Being on the ground in New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath 10 years ago was one of the worst experiences of my life. Yet I remain profoundly thankful for it.
The physical devastation was horrifying, the human toll so much worse. I saw an elderly man dead in a lawn chair on a street median while his wife, in shock, sat in a chair next to him, dribbling cracker crumbs down her front. I saw a middle-age man weep as I've never seen anyone cry before, because he'd been unable to hold on to his wife when floodwaters swept through their home.
There was so much brokenness that I began to think that tears were what had flooded the city, not the salty waters of Lake Pontchartrain.
With the Aug. 29 anniversary of the storm looming, the national media will return to the Gulf Coast, attempting to package what's happened there in the last decade into easily digestible articles or broadcasts. That's an impossible task, and because of that I fear too many outlets will take one of the easy outs, using the rising population and tourist figures to tell a simple "New Orleans is back" story. The truth is much more nuanced. It always is.
I arrived in New Orleans the day before the storm hit, sent there to cover the story for The Inquirer. As a former New Orleans resident and veteran of many hurricanes, I expected the reports of impending doom to be the typical hype. I wasn't worried. I drove in on I-10, traveling on the single eastbound lane into the city; the other eastbound lanes were now flowing west as people fled. I was the only car moving in that direction. I called my mother in New Jersey. "I'm waving to all of the other cars as I'm driving in," I told her. "They're all waving back, shouting: 'Natalie! So good to see you! Welcome back!' "
Her reply: "Please. They're saying: 'There's that crazy Natalie trying to get herself killed! Why does she hate her mother?' "
It was a light moment, one of the few that week. The levees failed and the city flooded. I lost my money, ID, and car keys when I'd walked through floodwaters up to my neck, holding my cellphone and notebook above my head. But I had friends at the local paper, the Times-Picayune, who let me hitch a ride in their newspaper truck, and we stayed and reported together.
It mattered to people that we were there. We talked to a woman just minutes after she had been rescued from the attic of her family's home. She was wide-eyed, clearly in shock. She was wearing only a long T-shirt, but she was unaware of that until I asked her what had happened to her clothes. She'd taken her pants off because they were too heavy. Her brother-in-law had been in the attic with her, she said, but he drowned. At first, the woman said she didn't want me to publish her name because she feared her sister would read it and then blame her for the death. She changed her mind before I left.
Outside the city's Convention Center, one weeping woman who had been waiting for help for days asked me to write down her name and put it into the paper because she knew she was going to die and she wanted her family to know what had happened to her. I don't know when or if she was rescued.
When I left New Orleans after two weeks of reporting, I was more than tired. I felt damaged. It was incredibly hard to be there, even uninjured and with no property lost. I felt there was nothing I could do to help except write. I knew it then and I know it now: It was a privilege to be there, to listen, and then retell people's stories.
It took a few years to feel healed, a process helped by spending four months volunteering in the rebuilding/cleanup efforts and purchasing property in the city to cement my ties. The pain gradually faded, along with my horrific post-Katrina nightmares in which I struggled to get my mother in her wheelchair upstairs to escape rising water.
I like to think Katrina changed me, but for the better. I can't forget the horrors, and I still turn to them to help myself keep life in perspective when things go wrong. Traffic jam? Screaming children in the row behind mine on an airplane? Small problems at work or play? I'll get as annoyed as the next person, but I'm generally able to move on quickly. Much worse things have happened. I know, because I've seen them.
I've seen this same resilience in the people and city of New Orleans. Before the hurricane, New Orleans was a city with urban struggles Americans know well - high crime and poverty rates, struggling public schools and crumbling infrastructure, corrupt elected officials and inefficient government. Pile onto that historic issues of race and class inequalities. But it also was a beautiful place, both naturally and man-made, and home to creative, interesting people with a rare joie de vivre.
The storm devastated every aspect of life. In the days after, I wrote a piece saying I thought it would take at least a generation for the city to rebuild. It's definitely ahead of that schedule.
Yet it's important to realize the recovery is far from total. Yes, many displaced residents have returned and newcomers have followed. But countless others, particularly the elderly or the poor, will never see the city again. I know one woman taken to Texas during the post-storm evacuation. She died there in 2014 at age 91, having never seen her beloved hometown again.
Yes, some neighborhoods have been rebuilt and are fully populated again. But there are others that remain eerily abandoned, that are unnaturally dark at night because streets once lined with homes now have only an occasional lighted structure. I have a friend who lives on the same lot in the same block she grew up on, only now her rebuilt home is one of the only ones there. The new house is beautiful, spacious, built on pillars to keep it safe from floodwaters. It's also isolated and sad.
Yes, more tourists seem to discover Mardi Gras each year, lining the streets for Carnival parades and filling the French Quarter. But most of these tourist hot spots did not flood. It seems incorrect to call a neighborhood "thriving" when it didn't overcome the same obstacles as others. I love vibrant Magazine Street, where I make my second home. I continue to marvel at the development there, both retail and residential. Yet it's important to remember that this area never took on water, that it was always lively and poised for more.
And the same urban problems the city was dealing with before the storm - like excessive crime and poverty - exist today.
But New Orleans is still beautiful, still magical, still one of my favorite places in the world. It's changed, in some ways for the better, in some ways not. Katrina is part of its story, surviving it another reason to celebrate. I'm thankful that I've been part of the city's past. I look forward to being part of its future.
Natalie Pompilio is a Philadelphia writer