Survivors of Hurricane Katrina Tell Their Haunting Stories

It’s been almost two decades since the 2005 hurricane – dubbed Katrina – hit the Gulf Coast and wreaked havoc on multiple cities along the Louisiana-Mississippi border. Of all the places Katrina ravaged, New Orleans got it the worst, leaving the city submerged in water for weeks.

Hurricane survivors / Satellite image of the storm / Hurricane survivors / Flooded streets
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Most of us watched in horror from our dry and intact living rooms, but for all those in the New Orleans area, they had to live through the absolute nightmare. They had to sit on roofs of buildings and homes and makeshift boats, watching the surreal event unfold.

Katrina claimed over 1,800 lives, and thousands have lived to tell their tales. Here are their stories…

He Was 11 When His Life Was Forever Changed

“The crazy thing was, hurricanes were so routine, we thought nothing of it,” said Taylor Evans, who was only 11 when Katrina ruined his life as he knew it. As he explained, they “knew the drill;” there would be some flooding, a few power outages, and they had to prepare by moving valuable stuff away from the windows and placing sandbags at the front door.

Hurricane Katrina roars into Gulfport, Mississippi.
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Oh, and there was the bonus of getting four days off of school. No one expected Katrina to become what she became. “Once the storm did hit, the news was littered with images of our neighborhood flooded with six feet of water.”

He Didn’t Know If He Still Had a Home

This was before social media, so Evans didn’t know where his friends or if they were okay. “We didn’t even know if we still had a home,” he recalled. “The scariest thing was the uncertainty of everything.” The kid was sent to a New England boarding school, where his love of TV and film became a method of escapism; anything to distract him from the horrific reality.

Two men are paddling in a boat after the hurricane.
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15 years later, visiting New Orleans was “surreal,” as “so much has changed — and at the same time, nothing has.” The way he described it, there are parts of the city that are “frozen in time, untouched since the storm’s aftermath.”

She Went to a Movie Instead of Fleeing the Area

Helga Zankner was one of the newest residents of Laughlin, who moved to Nevada on the day Katrina hit the coast of Mississippi. She had been living alone in Bay St. Louis and heard the hurricane was headed in her direction. But she planned on staying put and ride out the storm at home.

The auditorium is seen inside the heavily damaged building.
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Rather than flee, she went to a movie. The sale of her home was about to be finalized on September 1st, just a couple days after the hurricane hit. But her home was destroyed before the escrow even closed.

Riding Out the Storm on a House on Stilts

Her friend who lived near Houston called her to warn her to get out – the prediction was there would be 30-foot storm surges. “I thought I would be out of the house for a few days. An inconvenience maybe, but not this,” Zankner said.

Houses are seen in the flooded Lower Ninth Ward.
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Instead of join the bumper-to-bumper traffic, Zankner went to a friend’s house in Pearlington to ride out the storm. The house was built on stilts, so the two women thought it would be okay. They lost power on Sunday. The hurricane hit on Monday. The house swayed a ton, but didn’t collapse.

In the Eye of the Storm

“The first part of the storm had passed. There was only a few inches of surge. I didn’t think it would be a big deal,” Zankner recalled. What she didn’t realize was that they were in the eye of the storm. The second wave was about to hit, which was when Zankner’s friend tried to escape by car.

A satellite image of Hurricane Katrina is seen over the Gulf of Mexico.
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She came racing back to the house with water rising quickly behind her. Her car was soon washed away. The house was 12 feet above the rising water, and the women had to think fast – save themselves or risk being carried away.

Holding Onto the Tree for Five Hours

Zankner, her friend, and three dogs climbed into a small flat-bottomed boat built for one with no paddles. Using tree branches, they pulled themselves along the flowing water and debris, looking for a safe haven. They got hold of a tree on the roof of a building, and “held onto that tree for about five hours.”

A woman makes her way through a hole in the roof of a flooded house.
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“We watched people, bodies, dogs, ice-chests and debris raging by us in the strong current.” The boat was quickly filing up, so Zankner had to use her drinking cup that she brought with her to scoop out water as fast as she could.

