Hurricane Katrina hit home for ESPN NFL analyst and Louisiana native Ryan Clark, who was playing with the Washington Redskins at the time in 2005. Here, Clark reflects on Katrina 10 years later, talks about leading the Redskins' relief effort at the time, having a father who worked on the levee board, how it affected his friends and family and New Orleans today.
Whenever you think about Hurricane Katrina, you think about the devastation it did to the city, but more importantly, the devastation it did to the city’s people.
I live in Baton Rouge now, about an hour away, but there are still neighborhoods that I drive through when I visit my parents that still aren’t rebuilt. There are homes that were devastated that they still haven’t picked up the rubbish in the neighborhood. There are neighborhoods that never had the opportunity to come back, flourish and let people live in them. More than anything, it changed the makeup of our city as well as the lives.
It wasn’t so much about leading the relief effort [as a member of the Washington Redskins in 2005] because that was the easy part. The whole country basically came together for it. The NFL — not necessarily the shield, but the players and people — came together. It was something we could all unite on because every team had somebody from the South that was affected. The ability to get teammates together, donate and have our efforts go toward the people in New Orleans was easy, but definitely heartwarming and touching. It wasn’t forced on the athletes to help because everybody wanted to do it badly.
For me, the hardest part was having a father who worked for the levee board in Jefferson Parish and for him having to stay at work. I didn’t talk to my father for three weeks. He was down there, digging showers and baths and buckets and doing his best to make sure everyone under him was fed. So, the little effort we made from our dry land and plush homes was nothing compared to the stories I heard from my father.
I was in a lucky position because my mother and my aunt both evacuated and got out early enough. They were displaced from their home for upwards of three to four months. They were at times able to come to see me in Virginia and I was able to give them a little peace. I probably have four or five close friends and family members who still live in Houston now. My little brother, he evacuated to Florida.
My father never left. He was there the whole time, working with the levee board. In the nights, they slept in their vehicles because there wasn’t enough room in the building they were trying to sleep in. I have family members who still have never moved back to New Orleans.
Luckily for us, everybody got out. All of my family, all of my friends…they evacuated early. I think that was largely in part to having a father who worked in that line of business. He was able to tell my mom, tell my friends and family, ‘Look, you need to get out.’
There were nights listening to my dad about how there was no electricity, how people had to scour for food wherever they could get food and then on top of that getting enough food only to give it up to people who had nothing at all. He told me about people who had lost their home and had family members they couldn’t find.
I think everybody’s biggest thing was getting out of here. When you have nothing to come back to, you start lives in other places.
With the way the rebuilding went, they rebuilt the tourist areas and the areas that produced a lot of money, but it wasn’t back in the neighborhoods and where a lot of these people were from, so they had to start lives elsewhere.
A lot of New Orleans east, where a lot of the damage was done with the broken levees, hasn’t come back to where it once was. It’s definitely better than it was 10 years ago, though, right in the aftermath of Katrina. It was the lower-income areas that were hit the hardest. These people don’t have enough money to come back and rebuild those things in their lives themselves. They needed help and a lot of times, they didn’t get it.
It was never a situation where we felt like President Bush was concerned anyway, so it wasn’t a huge shock to us and people from there. We’re from a place where racism is still a prevalent thing. For us the important thing was doing our best to help our family members, help our friends, continue relief and give any hand we can give in the aid of people getting better.
If you meet a lot of people from where we’re from, it’s the best place on Earth to them, because it’s all they know. There’s a lot of low-income families and people have worked truly hard to build what they have in New Orleans. They weren’t born with silver spoons. There aren’t trust-fund babies living in that city. It’s people who have grinded and made whatever they had and they made it themselves.
They take pride in that and they take a lot of pride in the city. There are a ton of people there, that if you ask them, they wouldn’t live anywhere else. That’s a huge part of how the city has been able to rebound even as much as it has. I’d like to see it rebound more with more people originally from New Orleans being able to come back and feel like they can prosper and feel like they can have an opportunity to succeed.
But for the ones who stayed, for the ones who made it through, for the tons of people in the Superdome, for the tons of people in the Convention Center who are still there, still working there, still striving…it just talks to the pride they have, the work ethic they have and also the love they have for the city. I think it’s amazing. I love going down there and talking to people about what they went through and what they had to overcome.
My parents are still in New Orleans. I don’t think they’ll ever leave. I tried to get them to move. They don’t want to. My dad never once wanted to leave, never once tried to leave. He just wanted to make sure that his family was out and he had the opportunity to take care of the people who were still there and I think that’s what the city is about. It’s a city with a lot of faith and they used that faith to try to get through Katrina and try to have lives after.
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(Photo: Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images)