Ten years after Hurricane Katrina flooded the Gulf Coast and sent some 100,000 evacuees scrambling to Georgia, the mayor of New Orleans came here Wednesday to thank those who helped his city in crisis. But he had another message for former Big Easy residents: He’d love to have you back.
“We want everybody who was in the city of New Orleans to feel welcome to come home,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said following an afternoon press conference at Atlanta City Hall.
He knows that’s a big ask of people who uprooted a decade ago in one of the largest disaster diasporas in U.S. history. They have jobs and a home here. Their kids are in school.
It’s unclear how many evacuees have stayed in the Atlanta area in Katrina’s aftermath. A 2008 study by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics said a great many of the evacuees across the country had returned to the Gulf. Landrieu estimated on Wednesday that some 70,000 remained in Georgia, but most figures are years-old.
Keyanna Jordan-Bush, who resettled in Douglasville, made it clear: the Atlanta area is her home. She remembers New Orleans as a place where “everything was messed up” after the storm and still is in many ways.
“I’m glad we didn’t go back,” said Jordan-Bush, 40. She has a son and drives a bus. “I’m pretty happy. When I go down there I see my family. But after a while I’m ready to come back home.”
On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina ripped through the protective levees in New Orleans and sent a wall of water through much of the city. Much of the city fled. The federal response was a disaster in itself, and some 1,800 people perished.
Georgia received the second-highest number of evacuees behind Texas, with most locating in metro Atlanta. City of Atlanta and state agencies, businesses including UPS and Home Depot, nonprofit charities and faith-based groups leaped into action to help people needing food, clothing, shelter and just about everything else.
These groups, as well as thousands who stepped forward to volunteer, responded magnificently, Landrieu said.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed acknowledged former Mayor Shirley Franklin’s efforts during the crisis, saying Atlanta responded with supplies, volunteers and emergency housing.
“Many of those who left after Katrina have found a new home here in the city of Atlanta. And we’ve been happy to welcome them as residents of our city and members of our community,” Reed said.
New Orleans is on the rise, Landrieu said.
“It’s different in the sense that we’re more inviting and more open to people than we used to be,” he said. But “the culture of New Orleans is so strong, so rich and so deep that there’s no way a person who moves to New Orleans will change us before we change them.”
Wednesday evening, Landrieu visited a church in Decatur whose congregation had been located in New Orleans, but came here after the hurricane. He spoke to about 200 people about the bond between Atlanta and New Orleans.
Bishop Paul Morton, who started the church called Changing A Generation FGBC, has since restarted his old church in New Orleans. He preaches in both.
“We realize, being from New Orleans, how good Atlanta has been to us, how many doors have been opened,” Morton said.
Even those evacuees who haven’t returned can’t shake their love of their home city: its fun, easy-going culture; its historic grandeur, the way people come through for one another there.
Following Katrina, David Carr headed to St. Louis in a rented car, but decided the city wasn’t ready to handle evacuees. He turned the car southeast, to Atlanta, where Carr had a niece.
Carr, an electrician, stayed in Atlanta for less than two months before returning to his native city. He now works for the state Department of Transportation.
“There’s no place like home,” he said.
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AJC writer Mark Davis contributed to this report.