Making It Back to the House

“We sat there watching dogs swimming trying to save themselves. Some of them made it onto the rooftop but we couldn’t help them, ” Zankner said. Eventually, the water started to recede and the women were able to make it back to the house.

The damage left in the house after the hurricane.
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Somehow, her living area was salvaged, the surge missing it by about six inches. “The only damage to her house was from my car, which had been parked under the carport pilings. It bounced on the ceiling for all that time,” Zankner said. She was then rescued by some hospital employees who were in the area.

Struggling in the Senior Center

Zankner was sent to a special needs senior center, and despite her list of medical problems, she occupied herself by trying to help others. “One man came in and was having an attack. I let him use my oxygen and made him use my nebulizer and take a few treatments.”

An elderly couple sits on the sidewalk by the Convention Center.
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During the days following the storm, a constant strain of residents forced their way into the senior center. “It was hard. We had helicopters dropping down water and ice and a little food.” Her friend from Houston, Charlies Reese, whom she called “her hero,” drove the six hours to come find her.

Saved by Her “Hero,” She Found a New Beginning

After no luck finding her, he drove back home, only to get a call and make the drive back again. This time, he found her. “I looked up into the doorway and there was Charlie. Charlie is a hero. Without this man I’d be in a shelter somewhere and I wouldn’t be here today,” Zankner related.

The sun rises behind a car driving on the road.
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Zankner chose to move to Laughlin. “I just want to live my life again. All the things that I’ve worked for my whole life are gone…” But the town has been good to her. “I’m literally in shock. Never in a million years did I think I’d be treated so good. This is my new beginning.”

He Was a Survivor Who Wasn’t Even Born Yet

Will Imbornone’s Katrina is as remarkable as many others, yet his is different. He’s a Katrina survivor but he hadn’t even been born yet when the storm hit. “It was confusing. I don’t know. It’s just weird to think I was that little,” said Imbornone, who was only an embryo at the time.

The neighborhood of Chalmette sits underwater.
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What would one day become a person named Will was in August 2005 just a frozen embryo in a tank in New Orleans. “I cried. I thought they were gone. I just assumed they were gone, so we mourned the loss of them. We thought they were both gone,” his mother, Amy Kern, shared.

Saving the Tank

For several years, Kern and her husband wanted to start a family. They turned to IVF and thankfully their twin daughters were born. When Katrina came and it was time to evacuate, the girls were premature and fresh out of the NICU.

A couple embraces as they stand in the wreckage of their home.
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It was weeks before Kern found out that men rescued the very tank which held her two frozen embryos in it. “I never believed that they were OK, you know. I was like, ‘Well, they saved the tank, but there’s no way that those embryos will be OK.'”

The Volunteer Who Saved Her Son

Both of the embryos were implanted; one didn’t make it. Will was born in October 2007. Kern was able to find one of the men who saved the embryo tank, who essentially saved her son’s life. The man had been a volunteer with the Ohio Wildlife and Fishers Department.

A volunteer with the American Red Cross, unloads bags of ice for people in need.
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Kern emailed him showing her gratitude. “He did not even realize the magnitude of what he was doing that day.” She says she always tells her son, “Please understand that those men risked their own lives.”

He Thought His Home Would Make It

A man named Andre told a journalist on Katrina’s 10th anniversary that he fared “Not too bad,” adding, “Well, we lost our house, but we’re all here and OK now.” He, his wife, and baby had stuck around when the storm hit, which he said was his fault.

A man moves possessions from his flooded home.
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“We got a solid two-story brick house out in Gentilly. Had it for six years and it never flooded before, never got the least bit of water since we been there.” With new shingles that he laid himself and a “solid” roof with three-quarter-inch treated plywood underneath, he figured they’d be fine. They weren’t fine.

The Water Chasing Them Upstairs

As soon as the levees broke, the water started flowing up so fast that they had to scramble to the second floor. “That water came right behind us, waltzing up the stairs like it owned the place, and quick as a wink got to swirling around our ankles on the second floor.”

