Why I'll always return to New Orleans

Story highlights

  • Hurricane Katrina displaced CNN producer Jessica Dunne's family and broke her heart
  • The storm and its aftermath also strengthened Dunne's love of her hometown, New Orleans

First Person is a series of personal essays exploring identity and personal points of view that shape who we are. The latest contributor is Jessica Dunne, a CNN producer.

(CNN)"Pack up; we're going to Houston."

It was August 28, 2005, and my dad called to tell me that my family was evacuating our home in New Orleans, running from a hurricane for the first time in our lives. In the past, we had hunkered down through Category 1s and 2s. But Katrina had just become a Category 5, barreling toward us. I was 19 and had recently moved in with friends, many of my things still in boxes. I went from unpacking to repacking as it started to sink in: This was "the big one" we had been fearing.
We didn't get to see the damage until a day after the storm hit. As my family gathered around the TV at my uncle's house in Houston, I couldn't process what I was seeing: desperate families on rooftops, water covering entire neighborhoods, levees ripped open with water gushing out. I still become misty-eyed when I think about that moment. My parents and I knew then that we had to go back home. We couldn't bear the unknown; we needed to check on friends, family and neighbors.
    On the trip back home, it seemed like the only other vehicles on the road were military Humvees. In this post-apocalyptic landscape, fuel was so scarce, lines would wind around highways near gas stations. When we arrived at my parents' home, we saw that a tree had fallen on the roof. We had no power, no running water, and the putrid smell of meat rotting in refrigerators filled the streets and our home. Cell phones weren't an option because cell towers had been damaged. Nothing in the city was open: not grocery stores, not schools, not doctor's offices. We were on our own, fending for ourselves.
    Dunne's home was marked with an X after it was searched.
    We managed to get into the heart of the city to check on the home I had just moved into near Uptown. There was a canoe parked in the middle of the street, though I didn't live near water. Trash and debris littered the road. My home looked fine on the outside, except for the giant blue "X" authorities had placed on the wall after searching the home, signaling in part whether there were any bodies inside. Part of the roof had been torn off. There wasn't much I could salvage, but even then, I knew I was lucky. Many had no homes to return to; almost 2,000 people lost their lives.
    In the weeks and months after the storm, I began to process the despair. The images of people screaming for help as they stood waiting in the sweltering heat outside the convention center were burned into my mind. The storm's aftermath and the government's delayed response -- which translated to apathy -- swept me into a depression. I didn't just lose my home; I lost my city. My most familiar, comfortable surroundings had literally been blown to pieces. It made me feel lost, alienated. The storm broke my heart, but the slow response and the desperation I saw in people -- that broke my soul. Everyone was hurting, whether emotionally or physically. "Katrina" became an expletive no one was willing to utter. And FEMA? For many, it was a four-letter word not suitable for print.
    As frustrating and heartbreaking as the storm's aftermath was, humanity shone through. I remember entering a restaurant near Houston during our evacuation. My family and I were tired and hungry, and the cashier asked us whether we were evacuees. When we said yes, she came back with bags of food, free of charge. Weeks later, we drove to Mobile, Alabama, so I could register for classes at a college there while my university in New Orleans was closed. I walked into a church on campus, and a volunteer gave me a blanket and sheets. I still sleep with that blanket today.
    After that semester, in December 2005, I returned home to live. So many people I met in other cities asked why. It's hard to describe the magnetism of a place like New Orleans: blues wafting through the humid air at midnight, jazz funeral choreography that celebrates life rather than mourning death, the smell of crawfish boils beckoning you to take your place at the table. It's a place that's deliciously weird and decidedly unapologetic about it. For me, New Orleans was my first love, and after Katrina, I sought to make sure it wasn't the one that got away.
    Dunne with Mayor Mitch Landrieu
    A year after the storm, the city was far from recovered, but there were victories all around. A Popeye's restaurant reopened in one hard-hit area, and the line spilled out into the street. The reopening of a fast food chain isn't usually much to cheer for, but for us, it was a major win. I moved into a new home, and I learned to fall asleep to the sounds of hammers and saws. It was the chorus of progress. Those of us who had lost all sense of security were about to be part of a community again.
    People began sporting shirts that read "reNEW Orleans" and "Make Levees, Not War." This sense of camaraderie and hope is what kept me going through the difficult days. I sought counseling and became involved in my community. I worked at local news stations, manning the tip lines. I was inundated with calls relating to Katrina recovery. Covering those stories and helping people get the action they needed made me feel like I was contributing in some small way.
    My healing process hasn't been perfect: I still have nightmares about natural disasters. When the power goes out, I sometimes feel a sudden pang of anxiety before calming myself down. But the shards of my heart jettisoned by the storm's aftermath were mended by the compassion and resilience of the people I met. Each time I heard "why rebuild?" I thought of all the aid workers who lived in tents in City Park. They didn't even have a bed to sleep in, and they still came to help. Most people I knew were frustrated with HUD's "road home program," but residents remained undeterred, parking outside their demolished homes in cramped FEMA trailers while wading through the red tape.
    Dunne's Katrina-inspired tattoo
    Since I've been at CNN, I've trekked back to New Orleans every year on Katrina's anniversary to visit places like the 17th Street Canal breach and the Lower Ninth Ward. This year, I decided to get a tattoo to commemorate the anniversary. It's the "X" that was on my home but with a Louisiana iris growing out of it. For me, it's a constant reminder that resilience wins; we're stronger than the storm and its aftermath. Katrina broke my heart, but it also taught me resolve and showed me the best of humanity. And more than anything, Katrina taught me: There really is no place like home.