. Some have only recently emerged from the evacuation mindset and done things like hang pictures on the walls of their new apartments or organize CD collections. My friend Lisa’s children were 3 and 5 when Katrina struck. Though they had always slept separately before they evacuated to her cousin’s house, they clung together that night. Now 10 and 12, they still sleep in the same bed. Lisa wonders what things she does differently herself.

August 29 2005 is still a black line in the consciousness of many in New Orleans and the region at large, a great before and after; on a week like this, it has begun to throb. This article, reprinted from the first anniversary of Katrina, is a reminder of what is at stake.

From the archives: 

Reposted from The Daily Texan, August 29, 2006; additional reporting by Victoria Rossi

Kathy Holloway has evacuated New Orleans three or four times in her life. Whenever there was a storm warning, she did the safe thing and drove her family to Jackson, Miss., three hours away.

Last year, when the city announced mandatory evacuations for Hurricane Katrina, she did the same thing. But as she watched the levees burst and fill her city with water, she realized that this time, she wouldn't be coming home. That was a year ago today.

The Holloways came to Austin from Jackson because Holloway's father had already relocated here eight years ago to open a New Orleans-style restaurant. During Katrina, she, her husband and her two sons stayed at his house and watched the rising floodwaters on TV. Holloway saw footage of water covering the roofs of Bywater, her neighborhood. She remembers talking about the disaster, but not knowing what to say.

They had lost everything.

"We watched it every day, every minute, every hour," Holloway said. "Every day we're still watching it." She returned to New Orleans nearly two months after the storm and found all her possessions warped by the floodwaters that submerged her house.

Her sofa had moved, the beds had drifted against the wall, and the refrigerator had turned over. The waters had pushed her car into the yard.

"Everything was upside down," she said.

A native New Orleanian, Holloway said she wants to go back. But she knows that her city isn't ready.

Many of Texas' other 251,000 evacuees feel the same way. A recent study of Katrina evacuees by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission estimates that of the 62,000 people who evacuated to Austin and San Antonio, 69% still expect to be in Texas in six months. But when asked where they'll be in one year, only 54% expect to be in Texas. Looking two years out, only 42% expect to remain here.

Hurricane Katrina scattered hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast natives across the country, with the bulk of the displaced population from New Orleans. Currently, more than half of the city's residents remain displaced. An Aug. 24 New York Times map showing the location of evacuees based on postal change of address forms depicts evacuees scattered all over the country. Texas has one of the highest concentrations of evacuees, with roughly half of them in Houston. Inland Louisiana and Atlanta also have large evacuee populations. But the map shows small concentrations of evacuees in nearly every state in the nation. "It's a very fluid population," said Amy Elder, director of Texas Interfaith Disaster Response, which was formed two days after Katrina hit and has been working with evacuees in Austin since then. "Many folks would love to return to New Orleans, but we all know that's very difficult to do at this point." Elder cited decimated social services, schools and hospitals as some of the reasons why evacuees have not returned home.

"You know, the grocery store isn't open," she said.

According to a study by the Brookings Institution, a think tank that has studied New Orleans' recovery, rent prices in the region have increased 39%. In addition, only 17% of buses are in use, unchanged since January, and only 29% of the city schools have reopened.

"Anything you do in life takes three times longer," said Elizabeth Uchelo, standing in a doctor's office in uptown New Orleans after work Friday.

Uchelo returned to New Orleans a few months ago from Houston. Her friend Lydia Birknoff stayed in New Orleans. Both discussed long lines for common items like ice and driving miles to get gas. Everyone seems fragile, tense and less tolerant, they said.

"People are worse now than they were six months ago because they're getting nowhere," Birknoff said. "Now you feel like 'what else?' There are so many things against you." A year after being battered by heavy winds and submerged in flood waters, New Orleans is still heavily damaged.

On wide avenues, signs advertising remodeling and mold removal are staked into the ground.

In Lakeview, a neighborhood that Lake Pontchartrain overflowed into when the levees burst, many of the homes were so damaged they've been demolished. On some lots, grass stretches thigh level. In others, there is nothing but dirt and garbage.

Of the remaining homes, every third house has a "For Sale by Owner" sign. The doors of most deserted homes are left open, where there is nothing inside but withered possessions and blossoming mold. Most homes in Lakeview are boarded up or have been torn down, and the occasional silver-gray trailer sits in front of one of the houses or on a dirt lot.

Next week, Elizabeth Underwood is going back. Underwood is an artist who had lived near Lake Pontchartrain for a dozen years before Katrina. She left New Orleans the day before Katrina hit and bounced between the homes of friends in Louisiana and Texas for a few months before she got a Federal Emergency Management Agency hotel in Austin, where she knew no one. Her house took in 13 feet of water, she said. She said her time in Austin has been very trying.

"It was just loneliness, I felt stripped down to zero after building up a life there," said Underwood, 42, standing in an art gallery in South Austin where she has an exhibit of collages and items salvaged from her house, including waterlogged journals. Underwood will host a reading of the names of the 1,900 victims of Katrina today at the Dougherty Art Center in South Austin. The reading will start at 9:30 am, the time when the first levee broke.

When she went back to her New Orleans neighborhood, two months after Katrina, she was struck by the barrenness.

"It was mile after mile of gray, salty death," she said, of the recently flooded streets. "Cars on top of houses, cars in trees, and it was like water did that?" Underwood recently got a commission from the University of New Orleans to return for the next few months to create community art, and is excited about the chance to engage with those who have returned, she said. She will stay in an old trailer in a backyard while she decides if she'll remain in New Orelans. Underwood said the hurricane has pushed her back into a nomadic life.

"The notion of going back is gigantic," she said.

Some don't want to.

Shawn Knight's family has lived in New Orleans for decades, but since Katrina they've been scattered across the South and Midwest.

He ended up in Austin because the cable company he had worked for in New Orleans offered to transfer him, and he and his wife decided to stay for the sake of his children, he said. He said the school system in Austin is vastly better than New Orleans' and Austin's low crime rate is important as well.

He remembers one afternoon when his 8-year-old son came home from school and hugged him and asked if his parents could make his teachers in New Orleans more like his teachers in Austin.

"If I didn't have my kids, I'd be back, I'd have been back as soon as I could get back, it's the city where I was born and raised," he said. "But my wife and I had to think about our kids." Kathy Holloway has more mixed feelings. In the fall, she and her two children got a house on William Cannon Drive. In February, the city of New Orleans asked her husband, Clarence Holloway, to come back to his job as a heavy equipment operator, so he's been living in a trailer there for the past eight months. He comes to see his wife and children, who are 11 and 17, whenever he can. When the kids are on break from school, they go visit, Kathy Holloway said. Her daughter stays on a friend's couch and she, her son, and husband share a small FEMA trailer.

Her husband says he feels the strain of being alone in the city and that a year after the storm, he still hasn't heard from some of his nieces and his friends.

Kathy Holloway doesn't expect to go back to New Orleans until the holidays. Family and friends' return to New Orleans was upsetting because she wants to go back too, she said. Her family said the most difficult thing to adjust to in Austin is the "heat and the highways." Kathy Holloway said she feels the schools are better in Austin, but she and her children miss home. For now, she's waiting until all the city services are running. She can't imagine they will be back until three or four years from now, she said.

"I mean, I want to go back," she said. "I just hope and pray  that there isn't another hurricane."