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Hurricane Katrina Five Years Later: A View From Chicago

By Marcus Gilmer in News on Aug 29, 2010 3:00PM

Hurricane Katrina arrives on the Louisiana coast August 29, 2005.

If there is anything certain about the effects of the Hurricane Katrina diaspora five years later, it's that nothing is certain. Most estimates are that around one million Gulf Coast residents were displaced by the storm, scattered to all corners of the country, in cities in all 50 states in the country. Of course, most stuck close to home. According to one estimate, over 90 percent stayed in the southeast region of the country with almost 60 percent staying in the region that suffered damage from the hurricane. But a good number made their way as far north as Chicago. A Red Cross of Chicago report less than two weeks after the storm claimed that over 6,000 displaced Katrinaees had met with the Red Cross in the Chicago metro area. Media estimates put the total evacuees in the city at 8,000, an influx that reminded some of The Great Migration. But keeping track of everyone who was displaced was impossible. Many numbers come from those who registered with shelters while scores more never did so, choosing instead to just shack up with friends and family.

Five years later and we're still no closer to knowing how many people were displaced by the storm other than that it was huge. And we know that not all of them have gone back. Today, New Orleans still remains below its pre-Katrina population. Houston and Baton Rouge all swelled as evacuees arrived and never left. Even today, Baton Rouge is still estimated to have a population at least 50,000 people above where it stood before the storm.

One would hope that in 21st Century America, it would be easy to track down those that were scattered by the storm. But you'd be wrong. Many have moved back or gotten as close to moving back as they could. But many can't afford it and have put down new roots where they ended up. The suburbs around New Orleans, for instance, have experienced both a boom in population and economy since the storm. The city's racial make-up has also shifted in the storm's wake as the white population has decreased while the Hispanic population has increased. But a sizable chunk of the population remains far away from the city and there's no real way of tracking them. The databases are gone, ghosts in the Internet ether. Community groups and churches who played such a vital role in sheltering those displaced residents have long since lost touch with them. It may be many more years to come, if even then, before we get a full sense of the diaspora that took place, and that's not counting those that returned and even after giving the post-Katrina Gulf Coast another go, left, giving up the post-apocalypse for more sane terrain.

There are a million Katrina stories. I have mine and through friends and colleagues, I managed to track down a few others who shared a similar story, former residents of New Orleans who, for one reason or another, found Chicago their new home after the storm. A few took the time to talk with me and these are their stories.

* * * * *

Jennifer Corbridge was a well-settled transplant from California when Katrina struck. She had moved to New Orleans in 1999 and enrolled in Tulane University's part-time education program. Aside from a job as an office manager, she was also Hip Hop Director and a DJ for WTUL, Tulane's college radio station, and founded Dragon's Breath Records, which produced local indie hip hop artist Truth Universal. When the storm approached, Jennifer, like so many others, headed north, away from the shore. "We stayed in a hotel in Little Rock for a couple of nights, you know, watching what was unfolding on the news. And then the levees broke and we thought, 'We’re probably not going to go back to New Orleans for a while.'" She bounced around, first with a friend to Corpus Christi, Texas and then back out to California.

With the timetable for a return to New Orleans uncertain in the weeks after the storm, Jennifer made the decision to relocate to Chicago, a city she decided to turn to because of music. She had made connections online through message boards on the website for label Galapagos4. "I’d met a lot of people that lived up here, so I felt like I was a little more in touch with the scene up here, which was why I decided to move to Chicago. I felt like I had this built in community here, even though I was new here." But she kept eyes on New Orleans, putting together a benefit compilation, The Restless Natives: A Tribute to the Victims of Hurricane Katrina.

She also sees differences in her life since the storm, since moving to Chicago: "I feel like in Chicago I’m really focused on my age and where I am, you know, I should be doing better than this. In New Orleans, I’d be like, 'Where’s the big party?' Even as she admits she misses New Orleans - "A majority of my friends went back and I miss them a lot. I want to feel that sense of community that they all have." - she's happy with her decision to relocate to the storm even as she continues with ongoing changes in her life."Even if I’m not content with where I am in my life right now, I always appreciate new experiences and I feel like Chicago has offered me a lot and I’ve learned a lot from Chicago. Even though Chicago is technically a 'big city,' I still feel like there are small little communities and little scenes, everyone knows each other." Jennifer still thinks of sometime moving back; it's about "financial stability," about hopes of one day maybe something like owning a condo in the French Quarter for part-time residency: "I just love everything about New Orleans."

