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Katrina: five years later

Battered by Hurricane Katrina, but unbroken five years later

Five years ago, I photographed people struggling through one of the worst disasters of our time: Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2005. I found them living on the interstate or wading the rancid floodwaters. Since then, each has experienced loss and a darkness that many of us will never know. But they have also been given perspective: A father realized his son is his world. A 10-year-old girl discovered there can be life without violence. A tuba player became part of New Orleans' creative and musical resurrection.

Juan Parke

Juan Parke stayed behind. He found a canoe and began rescuing people and animals. He boarded up friends' houses and kept watch over his neighborhood, protecting it from looters. His phone number got out, and he began receiving calls from strangers asking him to check on relatives. He guarded the pizza shop next door.

Parke didn't see his son Deen, 10 at the time, until October. "The irony is that when he came back, the lights came on — the same day," Parke said. "I remember the very spot on the street that I saw him. I ran down and hugged him so hard I was afraid I may have broken something. Being a dad was what really mattered.

"It's kind of like that moment in It's a Wonderful Life . . . to get a second chance. I've become far more active. I vote, I participate in volunteer activities."

The pizza shop owner gave him a lifetime of free pizza. His neighborhood threw him a party. GQ magazine named him a "Man of the Year" in 2005. His cell phone and bike are displayed at the Louisiana State Museum.

Parke doesn't have his canoe any more. But when someone asks for help, he doesn't hesitate.

Sadie James

After being rescued by boat from the Lower Ninth Ward and spending the night on the interstate, Sadie James pushed her invalid mother, Irma, in a wheelchair through the flood water to the Superdome. Her daughters had already fled to Texas. She had to get her mom out of the city.

They ended up in Alcoa, Tenn., but her mother quickly returned to Louisiana. Sadie stayed on alone. She missed her family and fell into depression. After a year, she caught a Greyhound to Donaldsonville, La., to care for her ailing sister. Eventually, she moved to Lafayette to live with one of her daughters. Her other daughter lives in Texas now. "They decided they didn't want to come back," she said. "Katrina really scared my girls."

Sadie's mother is 79 now. About once a month, Sadie visits her in a nursing home in New Orleans, but avoids at all costs her old neighborhood. After the water receded, she heard a body was found in her house. "I don't like it over here no more; I like where I'm at in Lafayette."

Rodney Lomax, 8

Interstate 10 near the Superdome resembled a scene from Haiti. People were desperate, hungry and thirsty. They needed their medication. Some were dying. The flood happened on Monday and this was Friday. Amid the chaos, I found some children playing soccer. Rodney Lomax was 3 at the time. Now 8, his memories are powerful enough for him to recount. "I remember it was a hot day, lots of people were dying and I saw the water coming. Then you saw many dead bodies and stuff. It was awful. The airplane came and got us and dropped down food."

"The children kept us sane, because we had to be strong for them," said Rodney's grandmother and guardian, Rhonda Lomax. He calls her Mama.

She took Rodney to California to live with her uncle. For months, Rodney was terrified of water, even of being sprayed with a hose. The Christmas after the storm, he helped decorate a relative's office. The other children painted red and white, Christmas colors. Rodney painted the whole window black. "That's all I see," he told them.

That year he began to see a therapist two or three times a week. In 2007, he returned to New Orleans with his grandmother. He loves school and gets good grades. His teacher wishes he would talk more.

Sometimes he thinks about Katrina. It comes to him when he's alone in his room, lying on his bed. Above his head is a drawing he made with crayon.

Now, he colors with red, yellow and green.

Yukeba "Keba" Collins, 15

"I didn't really want to come back. I wanted to stay in Arkansas," said 15-year-old Keba Collins. "But we were getting our house rebuilt, so I had no choice."

Keba doesn't like to think or talk about Katrina too much. She lived across the street from Rodney Lomax and his family. She remembers seeing people dying and the bodies. "It was sad. I never expected nothing like that to happen. I was scared. I didn't know what to do."

In 2006, she returned to New Orleans with her mother. She started high school on Monday. "It was a better experience out there than it is here," she said. Violence wasn't part of her world in Arkansas.

Mark "Tuba" Smith

During Katrina, Mark Smith walked the interstate with his sousaphone. "If I leave this I might as well jump in the water myself," he said then. "This is my livelihood." He briefly lived with relatives in Dallas before returning to New Orleans. His sousaphone was stolen in Texas. Its replacement was stolen in New Orleans. Since the storm he has been featured in a book and on the covers of magazines. He plays for tips with various street musicians every day starting at 9 a.m. outside Cafe Du Monde. He keeps a towel around his neck for the sweat. He wears silly kid glasses and has a little doll he calls his son attached to his tuba. In between songs, he rests on a short pillar next to the cafe. His knees are in constant pain, and the August heat is punishing. His current tuba isn't brass, it's a fiberglass student model. But Smith has played the tuba since he was in grammar school. He didn't give it up to Katrina. He has become part of a resurgence of music in New Orleans. He won't quit now.

Battered by Hurricane Katrina, but unbroken five years later 08/27/10 [Last modified: Sunday, August 29, 2010 1:38pm]

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