A former Red Cross disaster worker and traveling mom tours post-Katrina New Orleans and finds that parts of the city are back to business as usual, while other areas still struggle.

Three years after Hurricane Katrina left more than three-quarters of the city underwater, Hurricane Gustav had residents along the Gulf Coast on high alert. Luckily, major damage was averted in most areas because the storm lost some of its punch before making landfall as a Category 2 hurricane just west of New Orleans.

The timing was uncanny—hitting as New Orleans marked the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the hurricane that led to a devastating flood from which the city has yet to fully recover. Gustav was the first significant storm to threaten the region since Katrina and Rita ravaged coastal Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi in 2005.

When I worked for the Red Cross as a disaster specialist 20 years ago, the prospect of a Category 5 hurricane hitting New Orleans head-on was what disaster planners inevitably mentioned when they talked about a “worst-case scenario.”

I went to New Orleans in part because I felt a connection to the city, even though I have never been.

When Katrina made landfall in New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, it was a Category 2 storm; the devastation occurred when roughly 50 levees broke, causing massive flooding. The storm and its aftermath left 1,577 dead in Louisiana alone. It was the costliest disaster in U.S. history.

I tried to travel to New Orleans 10 days after Katrina struck because I was finishing a book, Blood, Sweat and Tears: An Oral History of the American Red Cross, and I wanted to track down a few more Red Cross workers to interview. I made it only as far as Baton Rouge, La., where I stayed in a shelter that housed thousands of evacuees.

Seeing It First Hand

Last winter I finally made it to New Orleans. I went in part because I felt a connection to the city, even though I have never been, and because I give $1 from every book I sell to the New Orleans chapter of the Red Cross. I also went because I wanted to see for myself what happened to this beloved American city.

Many buildings still had water marks on them, a muddy line indicating how high the water had risen.

As a traveling mom and dad, my husband and I considered taking our children on the trip. We thought it would be a rare opportunity to show them something truly unforgettable, albeit heartbreaking: people—in our own country—still homeless, suffering and awaiting assistance more than two years after the storm. Ultimately, we decided that out kids, then 7 and 9, were too young to truly understand. We enlisted my mother-in-law to stay the kids.

Within an hour of checking into our hotel near the French Quarter , Stephanie Grace, a friend who works as a political columnist for the New Orleans Times Picayune, picked us up in her car. After we drove a few blocks, Stephanie pulled over and said, “This is where the water began.” We drove for a few hours, through neighborhoods made infamous by Katrina, such as the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard’s Parish. We even stopped to see Brad Pitt’s Make It Right pink tents, which are slated as future homes for families left homeless.

As we drove, neighborhood after neighborhood looked more or less the same: buildings that were damaged by the storm remain dilapidated and others were simply gone, replaced by vacant lots overgrown with grass. A scant few were at various stages of reconstruction. Many buildings still had water marks on them, a muddy line indicating how high the water had risen. Some houses had spray painted search and rescue marks, an X with symbols scrawled in each quadrant indicating the date, the name of the agency that conducted the search and the number of dead found inside.

Read Part 2:  New Orleans – Making It Personal

Michele Turk is the owner of A Bloc of Writers, Inc. in Cos Cob, Conn. She has worked as a professional writer and editor for the past two decades. Her work has appeared in many national consumer magazines, among them BusinessWeek, Parents, U.S. News & World Report, Shape, Glamour, Elle, The Washington Post, and USA Weekend, and she has written articles and blogged for numerous web sites. She is the co-editor of “Ink Stained,” a collection of essays by the members of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Class of 1992, and the author of “Blood, Sweat and Tears: An Oral History of the American Red Cross.” She has also worked as an adjunct professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University.