The images of Hurricane Katrina remain indelible nine years after the storm devastated the central Gulf Coast. These include pictures of the failed levees that allowed up to 17 feet of water to inundate the majority of New Orleans, bloated bodies floating in the contaminated floodwaters and a flattened Mississippi coastline.
We spent a week traveling through Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama in July to report on the lives of LGBT people who live there. Rampant discrimination, persecution and poverty were among the external factors that provided a context for our trip. It quickly became clear to us the aftermath of Katrina was another backdrop to the story that had already changed our lives in a profound and deeply personal way.
It is important to share the stories of those who survived Katrina.
A transgender man in Baton Rouge, La., told us the hurricane destroyed his family’s home in the New Orleans Lakeview neighborhood after a levee along the 17th Street Canal failed. He said Katrina was actually a blessing of sorts because he was able to live away from his mother with whom he had always had a difficult relationship.
Miss Eddie, a trans woman who lives in Belle Reve, a residence for people with HIV/AIDS in New Orleans’ Marigny neighborhood, considered the home in which she rode out the storm “blessed” in spite of the 15 inches of water that flooded it during the storm.
Many others in New Orleans and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast we met were far less fortunate.
Vicki Weeks, executive director of Belle Reve, spent 16 hours in traffic as she and her staff evacuated eight of their residents from the Crescent City to a campground in Alexandria, La., where they experienced racism and other unconscionable forms of abuse and mistreatment for nearly three weeks. They eventually relocated to Anniston, Ala., where they remained for seven months until returning to New Orleans.
Six feet of water flooded New Orleans’ Gentilly Terrace neighborhood in which Weeks’ home is located.
Damaged homes with large orange “X’s” spray-painted onto them were clearly visible along North Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans’ Upper Ninth Ward, as though Katrina had made landfall a few weeks earlier. The scene that unfolded beneath us in the Lower Ninth Ward as we drove over the Industrial Canal was one of an overgrown post-apocalyptic landscape with a scattering of green homes that Brad Pitt’s foundation helped build after Katrina.
The levee along the Industrial Canal that had been rebuilt after the hurricane loomed ominously over us as we walked down empty streets and over-grown lots where homes once stood. Music from a family reunion and cars from the Claiborne Avenue Bridge were the only sounds that permeated the area where dozens died during the storm.
The juxtaposition of what one might call people living mundane lives amid a post-Katrina wasteland that had only begun to recover to any resemblance of normality is simply impossible to describe.
The scene was equally stark along the Mississippi Gulf Coast where we interviewed local LGBT rights advocates.
One of the advocates we met for lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Gulfport, Miss., that had once been on the beach said everything south of the railroad tracks “was gone” because Katrina’s 28-foot storm surge destroyed everything.
Concrete slabs with stairs that eerily lead to nowhere are all that remain of oceanfront homes on U.S. Highway 90 between Gulfport and neighboring Biloxi. The powdery white beaches and tranquil Gulf of Mexico across the street beckoned on the typically hot and sultry July afternoon that we spent on the coast as though the storm had never happened.
A lesbian with whom we spoke later that day lost her home to Katrina. The oceanfront mall in Biloxi where we interviewed her and her wife sustained significant damage during the storm.
Katrina killed more than 1,800 people in Mississippi, Louisiana and other states.
More than 20 percent of New Orleans residents were living below the poverty line when the storm made landfall on Aug. 29, 2005.
Officials estimated more than 100,000 people had no cars or access to “personal transportation” that would have allowed them to evacuate the city ahead of a hurricane. These include the eight Belle Reve residents who were able to leave New Orleans ahead of the storm only because Weeks and her staff used their private vehicles to get them to a place of relative safety.
It became immediately clear that local, state and federal officials utterly failed those who were the most vulnerable during Katrina and its aftermath in a way that can easily be described as criminal, regardless of one’s political affiliation or socio-economic status. Many of these people continue to suffer nine years later.
This is simply unacceptable.
Amid this disgraceful response to Katrina, we heard an untold number of stories of hope from those on the Gulf Coast with whom we had the good fortune of speaking during our trip.
A lesbian we interviewed in Metairie, La., was able to celebrate Christmas Eve in her family’s home in New Orleans’ Upper Ninth Ward in 2005 after her father made sufficient repairs. Pharmacies in Mississippi worked to ensure those with HIV/AIDS — many had evacuated the Crescent City and other areas of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast that Katrina devastated — received their medications without interruption.
HIV/AIDS service organizations in Alabama accommodated those with the virus.
Julie Thompson, co-president of PFLAG New Orleans, summed up this resilience and camaraderie perfectly as she talked with us about how she and her family lost their home during Katrina.
“We laid in the mud and then we finally got up and started over again,” she told us during an interview at a coffee shop near the 17th Street Canal. “Now we’re making for a better, stronger everything.”
Let’s keep Julie, Vicki, the residents of Belle Reve and others on the Gulf Coast in our thoughts as another somber anniversary passes.
Michael K. Lavers is a news reporter for the Blade; Michael Key is the Blade’s photo editor. The two spent a week in July traveling throughout the Deep South, documenting the plight of LGBT residents there.