Canal Street is flooded a day after Hurricane Katrina.
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The lights went out and Andre was stacking stuff in the dark, hauling stuff to the attic as fast as he could. The water finally topped out around his waist. I kept watch,” he described. “It filled my pants pockets and then stopped like it had what it wanted.”

Wading in the Waters of the Bedroom

A surreal scene, he waded through the water in his bedroom to look out from the upstairs balcony. It was midnight and he watched as the water gushed by his house just below the balcony railings, seeing this “black, oily surface going all around the block, filling streets and yards.”

Residents stranded on the roofs wait for rescue boats.
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People were yelling, banging on roofs of houses from the inside. “They’d climbed up to get away from the water and got themselves stuck in their attics with no way to break out,” he explained. Andre remembers a politician warning the residents of New Orleans just days prior on the news…

Take Your Axes Upstairs, They Were Told

He told them to keep an axe in the house, especially in the attic. “The news people, and the president even, had acted like the man was some sort of farm boy for saying such things,” Andre said. “But here it was a-flooding, and that nasty water was drowning folks like rats in they own houses, and you better know them folks wished now that they had them axes.”

A man holds himself on his porch.
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Meanwhile, Andre and his family drank water from the upstairs bathroom, hoping it was still clean. The next morning, a “motorboat full of guys in uniform” rescued them.

“Then They Up and Forgot Us”

They were taken to Broad Street overpass, where over 200 people were already waiting around with nothing do and no food, water, or blankets. Andre figured it would be temporary – someone would come back for them. They wouldn’t just be left there. But Andre was wrong again.

People on Canal St. use a boat to get to higher ground.
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“But they did, they left us. Then they up and forgot us, and that’s when things started to get bad. Really bad.” He said how more and more people kept swimming up there, floating in on rafts, plastic swimming pools, and wheelbarrow tubs. “Folks were getting desperate and mean.”

They Desperately Needed to Get Out of There

As people started robbing from others and watching people drown in the water, Andre’s sister was urging him to come uptown to be with her. He desperately wanted to leave the overpass, but the problem was his wife and baby couldn’t swim.

Survivors rescued from their flooded Lower Ninth Ward houses wait for a pick-up.
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He went up to a man who had an air mattress – the kind you float on in a pool. He told him, “Look, man, I got to get my family out of here. I got to get to my sister’s house uptown where it’s safe for them, and I want to ask you to loan me that air mattress. Please.”

A Horror Film with a Pleasant Ending

The man gave him the mattress without saying a word. He pushed the mattress with his wife and son on it, and about three hours into the journey the mattress bumped into something floating in the water. Like a scene from a horror film, they hit a dead body.

A palm tree lies on Canal Street during the heavy rain and wind from Hurricane Katrina.
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Andre’s wife started screaming and fell into the water right next to it. Eventually, Andre got his family to safety and to his sister’s home. About a week later, they were all evacuated to Charlotte, North Carolina, where people “went out of their way to make us feel like we was worth something.”

Ever since, Andre has been giving back in some way every day. “I try to help, help somebody every day. Makes me feel good.”

They Were Evacuation Veterans

In late August 2005, Clint Smith prepped to evacuate like they always do in such a situation. “We were evacuation veterans,” he said, “used to going away for a few days and returning to a New Orleans that had experienced some flash flooding and down branches.”

Survivors from the Lower Ninth Ward walk to a bridge crossing.
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When he, his wife, and three backed out of the driveway that Monday morning, none of them figured it would be the last time they would see the house they had called a home for the last 15 years.

Everyday Folks Turned into Heroes

Smith was shocked by the extensive damage to the city – for what seemed “like the stripping of its soul.” But as devastating as it truly was, there was also a “roaring sense of community and resiliency,” as he put it. People were selfless, where “everyday folks turned into heroes.”

New Orleans police bring people ashore from rescue boats.
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The love his family felt from their “village” of friends and family, near and far, was incredible and their relationships are forever deepened for it. The Smith family moved back to the city after the storm. “I continue to have faith in New Orleans and I look forward to many more years.”

