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Looking Back: Remembering Katrina and the Lessons we Learned

by Elizabeth Owers | University of Notre Dame

F Posted in: News and Politics, Voices P Posted on: August 29, 2011
headshot elizabeth owers Elizabeth Owers

Six years ago today, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and my hometown of New Orleans. The immediate devastation and ensuing levee failures forever changed the region and the country. Now, as Hurricane Irene slams the Eastern Seaboard, the empty grocery shelves, power outages and flooded towns are all too familiar. Hopefully, neither Irene nor any other storm will match the destruction rendered by Katrina, but from this tragedy came some valuable lessons.

For millions of evacuees, Katrina caused a major perspective shift. In all the chaos, many people were not able to contact their loved ones and had to wait several days to see if they were okay. My family and friends were all accounted for, but it’s amazing how everything else seems unimportant when you’re listening to a faulty radio signal, trying to figure out where the levees broke and if your home and community are underwater. We were among the lucky ones whose house and school were intact, and we endured relatively minor inconveniences during and after the storm, but hundreds of families were forced to permanently relocate because they had nothing to return to. Small houses suddenly seemed like palaces because they had escaped the flood waters, and material possessions were rendered insignificant when we witnessed the loss of so much more.

Like many other natural disasters, Katrina displayed the generous spirit of the American people. I believe that the local and national governments acted as best they knew how, but they were simply unprepared for a disaster of this magnitude. As the cleanup commenced, government agencies and insurance companies caused countless headaches. While bureaucracies failed, victims of the storm drew hope from the thousands of volunteers who helped in any way they could. From the rescue workers who braved sweltering heat to save those trapped on their rooftops by the flood, to the high school and college students who spent their spring breaks gutting and rebuilding houses, to the stores and restaurants who offered a discount to those who were displaced, even the smallest efforts helped to facilitate the rebuilding process and make this horrible time a little more bearable.

Watching the inundation of our beloved city brought out an incredible hometown pride and passion in New Orleans residents. In Katrina’s aftermath, we made sure that the nation knew we weren’t going anywhere. Fleur-de-lis, a symbol of hope and of New Orleans, appeared everywhere, and six months after the storm Mardi Gras parades went on as usual. The arrival of Drew Brees and the Saints’ Cinderella run to the NFC Championship game the following year was a wonderful distraction and inspiration, but their loss to the Bears was a reminder that they, along with the rest of the city, still had much work ahead. Four years later, the city and the team were in a much better place–not perfect, but definitely “coming back stronger,” as Drew Brees entitled his autobiography. When the Saints won the Super Bowl, New Orleanians couldn’t even put their feelings into words. The post-Katrina frustration and hard work made the victory that much sweeter: for us, it was so much more than football.

I disagree with the people who say that Katrina was a blessing in disguise for New Orleans, a chance for the city to have a fresh start. This attitude disregards the estimated 1,836 individuals who lost their lives as a direct result of the storm, the hundreds who went missing, and the millions whose lives were shattered physically, financially and emotionally.  It disregards the area several miles to our east where Katrina made landfall, which was absolutely devastated and largely ignored by the media. The once bustling area still looks like a ghost town, and driving down the beach road there is a chilling experience.

I am not glad that Katrina happened, and I don’t believe that the Gulf Coast is necessarily better for having experienced it. Yet tragedies have a way of bringing out the best in people, and the resilience shown by those affected is nothing short of amazing-many had to rebuild their lives from scratch, but they would never want to live anywhere else. I go to school in the Midwest now, and I’m happy to be far from a hurricane’s reach, but I am still so proud to call New Orleans home.

Elizabeth Owers Elizabeth Owers Elizabeth Owers is a Voices Contributor from New Orleans, Louisiana. A sophomore at the University of Notre Dame, she is majoring in pre-medical studies with a minor in Catholic social tradition.

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