Living Katrina: 10 Years Later

As I set about documenting a city’s effort to rebuild, I instead found individuals falling apart as they tried to absorb what had happened. They were alternately depressed by the wall of bureaucracy they had to climb to file insurance claims, and angered that their government had abandoned them. In the Lower Ninth Ward – the predominantly black working class area – in Pontchartrain Park and in New Orleans East, I felt as if I were documenting an economic cleansing. 

The powers that be had decided to use the flood as an excuse to get rid of “undesirables” – a euphemism which seemed to be a code for poor blacks. Those who lived in the housing projects, which hadn’t flooded, were forcibly evicted. Charity Hospital, which only took on water in its basement, closed permanently as local, state, and federal officials made plans for a brand new medical complex in the middle of the city. Those affected were not all criminals – they were working people, middle class people – and as they spoke to my camera I became their therapist.

Even residents in the more affluent Uptown area, where floodwaters hit only two feet, were devastated. I particularly remember the registered nurse, whose husband had just received a kidney transplant the day the storm hit. She lost her job at the teaching hospital in the weeks following, and now cared for both her chronically ill spouse and an elderly father with Alzheimer’s disease in a city with unreliable electricity. She broke down in tears as she begged me to help. 

It was as if I was chronicling the destruction of the American Dream.

The ripple effect spread outward from New Orleans. Among those who were evacuated – the largest outward move of people from the South since the Great Migration – the stress took a toll. Suicides, strokes, and other stress-related diseases spiked upwards. Those with asthma, like myself, found their symptoms difficult to control. Public health officials suggested wearing a mask. But when so many of those I interviewed did not have access to one, I found that wearing it interfered with establishing rapport.

Having covered the Middle East, the AIDS crisis and gang violence in the inner city, I thought I was accustomed to covering trauma. I was wrong. Going back and forth between New Orleans and New York over the course of two years, it seemed to me that the mainstream media moved on to other stories. In Manhattan, people went about their lives as if a major American city had not been nearly destroyed. 

I became angry. Couldn’t they see nothing was normal? In classes at Columbia Journalism School, I looked at students I’d been teaching for weeks and struggled to remember their names. I lost vocabulary, became distant from loved ones. It took me a long time to concede I was also suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Lessons Learned: Covering a city that is 85% destroyed is like being in a third world country. Electricity was spotty, so the chances for bacterial infection rose. I spent long days in destroyed areas, and finding fresh water became difficult. Bring a water filter with you! Carry energy bars in case you can’t get back to food. A satellite phone would also have been helpful. And I really should have worn the N-95 mask that FEMA recommended for dealing with mold. Finally: that phrase “self-care”? Heed it.