Shoshanah McDonald also sees differences between the two cities: "We’re so much more normal in Chicago. There’s something about New Orleans that kind of fosters eccentricity and people love that. And then people come to visit and they don’t get that. They don’t relate to that and they’ll never be New Orleans people.That’s fine. And visiting New Orleans and living there are way different experiences. But here it just ... things are just a bit more, well it doesn’t have that weirdness here. I like that weirdness." McDonald didn't move right away, returning to New Orleans after the storm and staying for almost a year.

McDonald lived in the Marigny, a neighborhood east of the French Quarter that escaped much of the flooding even though it sustained damage from wind and rain. She returned to New Orleans a few months after the storm - around Halloween - and tried to piece her life together, returning to her position as manager of the popular restaurant Bayona. "I think we opened on the 19th or the 20th, the week before Thanksgiving. And I’m so happy that I went back to do that. I think I would have regretted that the rest of my life if I hadn’t gone back and done that, although, it worked all through the winter, it was a struggle." The struggle wasn't just with work, but, like all of those affected by the storm, coming to terms emotionally with what had happened. "I was trying to recover from this in my head and in my heart. I was angry all the time and I was certainly not alone in that. I didn’t have any issues with trying to rebuild my house or deal with insurance or anything. But at the same time, I was still struggling. Everyone was getting worn out, we were emotionally kaput with everything. I was still happy being there. So I didn't want to leave, but I also didn't want to deal with it anymore."

As with others who left, Shoshanah was wracked with guilt by her decision to leave. "I felt guilty that I didn’t more volunteering and going out and cleaning up houses and all that stuff. I was focusing all of my energy on surviving. I was emotionally spent, I was drowning. I’ve had people say that have said, 'The people that were meant to stay stayed there. Those that needed to go, went.' You can’t make a judgment. It’s a personal thing and I understand that. But at the same time, I remember driving out of New Orleans and regretting it." The guilt was further amplified by this spring's oil spill, an incident that derailed her preliminary plans to explore moving back.

But a year after the storm, it was family that pulled Shoshanah to the Midwest. Originally from Michigan, she was familiar with Chicago having visited numerous times in the past. Her feelings on the differences between the two cities aside, she has long enjoyed Chicago. "I’ve always loved Chicago. My dad used to bring me here when I was a teenager and it always felt like good energy here. It’s more manageable than I ever thought New York would be or Detroit." Being closer to her parents was a big factor in her decision to live here. "I missed my family and I realized pretty quickly that those relationships meant more to me than I had known before that. I wanted to know my parents before they get too old and pass away."

Coming to terms with her move, she says, was hard, but she's managed to understand why it was for the best. "I might have been lost. And not been able to recover parts of myself if I hadn’t left. How do you second guess that? It was what it was. It was what I needed at the time. I miss New Orleans everyday and I’ve wanted to move back several times and I’ve started planning. And I know that, in a sense, you can’t go back. Especially in a situation like this. I’m never going to have the life I had before the hurricane. It doesn’t exist. It’s gone. You can’t get it back."

She's enjoyed Chicago and find similarities between the two. "I see a lot of parallels between the musical cultures between here and there. And I definitely feel like there’s this line extending north and south between New Orleans and Chicago. It felt like I knew several people who came here after the storm even if they moved back." But she still thinks of going back: "It’s never going to be off the board. I’m still thinking about it. I don’t know if I could ever let go of that. It scares me a bit, having that duality in my head. I love New Orleans, I’m still in love with it I will always be in love with it. I fell in love there and I fell in love with that city."

Like Shoshanah, it was family that eventually brought Anthony Jones to Chicago after Katrina. His mother’s family was originally from Jackson, Mississippi, but she had moved to Gary, Indiana where Anthony lived until he moved himself to New Orleans in 1991. For 14 years, he worked, danced ballet with a few companies, and just lived the life of New Orleans. A resident of Treme and a student at Dillard University at the time of the storm, Anthony said, “I felt a little complacent but I felt like I was in a pretty good place.”

“Before Katrina, in the 14 years I lived there, I had never evacuated for a storm.” But it was a friend that got Anthony thinking about leaving ahead of the storm. The Saturday before Katrina struck, hanging out in a bar watching the track of a storm, the friend declared his intentions of leaving. “He was older than us, kind of the statesman of our little group, so we thought, ‘Well, if he’s leaving, maybe we out to think about leaving, too.’”

