SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Coastal communities near the Texas and Louisiana border are now cleaning up after a punishing blow from Hurricane Laura. Fifteen years ago today, it was Hurricane Katrina that struck the Gulf Coast further east. The storm and its catastrophic aftermath caused more than 1,800 deaths. At the time, it was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. New Orleans suffered the storm's mightiest blows, and NPR's John Burnett reports from that city 15 years on.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The subtropical sun blazes, and a steamy wind stirs the banana leaves. It's late August, shirt sticks to your back kind of weather in New Orleans. We're standing at a memorial plaque that marks the spot where the floodwall breached and nearly washed away the Lower Ninth Ward.
TONYA BOYD-CANNON: This is pretty much how it was the day before Katrina. That Sunday, it was beautiful. It was just like this. It was breezy. I was working at the time at the sheriff's office, had come home, and then we hadn't decided what we were going to do. And then all of a sudden, here comes Katrina. She did her thing.
BURNETT: Tonya Boyd-Cannon is a professional singer and head of the Lower Ninth Ward homeowners association. Down here in the Lower Nine, the memory of Katrina is everywhere, from families like hers that only recently completed repairs and moved back into their damaged homes to the jungles that have overgrown vacant lots.
BOYD-CANNON: You had a lot thriving - doctors' offices, pharmacies, grocery stores, meat markets. You name it, we'd had it. Katrina hit, I feel the Lower Ninth Ward was forgotten about.
BURNETT: It's a tough question, is New Orleans better now than it was before Katrina?
SANDY ROSENTHAL: Well, I feel that that depends on who you ask.
BURNETT: Cannon's friend, Sandy Rosenthal, has been a tireless advocate for stronger flood protection through her website, levees.org.
ROSENTHAL: By every measure, the flood protection is better than it was when Hurricane Katrina arrived. But you will not find one single expert who will agree that the flood protection that was built since the levees broke is adequate for a city of New Orleans' size, infrastructure and importance to the nation.
BURNETT: In the years after Katrina, New Orleanians could read a satirical tabloid that helped them cope with the tragic comedy of rebuilding their beloved city.
RUDY VORKAPIC: I was the editor, publisher, founder and delivery boy of a newspaper called The New Orleans Levee newspaper. And our motto was, we don't hold anything back.
BURNETT: Rudy Vorkapic believes that New Orleans has come back stronger and better than it was before the storm.
VORKAPIC: Katrina caused unspeakable damage, unspeakable death. What it also did was produce a restart in many places, sad as it is to say. Our schools were horrendous. They're not that anymore. They're much better. I have my kids, from private school before the storm, in public school now and couldn't be more proud.
BURNETT: What's more, there are many more restaurants in town today than before Katrina, though some are currently shuttered because of the COVID shutdown. The multidimensional challenge for New Orleans was not just to rebuild neighborhoods and strengthen levees and improve the decrepit sewerage and water system. The deeper challenge was to bring back a city that was a more just place to live for its large population of working poor.
FLOZELL DANIELS JR: We understood this early on, that if we did not deal with the underlying inequity, we would not be able to rebuild in a way that made us stronger and better.
BURNETT: To that end, the rebirth of New Orleans is very much a work in progress, says Flozell Daniels Jr., president of the Foundation for Louisiana, formerly the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation. As he tells it, the civic progress since Katrina is tangible. For instance, the Orleans Parish jail had nearly 7,000 prisoners the day Katrina hit. Today, with changes to the criminal justice system, such as decriminalizing low-level drug crimes, there are fewer than 800 incarcerated. But Daniels says they haven't gone far enough. Fifteen years later, there still aren't enough good jobs, dignified jobs, that pay a decent wage. And some of the recovery that needs to happen since the epic storm is invisible.
DANIELS: What we said at the beginning in 2005 was that this was a generational recovery. So think about that. Twenty years is what we were forecasting 'cause it would take that long not only to rebuild the physical infrastructure, but the lives of people.
BURNETT: Some New Orleanians have internalized the grief, the fear, the dislocation, the change that came with Hurricane Katrina, says Tonya Boyd-Cannon in the Lower Ninth Ward.
BOYD-CANNON: Hurricane Katrina has now become a part of our makeup. It's a part of our genetics as far as the tragedy, the trauma, the healing.
BURNETT: Last week, when forecasters said there was a good chance that a Hurricane Marco would strike New Orleans, Cannon says her husband didn't sleep all night.
John Burnett, NPR News, New Orleans.
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