By Donna Brazile, NEA ColumnistTen years ago this week, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf coast, drowning New Orleans and the surrounding areas. Over 1,800 souls perished, with 1 million people displaced, millions of homes destroyed or damaged, and families torn apart and scattered. Did anyone think that today the City of New Orleans and the region would be thriving? And dancing? And celebrating the power of resiliency?
It's been a long journey, full of hardships and heartaches. As President Obama said during the commemoration: "What started out as a natural disaster became a manmade one -- a failure of government to look out for its own citizens ... what that storm revealed was another tragedy -- one that had been brewing for decades. New Orleans had long been plagued by structural inequality that left too many people, especially poor people of color, without good jobs or affordable health care or decent housing."
There were people who asked, why even rebuild? Visit New Orleans, go down to the river, fish on the Gulf or just look around, and you'll see the answer to that defeatist thinking. New Orleans is back, better and stronger than ever. We have much to remember and much to be grateful for as we commemorate this anniversary.
As Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, "In the midst of all the death and destruction, something else happened. The sun came up."
As much as Katrina was a shared experience, it was -- and is -- deeply personal for me.
My youngest sister, Zeola, her daughter Brianna and husband, Ken, were rescued after spending four perilous days on her porch under 14 feet of flood water in Mid-City. She wrote me that, "I could not locate (my husband and my father) for hours at the airport. After about 3 to 4 hours, I found Lionel and Ken. I'm exhausted now, no sleep. We stood for hours waiting in the hot sun on the ramp and later sat in the airport, slept in the chairs."
My niece wrote, "There was so much water. It kept getting higher and higher and I was afraid that it would ultimately come to the top step ... all that was left for the week (to eat) were crackers and Vienna sausages..."
"I remember being so angry and confused when we saw National Guardsmen on a speedboat taking pictures, and we called to them to help us, and they looked and sped on. For one week, we waited on our porch, watching a corpse float literally a few feet in front of us...
"The only thing that brought me comfort was when we finally reached San Antonio ... I had friends (there) and I helped the members of the Red Cross distribute lotion, soaps, and other necessary items people needed."
To this day, everyone's trauma still resonates differently. Even 10 years later, although we've moved on and done so much, the aches and scars are still present.
We'll never know how many people did not come back for whatever reason -- lost in the flood, or in the exodus that followed. No matter how many people move to New Orleans, those we lost are irreplaceable.
After Katrina, Governor Kathleen Blanco charged the Louisiana Recovery Authority, of which I was a part, to help reimagine the future, build the city and region stronger and safer, restore the levees and identify and secure federal relief dollars.
Ten years later, we have made enormous progress. And our recovery and rebuilding will continue because we are a city of resilience and resolve.
The Superdome reopened in 2006, a year later. Tears welled when Sean Payton hoisted the NFC Championship trophy in 2009 and declared, "This building used to be wet. It's not wet any more." I still get misty-eyed when I think about it. The Saints' success became a symbol of our success.
New Orleans is pioneering a special-needs registry, identifying individuals who require special assistance during emergencies, such as those on oxygen, dialysis and respirators or have mobility issues. A new hospital was just opened -- the University Medical Center -- a partnership between LSU and Tulane Medical schools.
Because of New Orleans' lessons learned, FEMA provided a more proactive response to Superstorm Sandy in 2012. More than 17,000 federal responders were on the ground within days of that storm's landfall.
One of the biggest concerns after Katrina was that in rebuilding and recovering, we might lose sight of what it means to be New Orleans. But the city still has the same heart and soul.
Indeed, the core of New Orleans was revealed and rejuvenated. Over the years, as we struggled together, mourned and rejoiced together, argued and celebrated together, we witnessed the essence of New Orleans re-emerge and thrive.
We are a grateful people, humbled by a mighty storm and the failure of the levees to protect us. So, on behalf of a grateful city, a beloved community, we say "thank you" to all of you who helped us, lifted us up, opened your homes and your wallets and helped us rebuild.
Come visit us. Let us play you our music. And let the good times roll.
By Donna Brazile, NEA Columnist