Another friend had family in Hattiesburg, Mississippi where a group evacuated to for the storm. “I was in a four bedroom house for a week with no electricity, no plumbing, no gas, with eight gay men, one straight guy, three straight women, two dogs, a cat, a ferret, and a drag queen.” The next day, they finally heard word that the levees had broken. “We realized, this is no temporary thing, this is something we have to sit and think about: what are we going to do, where are we going to do, and what is the state of the life we left behind. It was traumatic.”

After a week, after waiting through a miles-long line for gas at the only Hattiesburg gas station with fuel, Anthony headed north to his mother and step-father’s house in Gary. His step-father was beginning to suffer from late-stage Parkinson’s disease and his mother needed assistance. “I was feeling a little complacent in New Orleans and I had no idea when I would be able to go back. I wanted to but I didn’t know when. But the idea of just sitting around my mother’s house was frustrating.” So Anthony took advantage of a program offering free tuition to students displaced by the storm, enrolling at Colombia College’s radio production and broadcast program (he graduated in May 2010). But helping his mother care for his step-father and other support for his family led Anthony to stay close, to move to Chicago instead of ultimately moving back to New Orleans. “It was difficult despite the familial obligations. I grew up [in New Orleans]. I found friends, I found a niche, and it was not some place I wanted to leave, certainly under those circumstances.”

His step-father passed away last year and Anthony graduated in May of this year so now thoughts sometimes turn back to New Orleans. “I miss New Orleans, I consider it home, and I would love to move back but I have to do so on far different terms than how I left.” Now a resident of Edgewater, Anthony says he’s “trying to plot the next course.” While he’s loved his time in Chicago, he still thinks back on his departure. “My biggest regret is that there was no closure, it was not my decision to make. It was forced on me, I made the best of it, and it’s been good. I’ve learned a great deal living up here because it’s more structured and that’s never been my strong suit, so it forced me to focus. For that I will always appreciate my time here. But my home is in New Orleans. It’s not something I pine away for and I’m not going to move simply to move back but I want to move back so I can do something, so I can contribute.”

* * * * *

To share my story at this point feels, as Editor of this site, self-indulgent. I share most of the same feelings as Jennifer, Soshanah, and Anthony. My final night in New Orleans was September 25, 2006 and spent at the Superdome, the scene of what had been, a year before, a site of much sorrow and pain. But that night, I watched with 75,000 fellow New Orleanians as the Saints defeated the Falcons in their first game back in the dome since the storm, a moment of catharsis that would only be matched three and a half years later when the Saints won the Super Bowl. My decision to leave New Orleans was not reached lightly and remains the hardest decision I've had to make in my 31+ years of life. But the anxiety wore me down as it did everyone else that remained immediately after the storm. I had tried for a year after the storm, to fight through the difficulties to remain in the city I thought I would live in for the rest of my life.

But the feeling of being untethered was unnerving as was the growing dependence on alcohol and a certain claustrophobic feeling that it seems only living in the post-apocalypse can carry. Unlike my three fellow ex-pats, though, I had no real network, no connection to the city of Chicago other than a knowledge of its history, its current publishing landscape, and a place where the career that eluded me in New Orleans might be achievable. It was - here I am - and Chicago has embraced me (well, mostly). It's a city that understands what it is to rebuild from a disaster, to be decimated and to become great again. Chicagoans are also a resilient people. How else would they survive winter after winter? The city is by no means perfect, as we write about day after day here on this very site. But what place is? The fact is, Chicago remains a beautiful, world class city in spite of its drawbacks, much like New Orleans.

* * * * *

But how is the city of New Orleans now, five years later? I reached out to a few residents that lived there before, during, and after the storm. Jarret Lofstead, instructor at Loyola University New Orleans and Senior Editor at NOLAFugees Press told me:

If you're asking how the New Orleans of 2010 meets the expectations of the immediate post-K era, that's a funny question. Despite all the well-documented tales of community, heroics and resiliency, the anxiety of 2005-06 was centered on whether or not the city would continue to exist, and in what shape: what neighborhoods and institutions would remain. We all rallied around the fleur-de-lis, a banner representing those cultural elements that make the city unique. None of that has changed.

On the other hand, what has changed is the skin that's been laid over the daily life of the city. For the past four years, we've been told about all the wonderful innovations, new businesses, ideas, housing and institutions that will ensure New Orleans achieves its potential in the 21st century. Some oft-touted examples include "more restaurants than before the storm," "more young professionals moving to the city," the Recovery School District/Charter School System, Brad Pitt's Make It Right houses in the Lower 9. But scratch the skin and more restaurants with fewer people means less revenue. More young professionals, but check the job postings in the Times-Picayune or Craigslist; are there more middle-class jobs? Ask the workers at Avondale, which is about to close.

