As portions of Texas and New Orleans begin their slow recovery from facing the fury of Hurricane Laura, it was exactly 15 years ago that New Orleans bore the full onslaught of a hurricane so completely devastating that its name has been retired by the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization, never to be used for an Atlantic storm again - Katrina.
New Orleans native Atianna Cordova was only 12-years-old when her family evacuated to Texas to escape Hurricane Katrina.
Like many other Louisiana families the threat of a severe storm was nothing new. Cordova's family was accustomed to the routine of escaping hurricanes. But they, like everyone else, were unprepared for the level of destruction Katrina would leave in its wake.
“I sat next to my mama on the bed and they were all just watching the screen,” Cordova remembers. “I just saw the floodwaters rising in the city. And in that moment it just hit me and I told my family out loud, ‘I'll never be able to go back home.’”
Hurricane Katrina ripped through the southeastern United States in August 2005, becoming the most destructive natural disaster in American history.
What was already a dangerous storm was made more catastrophic by infrastructure failure. Many parts of New Orleans flooded after the category 5 hurricane pushed a barge into a storm levee, pouring water into homes and leveling entire neighborhoods. The Lower Ninth Ward, a historically Black neighborhood, was particularly devastated by the flood and was left submerged under nine feet of water.
Meteorologist Chris Gloninger at NBC Boston told NBCLX he believes this was the first humanitarian crisis in the United States.
“You hear about the United States going and helping countries that are less fortunate; third World countries after earthquakes, after tsunamis, after typhoons or cyclones in other parts of the world. You never hear of the world basically coming to the aid of the United States. We're a superpower. But (Katrina) changed all of that,” Gloninger explained. “And I think that's not just mind-blowing to us atmospheric scientists, but to social scientists and to the government that in fact, we are very vulnerable and especially our communities of color.”
Residents who were unable to evacuate in time were left to wait for rescue on their roofs, if they were able to escape the water in time. Thousands of people displaced by the storm were housed in the New Orleans Superdome as authorities, unprepared and underfunded, scrambled to take action.
In the end, the hurricane left over 1,800 dead, 9,000 homeless and caused $125 billion in damage.
Rollin Black was 22-years-old when Katrina struck New Orleans, and the smell of mold instantly brings him back to that time.
“Everyone in New Orleans will tell you that came back directly after Katrina, they can always smell that water. And you will never get that out of your head,” Black said. “Any time I smell mold or anything, it always takes me back to that place. And it does something to a person just to come back, see your city just decimated by mortar and destruction and thinking about all those bad things that happened.”
“But I think it made me stronger.”
Now, 15 years after Hurricane Katrina, millennials like Cordova and Black who experienced the devastation of the hurricane are working to protect their hometown and its people from future disasters.
After seeing the impact of the hurricane on Black communities, Cordova founded WATER BLOCK in 2018, an urban design studio that works to advance racial and environmental justice. She later created WATER BLOCK Kids to include the next generation in the conversation, hosting events and a summer camp for elementary-aged children.
Cordova's hope is that by educating the community on the ways environmental issues and climate change disproportionately impact Black communities, she can inspire fellow New Orleanians to change the system that left them vulnerable during the hurricane.
“These conditions have been going on for far too long, and it's really up to us to stand behind organizations that are investing in the future of our kids and allowing them to see a different condition for themselves and in their own neighborhoods,” she says. “The decisions we're making directly impact their lives, and it's not fair. We keep handing them the same battons generation after generation.”
Black, too, was inspired to fight environmental issues in his hometown. He now works as the Director of Volunteer Services and Director of Coastal Restoration for the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development in New Orleans.
“I kind of slipped into this job and it worked out for the best. I love doing it. I don't think anything could take me away from it. At this point, I think you're kind of stuck with me because I'm going to be here forever,” he says. “I'm going to do everything that I can just to make a change and make something happen in some place to live for my kids later on in life.”
The center works to uplift the Lower Ninth Ward by growing the area’s sustainability, food and resource stability and environmental protection.
For Black, returning to the city after the hurricane left him mourning the businesses and opportunities that were stripped away from the floods. He says the economic viability of the Lower Ninth Ward is integral to the neighnorhood’s ability to survive.
The region will never fully recover from Katrina, Black explained, without an investment into the area’s culture and people.
“It took me a while to really understand that the environmental work that we do, the cleanup work that we do for our city, this might not be something that I'm going to really reap the benefits from, but someone will in the future. It's someone from that, you know, 100 years from now is going to benefit from something I did today.”
Black’s organization is a collaborator with a coalition of environmental groups called the Restore the Mississippi Delta. By restoring the natural environment along the Mississippi river, they say, hurricanes could have a less devastating impact on communities and neighborhoods by reinstating natural storm protection.
Their work is critical as experts say climate change promises to bring more powerful storms to the region. Exactly 15 years after Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana and Texas are now bracing against Hurricane Laura, which is expected to have storm surges of over 18 feet
.“We've already seen storms that are stronger than Katrina and they could even be worse down the road because of climate change. And that is something that not that not only keeps me awake at night,” Gloninger says, “We're not prepared. Our infrastructure isn't prepared for another Katrina. And that is what's very concerning.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified WATER BLOCK and WATER BLOCK Kids as being collaborators with the Restore the Mississippi Delta coalition. We apologize for this error.