Building a Brighter Future

Residents in New Orleans mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by building a playground—and rebuilding hope

Aug 30, 2010 | By Vickie An

Ed McGinnis remembers the day the storm came. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast, leaving a trail of destruction in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Heavy rain and powerful winds washed out roads and destroyed more than 350,000 homes. Hundreds of thousands of residents were forced to evacuate the region. Some still haven't returned to their homes in the Gulf.

But McGinnis, who was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, did return—just a day after the hurricane hit. Since Katrina, he has been the eyes and ears of the Irish Channel neighborhood, where he lives with his family. Today, as the treasurer and former president of the Irish Channel Neighborhood Association, McGinnis is still watching over his community.

It Starts with a Playground

On Friday, McGinnis led 300 volunteers in marking the fifth anniversary of the storm by building a neighborhood playground. After Katrina, McGinnis realized that there were no safe places where their kids could play. So, he and his neighbors decided to create some. "A playground is the first step in building a community," McGinnis says.

Before construction began, children from the neighborhood were asked to draw their dream playgrounds. Residents then weighed in on their favorite designs. The neighborhood association chose the final blueprint based on residents' feedback. One of the project's sponsors was KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit that helps to build playgrounds in high-need areas. KaBOOM! has helped to build 57 playgrounds in New Orleans since Katrina.

Rain kept the volunteers from completing the playground on Friday. But when the project is finished, McGinnis knows exactly how he will celebrate. "I'm going to sit on the bench and watch the kids play in the park," he told TFK. "Not just my kids, but all of the kids. [We all feel] that all of the children in the community are our kids."

Long Road to Recovery

Over the weekend, people across New Orleans commemorated Katrina's fifth anniversary in many different ways. As the Irish Channel neighborhood continued work on the new playground, residents across town cast wreaths into the water to remember loved ones who were lost in the storm. Others chose to mark the day by celebrating the city's renewal.

New Orleans was hit especially hard by the hurricane. Flood walls, called levees, are meant to protect the low-lying city. Katrina broke four sections of the levees, causing 80% of the city to flood. Five years later, the city has made some progress, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

The recession and the Gulf oil spill are making it even harder for the region to rebuild, said President Barack Obama in New Orleans on Sunday. In a speech delivered at Xavier University, the President pledged his commitment to recovery efforts in the Gulf. "The work ahead will not be easy, and there will be setbacks," Obama told the crowd. "There will be challenges along the way. But thanks to you, thanks to the great people of this great city, New Orleans is blossoming again."

Facing Forward

Like many Gulf residents, Ed McGinnis' life was turned upside down by Katrina. While he kept an eye on things in New Orleans, his wife and then-3-year-old daughter stayed with family in Missouri for three months. Both McGinnis' mother and one of his brothers lost their homes to floodwaters. His mother, who was a nurse, died of a heart attack three days after being evacuated. Describing how he felt in the days after the storm, McGinnis says, "It was disbelief and sadness."

Still, he hasn't looked back. "Katrina made me appreciate what we have," McGinnis said. In addition to building the playground, he has worked with the city to tear down damaged and abandoned homes, organized neighborhood cleanups and started a youth athletic program. And what are his hopes for the future of New Orleans? "That we maintain the level of passion we have exhibited in the last five years," McGinnis answered, after a short pause. "If we do that, we're going to be fine."