Lofstead points to a new wind turbine company setting up shop in Michoud that's providing 600 new jobs. But that replaces NASA's assembly plant that produced external fuel tanks for the space shuttle program and had provided as many as 5,000 jobs at one point in the 1980s, but fell to 2,600 in 2009 and down to around 1,000 this year. A recent report said that 93,000 jobs have been added in New Orleans since the storm as the population has increased to 86 percent of what it was before the storm. While the city's new charter schools have seem some limited success (Chicagoans will recognize Paul Vallas, New Orleans Recovery School District superintendent as the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools), the city's public schools continue to struggle, many still in the state's failing category on test scores. And, as Lofstead points out, "We're getting better, but we're still the murder capital."

Gary Gautier, a long-time resident of Mid-City who's house took on eight feet of water during the flood, echoed concerns over crime: "It really does seem worse than ever. In my neighborhood alone, we had one armed robbery that I know of in the 5 years before Katrina; now we have several a year plus a couple of carjackings. And although it is true that murder victims are usually (but not always) targets known by the killer, this is not true of armed robberies and carjackings, which overwhelmingly affect innocent bystanders. And you hear of the same thing more commonly now in Lakeview or out around UNO." Gautier also notes the increase in young adults in the city, a youth movement local leaders will help reverse what's been called the city's "brain drain": "There is some trickle of young, energetic professionals into the city post-Katrina. I don't know if it's enough to have a truly salutary effect, but it is a positive sign."

So there are reasons for optimism even though, beneath the surface, as Lofstead notes, things are still very much as they were before the storm: "There are surface changes, but New Orleans is fundamentally the same. The levees may have been improved, but they are still woefully inadequate. If you want to buy a house, you have to buy it on the floodplain because you can't afford to buy where it's dry."

* * * * *

Still, there's no place quite like New Orleans which is why, for all of us, leaving was so hard. But there's still hesitation to returning if we ever decide to do so. At least for me, there's a concern over the perception of how those of us who left would be looked upon for returning five, ten, fifteen years later. Even though many tried to stick it out, helped with the rebuilding and made a go at it, we still couldn't hang on and made the choice to leave. Some, like novelist Poppy Z Brite, have been vocal about their perspective on such temporary escapists:

I'll be honest -- I can understand people leaving, but I have a HUGE problem with people who say as they leave, "Well, I might come back in a couple of years." Yeah, after WE'VE done all the damn work to make things better. Regardless of my resentment, though, the city will still be here and will be better in a couple of years, should you leave but find that you cannot stay away.

Others are more nuanced in their take. Gautier, still an entrenched resident of the Mid-City neighborhood, "It's never crossed my mind to resent people who left, or left and came back and such resentment would seem only to follow from a very curious logic. I've vaguely heard of this phenomenon, but I believe it to be some kind of hype by writers and such who stand to make money via tales of conflict and overwrought emotion." Lofstead told me, "When you're back, you're back, participating in the grind. We're a port city; transience is in our nature. We're just here, waiting for Hurricane Earl."

And so New Orleans continues to push into the next five years as the recovery from the storm - and now the BP oil spill - continues, its residents pushing headlong into a fight that can, at times, seem unwinnable. At least for us on the outside, looking in on a place we once called home and may one day return to. Part of that yearning is a nostalgia, a remembrance of the way things were before August 29, 2005. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss the city because I felt like I'm missing out on something. But it's more than just Mardi Gras Day and the idea that everywhere else in the world that day is "just another Tuesday." It's about being part of something, part of a city that's like no other. It's something that hits hardest watching the community as it continues to fight on in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, a series of obstacles that seem straight from the Book of Job, with a determination and stubbornness that's at once both terrifying and admirable.

The rebuilding of New Orleans continues and here I am - here we are - 1,000 mile away, with feelings of guilt, sadness, and as if our existence and affair with the city has been scrubbed away like so many of the flood's waterlines. It's a feeling Lofstead summed up perfectly when I asked if thought is ever given to those that have left the city: "We don't think about you anymore. But that's always the way it is in New Orleans; you either live here or you don't." Indeed, we don't. And that's something we can't forget.

* * * * *

Suggested reading: The Great Deluge by Douglas Brinkley, Breach of Faith by Jed Horne, A.D.: New Orleans After The Deluge by Josh Neufeld, Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, The Least Resistance by Sarah Inman and other works from NOLAFugees Press, Babylon Rolling by Amanda Boyden

Suggested viewing: When The Levees Broke by Spike Lee, Trouble The Water,