Living Katrina: 10 Years Later

Surrounded by Angels

By John Pope

In the newsroom, where we were covering the storm’s advance, the wind pushed plate-glass windows hard enough to turn them into parabolas.

It got worse. After the rain stopped, colleagues who ventured out on bicycles and in newspaper delivery trucks returned with tales of horror: Levees had failed, and water was pouring into the city. People who had stayed put because they were unwilling or unable to evacuate were perched atop their houses as water lapped at the eaves.

New Orleans was drowning. I could feel the palpable waves of anger and fear spreading through our dark, hot newsroom – we had lost power 12 hours earlier – as we realized that government at every level had let us down.

At that moment, we also began to realize that if New Orleans was going to recover, we – citizens and reporters alike – would have to shoulder much of the burden.

Katrina made us better and tougher reporters because we were writing about issues that directly affected us. We could draw on our own experiences with hard-to-find insurance agents and contractors, as well as clueless bureaucrats, as we wrote our stories. One colleague, who lived with his wife and daughter in a government-supplied trailer for 18 months while their home was being repaired, said that experience gave him a great deal of empathy when interviewing people in similar situations. He knew what to expect, what to ask, how far to push.

Volunteers at all levels pitched in to bring back their neighborhoods and institutions. They restored the city’s libraries and built a better, charter -based public school system. Women of the Storm, a group of about 140 women from all over the New Orleans area, traveled to Washington three times to invite members of the House and Senate to visit the city so they might appreciate the scope of the disaster and understand what was needed to bring New Orleans back. Their mantra: If you don’t see it, you can’t understand it.

An early plan for restoring the city proposed turning the most heavily damaged areas into green spaces that would be indicated on a map by green dots. People who lived in those parts of the city rebelled. In Broadmoor, which sustained heavy flooding, residents not only brought their neighborhood back but also gave a name to a gathering spot in their handsomely restored library: The Green Dot Café.

There has been federal help – we have a $14.5-billion network of levees, floodwalls and pumps that should prevent future flooding disasters – but citizens, acting together, did much of the heavy lifting. 

I like to think that we, reporters and civilians alike, were like Dorothy’s chums in “The Wizard of Oz”: In the wake of this monster storm, we discovered traits we didn’t know we possessed.

That frame of mind has endured, said Walter Isaacson, a native New Orleanian, in a piece he wrote for The New York Times Book Review: “The memory of Katrina and the excitement of having to rebuild something better continues to keep people in New Orleans engaged and connected. There’s an edgy creativity that comes from the shared aftertaste of danger, a sense of community that comes from knowing you’re in the same boat.”

Another colleague expressed the phenomenon this way: We live surrounded by angels.


Click here for tips from John Pope on covering hurricanes before, during and after the storm.