The Lasting Effects of Hurricane Katrina

Thousands of kids who survived the 2005 storm are still dealing with the fallout

The Lasting Effects of Hurricane Katrina

Even as a 14-year-old at a new school 2,000 miles from home, Kenyon Dunbar understood his new teacher's intentions were good. But the single topic Dunbar didn't want to talk about — couldn't talk about — was the one subject every last person he encountered wanted to know. Only one week earlier, Dunbar, his mother, his grandmother and two younger siblings (along with two strangers) escaped the flooded streets of New Orleans in a stolen car and drove over four hours before finding a motel room near the Texas border. The whole time Dunbar felt the world didn't care if they lived or died. Now they had found refuge in California, where Dunbar's rich uncle lived in the Bay Area, and where Dunbar, who is black, was attending an integrated school for the first time in his life. He wanted nothing more than to blend in, but he had barely taken his seat when the teacher called him out.

Why don't you tell your classmates about Hurricane Katrina, Kenyon?

Life had been good before Katrina. Dunbar had grown up in New Orleans's Seventh Ward, a black working-class neighborhood far from where most tourists ever roam. He had recently moved in with his grandmother to attend a high-caliber school in New Orleans East, a nicer part of the city. "I was excited," he says. "This was going to be a new experience for me." With one week of middle school under his belt, the levees collapsed and 80 percent of New Orleans flooded. The stranger in the small outboard motor boat who saved them had to steer around floating dead bodies. While trapped in the Convention Center for several days, Dunbar happened upon the body of a dead young girl, maybe 5-years-old, whose face still haunts his dreams.

C'mon, Kenyon, I'm sure you have something to tell us about Katrina.

"The teacher, he's pushing, pushing, pushing me," Dunbar, now 24, recalls over lunch at Liberty's Kitchen, a New Orleans eatery that doubles as a social enterprise nonprofit. He's six feet tall and wears his hair in dreadlocks. He often flashes a quick, easy smile. Before the flood, he says, he had never had problems relating to people. He was happy and outspoken, even a bit of a clown. "The old me would have loved standing up in front of the class, telling my story," he says. "The Katrina experience literally took that whole side of my personality away from me." 

Dunbar spent eighteen often-painful months in California before moving back to New Orleans in 2007. His mother was homesick for the city. Though the flooded IHOP where she worked as a manager was still closed, she moved them into a two-bedroom shotgun house in Mid-City not far from the center of town. At first, Dunbar was happy to be back. In New Orleans, he figured, he'd feel like himself again. "I thought it'd be cool," he says.

Everything turned out to be more difficult in the hobbled city. "We were almost the first people back," Dunbar says. "It was a ghost town." There were no stores for miles and no restaurants. A group of older men would brew coffee at home and set up folded chairs on a patch of sidewalk in front of a shuttered coffeehouse — they called it "The Pretend Café." Half the city seemed to have a hacking cough because of mold spores and other irritants in the air — or maybe from living in FEMA trailers, which were found to have dangerously high levels of formaldehyde. Suicides tripled in post-Katrina New Orleans. "You could smell the death," Dunbar says. "You could smell the mold. It was on everything." 

Developmental psychologists would tell you that when particular cognitive milestones are missed in a child's life, there's no making it up," says sociologist Lori Peek, who along with Alice Fothergill, is the author of the new book Children of Katrina. Ten years after Katrina, social scientists are just gaining a sense of how the storm — and the botched response — has impacted the development of 160,000 young people displaced by Katrina. A number of experts now believe the storm is partly responsible for at least one startling fact: today, Louisiana has the country's highest rate of young adults not in school or working. 

Peek and Fothergill began their project interviewing kids stuck in FEMA trailer camps right after the storm, when many of them still didn't know if loved ones had survived. They later found families separated for months at a time — one FEMA trailer, registered under the name of a woman living hundreds of miles away from New Orleans, was full of unsupervised children. Ultimately, the average kid displaced by Katrina moved more than seven times. Every last one of their young subjects missed some school and "thousands and thousands of kids hadn't returned to school at all that first year," Peek says.

According to David Abramson, a public health researcher at NYU who has overseen a ten-year study on children and families displaced by Katrina, the storm had a disproportionate impact on kids like Kenyon Dunbar: the socially and economically vulnerable who had been on an upward trajectory. "For them, the moves, the uncertainty, the lack of resources, the loss of community, has been devastating," Abramson says. "They were heading up in the right direction but after Katrina, it was like they had fallen down the rungs of the ladder." A 2010 study he co-wrote for Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness found more than one in three kids displaced by Katrina suffered a "serious emotional disturbance" — ailments serious enough to impede a child's academic progress or stunt overall development.

The school system had been battered by the storm just like every other part of the city. More than 100 of the Orleans Parish school system's 128 buildings had flooded. Only a small fraction of the city's public school had reopened and most of them were newly constituted charter schools disproportionately staffed by white Teach for America newcomers.

Myron Miller's family returned to New Orleans in early 2007, when he was 14 years old. Now an education activist, he says the influx of young teachers "tried their best," but they were being asked to handle classes filled with traumatized kids. For the eighth grade, Miller was randomly assigned a school in New Orleans East. The other students, he says, "were off the wall. Crazy." Miller had once been an exemplary student, but post-storm, bouncing from Baton Rouge to Atlanta back to New Orleans, he was a regular in the vice-principal's office. "I would yell at the teacher," he says. "I didn't pay attention to nothing."

