In anticipation of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which tore through New Orleans and the Gulf Coast with savage force on August 29, 2005, a team from A+E Digital Studios traveled to the region to film a series of videos chronicling a few of the many extraordinary stories of survival during the storm. This week, we caught up with five of the survivors featured in “I Was There: Hurricane Katrina,” and asked them to reflect on the changes they’ve seen in the past 10 years, and the importance of rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Katrina’s devastation.
- Poet Shelton “Shakespear” Alexander evacuated his home in St. Bernard Parish, near New Orleans, during Hurricane Katrina and headed to the Superdome, where he used his video camera to document the dire situation unfolding there.
- Brother Ronald Hingle, then principal of St. Stanislaus, a Catholic boys’ school in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, stayed on campus with about 125 other faculty, staff and students during the historic storm. Prior to Katrina, St. Stanislaus had never been evacuated in the 150 years since it was founded.
- In the days after Katrina, John Keller drew on his training in the U.S. Marine Corps to help evacuate more than 240 people from his New Orleans apartment building, known as the American Can.
- The extensive training rescue swimmer Laurence “Noodles” Nettles and his colleagues in the U.S. Coast Guard received proved vital during Hurricane Katrina, when they adapted their ocean rescue tactics to rescue thousands of people trapped by the floodwaters in New Orleans.
- Angela Trahan, whose mother and aunt worked at St. Stanislaus, stayed on campus with her family during the storm. When they were trapped in the cafeteria by rising water and debris, Brother Hingle and other members of the school community were able to break through the doors and get them to safety.
Q. What is the most positive change that you’ve seen over the past 10 years since Katrina–personally, in your community or in New Orleans/the Gulf Coast as a whole?
On a personal level for me, the positive change was that I realized I needed to go back to school. Because although everything was destroyed, it was a lot easier for the people who did have money to come back and rebuild, and to get their homes back the way they were. I remember when it all happened, everybody was on the same level. The nurses and the doctors that I worked with at the hospital were around town trying to get ice and food and everything for their families, just like we were. At the same time, maybe a month or two later they were in better standings than a lot of people in my community. That let me know that I needed to go back to school in order to better myself and my family’s situation. It really made me realize that I need to build a nest egg, in the bank–for me, for my children, for my family.
Brother Ronald Hingle:
One of the things that touched me is the resiliency of the people. That was one of the things that really kind of inspired us [at St. Stanislaus] to get going with our recovery. The kids were just so resilient and so excited about being at school, wanting to be at school–they weren’t too excited about homework, but they were excited about being back at school. Because that was their normal, being with their friends and their school family. I think 10 years later we have reached a new normal, not only in the community but our school as well. I think we’re all the better for it, because we’ve come to realize what the most important things in life are, and we’re really trying to value those more and more each day.
The positive changes we made, they were all great. Everybody came back, everybody was pulling together. When we all was living in FEMA trailers nobody was richer than anybody. Everything was wiped out, everything was pretty much damaged and destroyed, and so everybody was back on the same level. That was a great thing. Everybody was like “let me help you, neighbor, what you need? I’m gonna get this for you, neighbor.” But as the neighbors that had the money before, as their money start kicking in and their house start looking beautiful, they got the best house on the block, they’re like: “Oh, now y’all need to get them trailers outta here. Y’all making our neighborhood look bad.” So there was a positive change, then a negative change…. I teach poetry and work with kids [as a creative writing teacher], so I’m gonna say my most positive moment is the kids and the time that I’ve spent with them. It reminded me why I need to be here. People think the storm is over, but everybody’s still going to face their individual storm.
I do see a lot of change. Katrina affected a lot of people. I see a lot of change, I see a lot of gentrification. They’re moving out what made New Orleans New Orleans. But the positive change is I do see a lot of businesses coming here. The movie industry went crazy, and I’m involved in that, so it’s good for me. But it’s not good for everybody, and it should be a come-up for everybody.
Laurence “Noodles” Nettles:
For me there are two major changes I’ve seen over the past 10 years. One is how much I’ve developed a different perspective on human nature, different types of culture, different types of people. [The experience of Katrina] taught me to be more accepting of the differences, of all these different people…. But to me the biggest change was the city of New Orleans itself. The last time I went down to New Orleans, I saw–in my opinion–people living in New Orleans that had more pride in their city than I think they’ve ever had before. They were proud of being from that city, they were proud of the city itself, they loved their city, and before Katrina I never saw that.