Leaving at the Last Minute

Joe Bridges and his family were some of the last residents to leave New Orleans as Katrina creeped closer. They initially planned to ride out the storm, but decided to leave at the last minute. Their first stop was Atlanta, Georgia, where his sister-in-law lived, thinking it would be just two or three days.

The wreckage left after hurricane Katrina.
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“When the levees broke,” Bridges recalled, “everybody was in complete shock as to what are we gonna do next?” Packing was rushed – grabbing the photos, the documents, some clothes. Jordon Bridges, a senior in high school at the time, watched the coverage of the storm on TV.

They Knew They Weren’t Coming Back

Watching the news on TV made him realize the severity of the situation. “As I’m seeing people wade across Canal Street in bins, I’m like, ‘We’re probably not going home,'” Jordon said. The family then relocated to Washington D.C., but Bridges would go back and forth to New Orleans to help rebuild the city.

Pedestrians walk through the damaged French Quarter after Hurricane Katrina.
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“I would get up at 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning and I would drive from D.C. all the way to New Orleans,” Joe said. “And then I would stay here for a week or two, and then I would drive back to D.C. and stay there for a week or so.”

A Case of Survivor’s Guilt

Going back to New Orleans was difficult for him as it was “like a bomb had went off.” Although his family had many opportunities in the D.C. area, Bridges grappled with the decision to stay or return to his city. The guilt wore on him.

A man removes furniture and debris out of a friend’s house.
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He explained: “You do electrical work, and three quarters to seven eighths of your city is out of power and you’re just gonna leave, and just leave your city hanging? The place that helped you make your money, that you grew up, that you were born here?”

The Veil That Covers New Orleans

The Bridges ended up returning to New Orleans in January 2006, and it was an emotional return. Going back to their house for the first time… “I just remember the carpet and stuff being torn up and just a bunch of flies everywhere.”

Homes lay in ruins after being destroyed by the tidal surge caused by Hurricane Katrina.
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After being badly destroyed, Bridges rebuilt the house and passed it down to his sons. Jordon lives their to this day. “Those are the things that are gonna last forever.” Sadly, the city’s population still hasn’t returned to its pre-Katrina levels. Jordon calls it a “veil” that still covers the city.

When the Seriously Ill Have to Ride Out the Storm

David Haspel and his seriously ill father preferred to ride out the storm at home, like veteran New Orleans residents usually did. On Sunday afternoon, a day before the storm hit, his father began internal bleeding and was admitted to Touro Infirmary. The hospital was prepared and everyone thought they had dodged another hurricane bullet.

A man is being rescued from his home.
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They never expected the flooding that would take over the area. Luckily, the Haspel’s neighborhood didn’t flood, but they felt the chaos. Haspel remembers, however, the acts of kindness from the nursing staff. Michelle and Vance Reynoir, “a remarkable sibling team” helped Haspel and his heavily sedated father to formed an evacuation plan.

Getting His Elderly Parents Out of There

They also gave him phone numbers to call to tell their families they loved them. “I felt guilty leaving because they were so brave,” Haspel said. His mother, then 82, was with them, too. He drove his parents to Alexandria, Louisiana, spending the night in a shelter, “where kindness was in full force.”

Two men paddle in high water in the Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina.
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The next morning, they flew to Dallas. Only when they saw the news did they understand the depth of destruction to the city. Two days later, his father died, but his death was peaceful as he was surrounded by family. Come August 2020, his mother died from Covid. Her death, however, was not surrounded by family.

A Real Loss and Uncertainty

For Melanie Potts, Hurricane Katrina was the first time she experienced “a real loss and uncertainty.” Only 11 at the time, she couldn’t possible comprehend what was going on around her. Her family’s evacuation plan was put into force a day before Katrina hit.