But New Orleans evacuees faced their own troubles in new schools across the U.S. Many communities, after the nonstop storyline that New Orleans was beset by violence (even though, much of the killing was at the hands of the police and white vigilantes), assumed storm refugees were lawless and hostile. In the short documentary, Education in Exile, Dominique Townsend, who ended up at a high school in the Kansas City metro area, said, "We were seen as the trouble children."  School officials summoned Townsend, then 16 years old, and the other kids from New Orleans to the auditorium, and laid out a strict set of rules explicitly for evacuee kids. "We were known as the NOLA gang — whatever that meant," Townsend said. They often received harsher punishments than local kids and were even forbidden from sitting together in the cafeteria for fear of what the "NOLA gang" — a reference to the common shorthand for New Orleans — might conspire to do. 

Hanh Luu, now 18, evacuated her tightknit Vietnamese-American community in eastern New Orleans, and ended up attending three different elementary schools in three different communities over the next four months. At each, her feeling of being singled out was overwhelming. "It's hard when everyone sees you as the outsider," Luu says. "Constantly being made to feel like the weird kid was distracting. I don't imagine I learned very much that year." Luu, who now attends Tulane, didn't fully catch up until connecting with a New Orleans youth center that offered free tutoring.

Yet attending a school far away from New Orleans's notoriously sub-standard system could have its benefits. Dvhante Woods, an eighth grader in 2005, ended up in Houston with his family. There were fights in those early months between the locals and the kids from New Orleans but the bigger challenge was keeping up with a curriculum that was much more demanding and moved at a much faster pace than at his school in New Orleans. Woods stayed after school four days a week to keep up. The study habits he learned in Houston helped him earn a degree in business administration from a community college in New Orleans, and he's about to begin a bachelor's program. "You could say that Katrina was an overall positive in my life," he says.

California would prove a mixed experience for Dunbar. He adopted what he describes as a "blank personality" — his "pose" — and suffered the occasional humiliation, like the time the morning announcements at school included a call-out to Dunbar to pick up a box of canned goods someone had left for his family at the front office. But he kept his grades up ("You put the work in front of me, I'll do it," he says). And for the first time in his life, he found himself making friends with kids of other races. "My whole life I had only gone to black schools," he says. "It really opened my eyes to a world beyond New Orleans."

Ultimately, Dunbar attended four schools between the eighth and twelfth grades. "I always got good grades," he says. "My attitude was the problem." In elementary school, he was put into art classes for the gifted and he was always a popular athlete. But when he graduated high school in 2010, college didn't even seem like an option. "I went right to the streets," he says. "I spent much of the next few years up to no good." He now works as a crew chief for Youth Rebuilding New Orleans, an organization that refurbishes destroyed homes and sells many of them at a discount to local teachers. "It feels like I'm back in society again," he says. "Learning how to talk to people, working at being a better person." Nonetheless, his ultimate goal, studying for an architecture degree at a four-year college, continues to elude him. "That's what I should've done right after high school," he says at Liberty's Kitchen last month. "I had so much talent I let go."

Talking about his escape from New Orleans has not gotten much easier since that first morning of school in California. "To this day," he says, "I've never talked to my mom about any of this stuff." Despite the mandatory evacuation order issued 20 hours before Katrina made landfall, Dunbar and his family remained in New Orleans. They gathered on the ninth floor of the sturdy apartment building where his grandmother lived. "She's a stubborn lady," Dunbar says of his mother's mother, who was 65 at the time. "And my mom wasn't going to leave her in town with a Category 5 hurricane coming."

They were trapped, surrounded by ten feet of water, for several days. There was no electricity and therefore no air conditioning. The plumbing was out so Dunbar made bucket runs down nine flights of stairs for water to flush the toilets. The gas was out too; there was no way to cook what little food they had until Dunbar, foraging around the building, found a barbecue on the roof. At one point, he broke into a vending machine and delivered cold sodas to a half dozen or so older people also trapped inside the building. His mother called him her little Superman. "I was basically the man of the family," he says.

But he was also a 14-year-old kid surrounded by horrors. One day, looking out the window from his ninth floor perch, he saw a man resting on a small patch of high ground, dangling his feet into the water. A moment later, he says, an alligator snapped off the man's foot. "I screamed like a little girl," Dunbar says.

Several times a day, Dunbar went up on the roof to wave his shirt in desperation at passing helicopters. "They just looked at me, pointing, like I'm in a big museum," he says. Finally, Dunbar and his family spotted several boats, driven by men in "Rescue" t-shirts, heading their way. The boats took them to an elevated patch of highway, and then disappeared between the buildings, presumably on to the next search-and-rescue mission. At the overpass, authorities loaded them into the back of a borrowed 18-wheeler headed for the city's Convention Center. 

The Superdome endures as the symbol of government incompetence — where, in the days after Katrina, 25,000 people were trapped without electricity or working toilets — but the Convention Center was even less equipped; it was the city's makeshift option when the Superdome couldn't accommodate any more people. There was no water, no food, no medical supplies, no toilet paper. Dunbar and his family watched dead bodies roll past on borrowed luggage carts. It was while exploring the building's second floor that Dunbar came across the dead body of the young girl.

It was impossible to know how long they would be stuck there. "They're lying to us, telling us, ‘The buses are coming, the buses are coming,'" he says. "And at the end of every day, people are more mad because there are no buses." Finally, Dunbar suggested to his mother that they hotwire a car. She looked at him as if he were crazy, but Dunbar slipped outside and used a brick to break into the first good car he found. He pulled the plastic molding from the steering column, like in the movies, and randomly grabbed at wires. "I'm shocking myself, the car alarm is coming on, all sorts of stuff," he says. A passerby, who Dunbar guesses must have been an ex-con, "started it in like 30 seconds." Dunbar ran to get his family while the man, true to his word, waited for them.

This story was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, where Gary Rivlin is a reporting fellow.