As the levees broke and the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina barreled up the mouth of the Mississippi River, Carolyn Parker‘s home in the Holy Cross neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana, was submerged, and her neighbors had to be rescued from their rooftops by helicopter. After authorities found no trace of Parker for weeks, the local newspaper pronounced her dead. But Parker had survived. She had been one of the last people to leave her neighborhood under mandatory evacuation and was one of thousands of other newly homeless victims of the storm.
Parker eventually reunited with her children and her brother, Raymond. She then became a voice for the displaced people of the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, who were scattered all over the country, waiting to come home. Parker gained instant recognition in January 2006 after her public rebuke of New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin—she railed at him and a committee of experts, promising that if they pulled down her house it would be “over my dead body.” The entire country took notice, and Parker says that when President George W. Bush was asked about her indictment of the government, he replied, “No comment.”
As the waters retreated, Parker was one of the first residents to move back to the Lower Ninth Ward. While she waited for funds to reconstruct her house, she lived in a 10-by-24-foot FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailer for four years with her daughter, Kyrah Julian, who had returned home from Syracuse University to help. Her son, Rahsaan, joined the family from California, where he had just completed his master’s degree, and he lived in the gutted shell of Parker’s home. Parker immediately began advocating for the rebuilding of her cherished St. David Catholic Church, the only Catholic church that welcomed blacks when she was growing up. It was the glue that held her community together, and its resurrection became a primary mission for Parker.
Parker gives viewers a guided tour of her home after its destruction. She recounts her early memories of segregated New Orleans: Because she was fair-skinned, she was allowed to ride in the front of the bus while her grandmother sat in the back. Parker may have been poor, but she was resourceful. To make sure her mother looked fashionable, Parker would cut pictures of the latest styles out of the newspaper, make her own patterns and sew new dresses for her mother. “And boy, did she look good going to church every Sunday!” Parker exclaims.