In the immediate days after Hurricane Katrina, Ben Rongey’s father gave him a special pass which gave him full access to Jefferson Parish. At the time he was a high school senior and acted accordingly: he called his friend Wyatt Higgins so they could explore the city together.

They smooth-talked a National Guardsman, crossed into Orleans Parish, and headed for Wyatt’s house. Flood waters prevented them from driving into the Gentilly neighborhood, so they parked the car and walked the final trek.

Ten years ago, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it was the city's Lower Ninth Ward that was hit the hardest.

"I remember coming back home," Lower Ninth resident Burnell Cotlon told his mother, Lillie, on a recent visit with StoryCorps. "That was the first time I cried."

"We lost everything," Lillie says.

Lisa Richardson, left, is the Director of Research & Evaluation at the Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies. Denese Shervington, right, is its President & CEO.

For a couple of years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ narrative belonged to the people who endured the storm and those who helped rebuild after it. But as time went on and the city recovered, things changed. New demographics emerged and people started talking about “the new New Orleans.”

These changes left many people, including psychiatrist Denese Shervington and urban anthropologist Lisa Richardson, wondering about the city’s new identity and their place in it.

Lillie Cotlon, left, encouraged her son, Burnell, to quit his job at Family Dollar and start his own business in their neighborhood.

New Orleanians encountered one obstacle after another as they rebuilt their city after Katrina. Urban food access became a problem for many neighborhoods, especially those with low income.

Lower 9th Ward resident Burnell Cotlan saw this problem troubling his community, so he built The Lower 9th Ward Market. His mother, Lillie, helped him along the way. 

Christian and Grace Wilson Birch began dating in the summer of 2008 and were married in the fall of 2013.
Grace Wilson Birch

After New Orleans flooded in 2005, documentary filmmakers flocked to the city to tell its story. The city was still getting back on its feet when a film crew spoke with Grace Wilson Birch, a communication associate for the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation.

When the movie was finally released, Grace was depicted as being in the dark about economic disparities in New Orleans. She remembers watching the film reluctantly with Christian Birch, her boyfriend at the time.


When Gwen Smith’s co-worker didn’t arrive for work before Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005, Smith was forced to stay on the clock. By the time she left, it was too late to leave town and she was forced to ride out the storm with her sister, Crystal. The two women were in town for nearly a week and remember those days vividly.


StoryCorps is an oral history project based on the idea that the stories of everyday people are the most important and interesting of all. This week, Kyle Williams talks about “one of the most mortifying moments that anyone can have in their high school career.”

Donna Jean Loy, left, and Elizabeth Anne Jenkins, right, participate in several activist groups, including Louisiana Trans Advocates and Equality Louisiana.

At StoryCorps booths around the country, couples pair into an intimate space to share personal stories with each other.

Donna Jean Loy and Elizabeth Anne Jenkins are a transgender couple from Metairie who transitioned later in life after grappling with gender dysphoria for years.


Inside soundproof booths across the country, friends and loved ones are interviewing each other about their lives. The booths belong to StoryCorps, a project that collects the stories of everyday people in order to create an oral history of America.


Conversation by conversation, interview by interview, StoryCorps collects the stories and voices of our time. This week, Littdell “Queen B” Banister and Mary Jones give us a snapshot into the lives of the Mardi Gras Indians, where personal pride is sewn into every stitch of their annual suits.