Helen Lewis headshot, Staff note, 9/27/21 (copy)

Helen Lewis, Managing Editor

Seventeen years ago today I was waiting for the eye of Hurricane Katrina to pass over us, in a hallway full of doctors’ offices in a hospital in Mississippi, because the Air Force said I had to be there. 

Early that morning I had sent a hurried email: “Dear whole-family, We're preparing to evacuate to the hospital today. They're saying this is the 6th-worst storm in atlantic history, category 5 (look it up, Australians, I can't describe it right) which means 'catastrophic damage'. Don't know where the eye will hit but they're saying that's irrelevant b/c of the span of the storm itself. We've done everything we can to prevent minor damage to the house but there's absolutely nothing we can do to fend off something major. We don't have the choice to leave because I'm too far into the pregnancy and it's compulsory for women past 7 months to go to the hospital. Aaron, we've wrapped up your mural and are smuggling it into the hospital with us. I don't know how much our cell phones will work, or whether I'll have internet access, or anything really. We will be physically fine because of the way the hospital was built. I'd love it if we didn't have to rebuild our whole household in my final weeks of pregnancy, but I guess that's another story. Lots of love to you all — don't worry, just pray for things to be less-bad than they think.”

Of course things were so much worse than they thought.

Hurricane Katrina was the largest and third-strongest hurricane ever to make landfall in the United States. The eye went over us, in that Air Force hospital, which was famous for having withstood 1969’s deadly Hurricane Camille. It didn’t withstand Katrina. The hospital flooded. The windows cracked. The power went out for good. They lost the generator, the ER, the cafeteria, the pharmacy. We had no cell phone signal, no landline, no internet, no idea what was happening. A 34-foot storm surge meant the “ground” was water as far as the eye could see. The Air Force posted armed guards at the hospital exits; even if they hadn’t been there, we were completely cut off. I was evacuated on the third day on a stretcher in a cavernous C-17, “alone” but with 34 other women (most of us were Air Force spouses) who were also past 30 weeks pregnant. I left behind our house, our friends, our life in the South, and the New Orleans job I would never get back.

A lot of things went wrong in the couple of weeks that followed. One among many: Our baby girl arrived way, way too early, with way too many medical problems. We were scared and traumatized and overwhelmed. But we were also overwhelmed with assistance, and processes that worked, and administrative groups that conveyer-belted us from one type of aid to the next (FEMA, WIC, housing, you name it), whether we believed we needed it or not. We were able to start over, near Seattle. 

We were the incredibly lucky ones — and that’s because every emergency response and relief system was designed to make us the lucky ones. Today, on the 17th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Chris Dier (author, 2020 Educator of the Year and former fellow Louisiana resident) makes the compelling case that the system was “designed to fail” — in fact, “designed from its inception … to cater to the wealthy at the expense of the working poor.” So my privileged story stops at “We were fine, and eventually the baby was fine too.” Instead, please (please) read Dier’s incredible thread on the truth of what happened to the people who always get locked out of the systems that helped us. Even though I knew all of this, I still find it stunning to read. Every word is his:

A thread. On the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (8/29), I’m reminded of not only the destruction of my home and community, but also that the experience radicalized me. I was 17 at the time. These events below, personally and systemic, shook my worldview.

In 1965, the Army Corps of Engineers built the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), a canal to expedite oil shipping to the Gulf of Mexico. During Katrina, the MRGO channeled the storm’s surge and led to the engineering failures experienced by the region’s protection network.  

The levees were neglected for decades by the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Attempts at holding them accountable led to severe backlash. Carl Stock, the USACE Lt. Gen., later admitted they “had to stand up and say, ‘We’ve had a catastrophic failure.’” 

After the weakened levees broke, thousands were stranded on rooftops and in attics for days. In my hometown of St. Bernard Parish, the US response was simply nonexistent. The Royal Canadian Mounties were the first outside help to arrive and launch local rescue efforts.

St. Rita’s Nursing Home in St. Bernard Parish wasn’t evacuated. Thirty-two residents drowned. 

This response was in part due to the post-9/11 restructuring of the gov’t. FEMA became part of the new Dept. of Homeland Security, which led to the hyper-militarization of relief efforts. The Iraq War drained manpower/equipment from the state National Guard as ~40% were in Iraq.  

