2005 | Katrina

In its wake as the most devastating Atlantic hurricane to date, Katrina exposed the failures of the government response, and the socio-economic disparities that existed in the Gulf Coast. With sustained winds of 175 mph (280 km/h), it was one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded, and quickly overwhelmed the levee system in New Orleans, resulting in catastrophic flooding throughout the city.

The previous record holder at that time, Hurricane Andrew in 1992 hit primarily middle-class neighborhoods in Florida and the response to it was generally seen as more effective and coordinated compared — with the federal, state, and local authorities mobilizing resources quickly. The response to Katrina was slow — the delayed evacuations and shortages of supplies followed by insufficient coordination between various agencies. Katrina also disproportionately impacted low-income and minority populations, who lacked the means to evacuate and whose neighborhoods were first to be impacted when the levee system failed. Andrew resulted in 26 deaths, whereas more than 1,200 people lost their lives in Katrina.

In the days following the landfall, New Orleans city authorites told evacuees to gather at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center — the Superdome, the other gathering spot, was already overcrowded. Up to 25,000 people were huddled inside the convention center, waiting for buses to evacuate them, which never came. NPR recalled that conditions there were “worse than those inside a third-world refugee camp.”

An iconic image from those chaotic days came from the evacuation of the convention center: a weak and bruised elderly woman being wheeled away from the scene in her wheelchair, clutching the hand of a 5-year-old girl.

Nita LaGarde was 89, not 105, as the initial reports noted — and still claimed by some websites to this day. She had lived in the Ninth Ward, an area of New Orleans which was among the worst affected, and was accompanied by her longtime neighbors: Earnestine Dangerfield, 60, and Tanisha Belvin, Ms. Dangerfield’s 5-year-old granddaughter, who has lived with her all her life.

Ms. LaGarde had refused to leave New Orleans as the hurricane approached because she was injured during a previous evacuation. The three instead took refuge in a nearby two-story house, and eventually the roof, where Ms. Dangerfield tied herself to the others with an orange extension cord to keep them from falling off, from which they were rescued to the convention center. On 3rd September 2005 — four days after Katrina made landfall — they were evacuated from the Convention Center, the moment captured by Eric Gay above.

Gay arrived in New Orleans from San Antonio while it was still considered a category 3 hurricane. He stayed at a hotel in the French Quarter, asking for a room on a higher floor in the event of flooding, taking photos of businesses boarding up their windows, and evacuees at the Superdome. He recalled his photo above as, “It was a sweet moment. Kind of uplifting despite the whole ordeal” and the struggle of getting his photos transmitted to New York for distribution from a city where land phones were down and cell phones did not work.

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