Ten years ago today, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and the press swept in behind it to show the world what happened there. They told stories of devastation, inequality, and suffering after a weak government response — but they also told stories of unlikely heroes, resilient communities, and survivors welcomed by people across the country.
John Stanton and Joel Anderson began reporting our Katrina series — now winding down after a month and over a dozen stories — simply: They went through news reports from the storm’s first days, finding the ordinary New Orleans people who were quoted in them and following up on their stories. Then they spent seven weeks talking to regular people leading lives often as bleak as the ones Katrina wrecked, and generally out of sync with the upbeat official narrative that New Orleans is back.
Much of what we saw in the coverage of Katrina, and in the coverage now, was what we wanted to see. Many of those stories of hope, resilience, and courage — the warm welcome, for instance, refugees like Kathy Phipps found as far away as Utah — turned sour when the cameras went away. Some of those who seemed natural heroes, like the small-town mayor of Pass Christian, Mississippi, crumbled under the pressure. And some of the figures who did emerge, for a moment — like Jabbar Gibson, a small-time drug dealer who saved dozens of public housing residents — couldn’t escape the return to that bleak normalcy.
“Being called a hero was cool,” Gibson told Anderson during a prison interview this May. “I’ve missed out on a lot being up in here.”
Our series did not set out to make sweeping or clear conclusions about effects of Katrina, or to settle the large and important questions of policy — around race and inequality, engineering and emergency management — that the storm raised. The conventional political wisdom of the moment, given voice by President Obama this week, is to resist the impulse to disentangle the effects of Hurricane Katrina and the effects of poverty, racial inequality, and New Orleans’ (and America’s) singular history. "As hard as rebuilding levees is, as hard as rebuilding housing is, real change — real lasting structural change — that's even harder," he said in a speech in the Ninth Ward.
Over the course of several trips to the Gulf region throughout the year, our team found smaller stories that turned up only one real conclusion: Many of the pat narratives journalists and their audiences latched onto in 2005 were as much about coping with the devastation as about seeing the city clearly.
There are success stories, of course, including ones nobody expected, like the unanimous passage of legislation that extended emergency evacuation rights, for the first time, to pets. But there have been many mundane failures: One of the most ambitious criminal-justice reforms in Katrina’s wake, a well-funded system of public defenders, is collapsing. Rebuilding has often actually meant building a new city for different people, while crucial parts of the region's history that were already fighting erasure — such as a coastal community that served as a haven from Jim Crow — had to fight that much harder.
These are mostly stories that didn’t start with Katrina, and that haven’t ended. Gibson, who commandeered a school bus out of the Fischer Projects, was released from his last stint in prison at the end of last month. He’s now living in a halfway house in Baton Rouge and working at Walmart. He’s trying to put together a life, he told Anderson; but he’s also finding it hard to get to work without a car.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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