On the Danziger Bridge, police officers shot multiple unarmed, innocent Black people in the back, including one with a mental disability (Ronald Madison), who were simply seeking safety. All of the officers involved have since been released from prison. 

Also, the DHS hired mercenaries from Blackwater, a private military company, to patrol streets with assault rifles and body armor instead of assisting with relief efforts.

The Orleans Parish Prison, which had 6,500 inmates, wasn’t evacuated. The prison lost power, and as the first-floor cells started to flood after the levees broke, many of the guards left the prisoners.  

There were no official reports on inmate deaths; however, Human Rights Watch compared a pre-Katrina list of inmates to an immediate post-Katrina list and found that 517 inmates were unaccounted for. (Note: Doesn’t mean that all of them died.)

The Greyhound Bus Station was turned into a prison built by Burl Cain, then warden at Angola Penitentiary. Mostly Black/Brown people, including Muslims suspected of terrorism, were mass arrested.  

They were all forced to sleep on concrete, were denied phone calls and legal counsel, and were forced to plead guilty.

When thousands tried to leave New Orleans to reach dry land across the River via the Crescent City Connection, they were turned away by the police from Gretna, a predominantly white town, who shot over their heads and used helicopters to intimidate.

On 8/29, Bush arrived in Arizona to celebrate John McCain’s birthday. They literally ate cake and spent time on his ranch while Louisiana and Mississippi faced unprecedented carnage. This was one of the first post-Katrina images I saw on a TV in a shelter. 

My family had to stay in a makeshift shelter in Texas because FEMA assistance never arrived and the paychecks ran dry. There, I remember watching news pundits, specifically Sean Hannity, make snarky, inconsiderate comments. The disconnect was upsetting.  

Laura Bush visited one of these shelters and stated, “Many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway so this (chuckle) — this is working very well for them.” 

Imagine.

I recall religious pundits rushing to the airwaves to say Katrina meant “cleansing,” and it was God’s way of cleansing the city.

Not only did Katrina/Rita destroy homes and communities, but they caused massive oil spills. The 540 oil spills released almost as many gallons as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. Many, like my family, were not adequately compensated for the damage.

My parents’ insurance didn’t cover their home so, like many others, they had to take out another loan to rebuild. They’ve still paying for that loan today. 

The FEMA trailers arrived in May of ‘06. We later discovered ours was contaminated with formaldehyde. Studies found that some trailers had levels nearly “40 times customary exposure levels.” My mom still suffers from eye issues and respiratory problems. 

Many countries offered assistance. Mexico sent a mobile surgical unit, and 450+ tons of food, purified water, disposable diapers, and medical supplies. Mexican Marines conducted relief work.  

Right after Katrina made landfall, Cuba was the first country to offer aid and pledge to send 1,586 doctors and 26 tons of medicine. Cuba also offered to donate money raised from their World Baseball Classic to ensure the US embargo was not violated. The US declined it. 

Other US adversaries offered their assistance. Venezuela offered $5 million in aid and 1 million barrels of oil. Iran offered 20 million barrels. The US also declined this assistance. 

Katrina also inspired hope. There are countless stories of altruistic solidarity. Churches/nonprofits poured in their resources. People set up food distribution sites and gutted out/rebuilt homes. I’ll never forget eating beans cooked by self-identified anarchists in tents. 

Immigrants poured in from Mexico and Central America to help rebuild in the summer heat for low wages. I can’t even imagine where Southeast Louisiana would be without immigrant help. New Orleans built a monument to honor them. 

A kind family in Texas opened their home to us to finish out my senior year. Teachers at my new school provided me with school supplies, resources, and even a new pair of soccer cleats when I had nothing. This helped inspire me to become a teacher. 

Katrina was a manmade disaster. Governments failed and corporations exploited while others sacrificed their time and resources to help. When systems fail by design, people unite to compensate. That solidarity is inspirational.

This is why Katrina survivors aren’t surprised with how our gov’t handled COVID. It’s not just Trump or Biden; it’s how the system was designed from its inception. It’s designed to cater to the wealthy at the expense of the working poor. Katrina taught me that harsh truth.

— Staff notes originally run in our daily email newsletter, Indy Now, along with news updates, photos of the day, a weekly poll and more. Sign up below.

Helen Lewis is a graduate of The University of Queensland, Australia. She worked in print media in Australia, Canada and the U.S. before joining the Business Journal in 2016. She became managing editor in 2019.