Q. Have you seen that happen gradually? Or was it there immediately after the storm?
I think it was more of a gradual process. Everyone had to slowly build up in making it their home again, and when anyone needs to help create their homes, there’s a sense of ownership, there’s a sense of pride. I think everyone, all the way from the people selling things on the side of the road to the major businessmen, had to rebuild, had to help redevelop the city. And I think there’s more pride, there’s more love for the city–and you can tell.
Oh absolutely, people are extremely proud of being from the Gulf Coast, and very proud of their recovery after the storm. I think to be honest our city, Bay St. Louis, and much of the Gulf Coast is much better than even before the storm. But I don’t think it’s just a material difference. I think it’s a qualitative difference about life and about values and about what’s most important. People are a little bit more appreciative of each other.
Q. Why was it important to you to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after the storm?
I think the rebuilding is important because it shows the kids that life is not easy, and it’s not fair, but you can get through, you can start over. It did not just all end, and there’s no coming back. It didn’t happen overnight, but with the development of the new schools, the movie theaters, the skate parks, and things like that–it gave them a sense of hope that the devastation that I’m seeing around me is not going to be there soon. It showed my children that in the midst of something bad, you can also have something good come out of it, because as bad as Hurricane Katrina was, there are some great things that did come out of it. [Katrina] brought a lot of people together like it should have–I just wish it would have stuck, it would have stayed with everyone the way it did maybe the first year or two after Katrina.
Well, one thing I’ll say is it’s home, and there’s no place like it. And you don’t want to just pick up and leave, you want to value it and you want to do all you can to take care of it and bring it back. You can pick up and move and rebuild a house, but home is not just a house, or a block, or even a neighborhood. It’s where your heart is, it’s where people grew up, it’s where your family and friends belong, and it’s where you feel like you belong.
Nobody who lives in New Orleans said they shouldn’t rebuild this place. How could you tell me not to rebuild my home? An old man told me one time: “Young blood, sometimes when you own the land, you have to go through what the land goes through.” And that’s it–this is home. How many cities do you know that have the same culture as New Orleans? This city here has so much cultural, historical value to this country. It’s like getting rid of D.C.–you can’t get rid of D.C.! You can’t get rid of New York. We can’t say you can’t have New York, or D.C., or Virginia. These are historical places in the evolution of this country. You just can’t get rid of cities once they’re established, just ‘cause it’s flooded.
There are literally hundreds of different nationalities and cultures that have developed in the city of New Orleans. You had the Cubans, you had the Haitians, you had the Spanish, you had the French–all these different nations coming in and making this absolutely one-of-a-kind city that you’ve never seen before. It has so much heritage, and such an accumulated spicy life of all these different cultures. New Orleans is its own culture, and you can’t get rid of that culture. If somebody said, we’re gonna move somewhere else, it’s like: “No, you can’t get rid of this culture, this is a one-of-a-kind culture, this is a one-of-a-kind city.” Rebuilding–there’s no other option. You have to rebuild, because you cannot lose a culture like that.
Q. How do you want children to understand the legacy of Katrina and how it affected the Gulf Coast and New Orleans?
My main thing is the kids. That’s the greatest pull and the reason for me staying and rebuilding right now. These kids, including my own, they all need us. And I know what they’re going through and at the same time I know what their parents went through. When I get to work with them, especially the alternative schools and the detention centers, we cry together because I know that they had parents that had abandoned them, just left them out there. So my main thing was the children of the storm. At the end of the day, in order to get to heaven you got to be in the form of a child. That’s God’s greatest precious gift, and so I’m just here to protect it. That’s my thing, that’s why I’m here.
More than anything else, I want my daughter and all other children out there to be more prepared. People have a tendency to think it’s not going to happen to them, but guess what? It does. We will have another hurricane, which means people need to realize that, and get out of the frame of mind of “it’s not going to happen to me,” to “we need to be prepared.”
I’d also like [children] to know that they can not only be prepared, but also that they can successfully go through it, and they can come out on the other side stronger and better. A lot of the kids we had with us in the storm at our school were amazing. They remained calm, and they were a source of calm for other people in the building. They were also a model of faith for us, because they built their little altar to Our Lady of Guadalupe and they said we’re fine, we have our lady protecting us. I think they were a source of inspiration, that through this type of adversity they can show their character and can become even stronger people. That’s one thing that Katrina has taught us: about what’s really important. Things are not important, people are.
Interviews have been condensed and edited.