New Orleans – A Unique American Place

On August 27, 2005, just over five years ago, I woke up to a text message: ”If you need a ride, call, but get out today.”

Before I could even process what was happening, the phone started ringing off the hook. Some were offering rides, others looking for them, many were panicking, and no one was prepared for what was coming: Katrina.

I made it four years as an undergraduate at Loyola University New Orleans without a hurricane making landfall. We had scares, but the next ”Betsy” everyone worried about never came. After graduating and spending a year volunteering at a homeless shelter in Washington State, I returned to New Orleans for grad school. That lasted about a week before Katrina literally turned all of our lives upside down.

I had my uncle’s car that Saturday morning, so I didn’t need a ride. I grabbed my roommates and left. Thanks to some tips texted to me, I took US 90 instead of I-10, avoiding deadlock traffic and arriving in Lafayette, Louisiana in a few hours. We spent the night safe with friends. Like others, we assumed the storm would turn and we would resume life in the morning.

Everyone knows what happened next. The world watched as Katrina’s winds lifted cars, smashed windows, and reaped the standard havoc of a Category 3 hurricane. Newscasters said the damage wasn’t bad and it wouldn’t be long before we all went back and rebuilt. Then came the heartbreak, a heartbreak that can’t be described but is shared by so many. The levees broke.

Charles Kuralt once said of New Orleans, ”’Unique’ is a word that cannot be qualified. It does not mean rare or uncommon; it means alone in the universe. By the standards of grammar and the grace of God, New Orleans is the unique American place.” As a transplant from Connecticut, I had come to love this unique American place. I made lifelong friends, and even picked up a bit of an accent (I still say y’all). But five years ago I found myself watching my beloved home away from home become increasingly alone in the universe in a way Kuralt never imagined.

In this tragedy I was lucky. I got out early, had the help of friends, and after about five nights of staying in random places (have you heard of Texarkana?), I caught a flight to D.C. and landed an internship with political strategist James Carville. Eventually I was cleared by FEMA to return to the city and I cleaned out my house. I was looted and I’m glad I was looted. They took clothing and a bunch of food. Someone camped out on our porch seeking refuge behind storm shutters. Returning to my house, I thought about how lucky I was and I hoped those missing supplies helped the person who needed them.

Just how lucky I was became all the more clear as I made my way through the city streets to check on friends. The National Guard was everywhere; my campus was literally a military base. Entire homes were leveled and the streets were piled high with debris.

As broken as we all were, there was one other indescribable feeling running through everyone I met. Although we had been beaten down by this disaster, we bonded through hope. Neighbors I never knew were helping each other out, sharing stories, and talking about the future. True, some would be leaving permanently, but many were staying and all believed the city would survive. We were going to be ok. It was intensely emotional, incredibly personal, yet entirely inspirational. I made a decision that trip to return to New Orleans to finish my masters as soon as I could.

I returned to New Orleans in May of 2006. It wasn’t easy leaving the world of politics, but Carville eased the transition by coming down and giving the commencement address to my alma mater’s ”Katrina class.” A Louisiana native, he knew what we were all thinking. I sat front row, and when it ended I mingled with friends from my undergrad years. What I had experienced months earlier was stronger than ever. These graduates, so full of hope and ambition after experiencing such loss, mirrored the hopes and ambitions of everyone I met over the following year living in post-Katrina New Orleans.

I lived there through August of 2007 when I graduated and returned to my family in the northeast. I started work here at DKC shortly thereafter. I’m lucky that I get to pursue my passion for helping others in the public affairs area – and all the more I’m intrigued by the power of stories and how stories helped many of us get through that difficult time.

At DKC I’ve worked on incredible projects such as Theater of War, a program that reaches out to military veterans and their families through the arts to break through the stigma of PTSD, and many of Ken Burns’s recent films. I’ve even travelled the country with Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan to develop a dialogue on our National Parks, a dialogue that hit home during a trip to Florida where a major topic was protection of marsh lands that help protect against hurricanes.

I miss the Big Easy. It is surreal to reflect on the evacuation and realize that five years have passed. Clearly, I loved my time in New Orleans before the storm and I came to truly appreciate the city and the friendships I made as Katrina kicked us out and spread us across the nation during the storm.

Many lessons were learned through those experiences, but what has shaped me most is the strength and hope of everyone I met living in New Orleans after the storm. The cameras had left, we were again alone in the universe, but we were rebuilding and we looked to a better future while reclaiming the history and culture that continues to make New Orleans the unique American place.

Posted by: Daniel Roberti, Senior Account Executive