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Hurricane Katrina, Five Years Later

A New Orleans teen on what she and her city lost—and gained

By Monique Thomas, 19

Yes, we stayed. With Hurricane Katrina approaching on Aug. 29, 2005, my family—like so many others in New Orleans who had safely weathered a lifetime of the city's hurricanes—believed we could ride this one out.

When the storm hit, it proved to be the worst—and costliest—natural disaster in U.S. history. The city's levees broke, flooding 80 percent of New Orleans. About 1,500 city residents died—some drowned in their homes, others were crushed by collapsing buildings. The city suffered billions of dollars in damage, and more than 800,000 Gulf Coast residents were displaced because their homes were damaged or destroyed.

We fared better than many because we rode out the storm at my dad's office Uptown, an area that didn't get much flooding. But my family's home, in New Orleans East, was submerged in four feet of water, and toxic mold, which thrives in the summer heat, destroyed nearly everything we owned.

Three days after Katrina hit, my family headed to Dallas. At first, we hopped from one hotel room to another. After a few months, my dad's company set up shop in Dallas and provided us with housing.

But my mom, who worked for the New Orleans Sewage and Water Board, had to follow her job to Baton Rouge, Louisiana—nine hours from Dallas. She visited on weekends, but it was hard being without her so much.

Resuming my freshman year of high school in Dallas was hard too. I had lost all my possessions, and my family and friends were all across the country. My new classmates had been untouched by Katrina, and I couldn't relate to them.

After ten months, we returned to New Orleans. The city's mood was somber, but I was glad to be back, surrounded by familiar people and places, and eager to start my sophomore year back at my old school. While our home was being rebuilt, my family lived in a FEMA* trailer. It was uncomfortably small, but at least we were moving forward.

Some parts of the city have healed more quickly than others. Areas most important to the tourist industry—like the French Quarter—are almost back to their pre-Katrina standards. In my community, however, the last of the FEMA trailers have only recently been removed. Progress in the Lower Ninth Ward, a poor area hit hardest by Katrina, is slower still: Many gutted houses and unkempt grassy lots stand in for what had once been rows of family homes. But residents across the city are talking about rebuilding, which I see as the biggest sign of hope.

New Orleanians have always been proud of our city's unique culture, but post-Katrina, we've learned not to take our past for granted. It seemed like no one was looking out for us, so we try harder to look out for each other. The government's response to Katrina was too slow, but I think it has learned from that mistake. I was glad to see the U.S. provide swift aid to Haiti after its catastrophic earthquake in January.

Though the hurricane caused massive destruction to homes and businesses in New Orleans, we're a resilient people and our spirit is strong. My city gets better every day, but a lot still needs to be done. My greatest hope is that we continue to rebuild in the next five years as much as we have in the last.

*The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided 120,000 trailers as temporary housing to those who lost homes during Hurricane Katrina.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, May 10, 2010)