Katrina Five Years Later: New Orleans Is a State of Mind

BY Spencer Michels  August 27, 2010 at 6:09 PM EDT

It’s very hard for me to separate my own experiences in the aftermath of Katrina from the flood of other impressions I’ve wallowed in since 2005.

I’ve watched HBO’s “Treme” and Spike Lee’s “If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise,” and I’ve seen and read dozens of news stories about the hurricane and the city. I’ve been in New Orleans a couple of times for the oil mess, and I’ve talked to all sorts of residents about the double whammy the area suffered and the fear of more trouble ahead. There’s always a hurricane on the horizon. What’s interesting is how often a scene in one program will remind me of something I personally experienced.

There was a picture of a wrecked boat on-air recently — I think it was Spike Lee’s documentary — and immediately I thought about Slidell, La., where I went a week after Katrina. The harbor was devastated. Boats were damaged and strewn about; they blocked the waterways and were coated with goo. We tried to take a boat ride through the mess to explore the devastation, but there was so much debris in the water our propellers became fouled. We never made it out of the harbor.

The folks we met were trying to help one another. That was obvious from the conversations I overheard. People came to help us move our boat. They gave us water, and they talked about how long the mess would affect fishing, which was their livelihood.

Then there are the pictures of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans and video of families — mostly black — returning for the first time to inspect their homes. Each time I see them, I go back to the time I walked through one of those houses, water damage so severe it could never be saved. The owners or renters shook their heads and wondered what they’d do. A week after the storm, activist groups were trying to drum up protests and hoping to rebuild the Ninth Ward, which still is unfinished.

I still have a button I bought that reads “Make Levees, Not War.” Levees are being built — big ones that could save the city in another hurricane.

Perhaps the strongest memory I have — jarred by scenes in dramas and documentaries — is of the Red Cross River Center Shelter in Baton Rouge, La., and a young couple’s home I went to after that. (I didn’t get to the New Orleans Superdome to observe that horrible mess, though I recall it as if I had been there.) But I do remember the hundreds of families camped out on the floor of a huge shelter in a building near the river. They were evacuees from New Orleans who had escaped in strange and dramatic ways, and they were trying to figure out what in the world to do.

My producer Catherine Mulhall (now Wise) followed a couple into the building. They were trying to find medical help. They also wanted to know if their mother could live at the shelter because conditions at their own apartment — near the law school where they had been enrolled — were horrendous. Twenty of their relatives had come to live with them; they were among the nearly 1 million people who were displaced by Katrina. One group had hitchhiked on the back of a truck after their 70-year-old mother was rescued from the floodwaters by climbing through a window and into a boat. At the house, they all couldn’t fit into the living room at once; they played or hung out in the yard, with the temperature nearly 100 degrees. This was not what the law school couple had bargained for. This was a test of their mettle. I wonder what became of that group; I couldn’t find them last time I tried.

Things may have settled down in New Orleans: The tourists are back, Bourbon Street is as loud and brassy as it used to be and about 80 percent of the population has returned to the city. The music is playing once again. And so are the memories of hard times in the Crescent City.