People are taken ashore in a boat after being rescued from their homes.
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They made their way to Charlottesville, Virginia, where they had some extended family. “I vividly remember watching the devastation in real time on TV, paying close attention to my mom’s sadness and fear.” Just a kid herself, her thoughts were also focused on her friends -when would she see them again?

Katrina Taught Her the Power of Resilience

She also worried about their home and if it would survive the storm. About a week after the hurricane, they heard from a neighbor that their house had completely flooded. In other words, they had nothing to return to.

New Orleans police bring people ashore from the rescue boats.
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Her parents enrolled her and her siblings in new schools, and they lived in Charlottesville for 10 months. They then moved back to New Orleans to start over again. Now in her late 20s, Potts is still in New Orleans. “Katrina taught me the power of resilience, patience and trust. Without Hurricane Katrina, I would not be the woman I am today.”

He Watched as the Whole City Sank

Kalan Minnard says “everything” stayed with him after the hurricane. Every year, on the anniversary of Katrina, he and his family have a discussion about it and how it impacted them. They had evacuated to Mobile, Alabama at first before moving on to Lafayette, Louisiana.

A Military truck drives down a flooded Canal St.
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His father, a surgeon, had to stay in the city and work at the hospital during the storm, which was “a traumatic experience for him.” It was equally traumatic for his family. Minnard remembers hearing on the news that the “whole city was underwater.” He, too, was only 11 at the time.

He Learned to Appreciate Everyone and Everything

At 11, Minnard was the eldest of his brothers and sisters, and the news was terrifying for him to process. Luckily, their house “had roof damage and minimal flooding.” They had to switch schools though, which Minnard said “altered our paths as students.”

A car is seen in a beachfront pool.
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For him, the “long-term impact was more emotional than anything.” It never goes away, he explained, and he learned to “appreciate everything and everyone way more — because it can be lost in a moment’s notice.” But once a storm begins, the fear and anxiety creep in.

She’ll Be Recovering Forever

For Allison Good, she’ll be “recovering forever.” After dealing wit the shock of losing her house and her two cats, and living for four months in limbo in a rental house in Atlanta, she surprised herself when she told her friend that she would never wave a magic wand and go back to pre-Katrina New Orleans.

Rescue crews head out to continue to search.
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“My life is much richer because of Katrina,” Good admitted. “I have fallen in love with New Orleans.” Back in high school, she lived “a sheltered life,” oblivious the “cultural gems” the city holds – ones she now appreciates and cherishes.

Memories That Are Impossible to Erase

It took her years to be able to talk about it, even more to read about it, and finally she was able to write about it. “My family has stayed strong, I suffered nothing more than extreme grief and mild depression, and I thought I was doing pretty well,” she wrote in a personal essay.

walks through high water on Canal Street as he carries a dog he rescued.
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But it’s impossible to erase the memories of seeing emaciated bodies in wheelchairs, dying from dehydration, starvation, and la ack of medical care. “You cry to the point of physical exhaustion,” she said. Even harder was hearing of all the pets swimming in toxic water, wandering the streets.

She Thought It Was Headed to Miami Instead

Carol Blackwell remembers hearing that Katrina was originally headed to Miami. At the time, she was recovering from “unsurmountable grief” from losing her brother and sister as well as a divorce. Suddenly, she heard that Katrina changed directions and was head to New Orleans.

Houses collapsed onto their foundations by floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina.
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She slept in on the Saturday morning, awakened by a phone call from her dad in North Carolina. He wanted to know if she left New Orleans yet. She turned on the TV and couldn’t believe her eyes. In a panic, she and her 7-year-old daughter threw everything they could into her car.

Exiled By Katrina

The two embarked on a long, frightening evacuation to Alexandria, Louisiana, to find shelter in her sister in-law’s house. They ultimately survived “being exiled by Katrina, the devastation to the region and the lives of many.” But they lost pretty much everything they owned and life as they knew it.

Houses and wooden debris are shown in flood waters from Hurricane Katrina.
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They never returned to the city, and had to deal with many more “painful curveballs,” Blackwell stated. But at least they have their lives and rich experiences in New Orleans as well as their families and friends.