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Hurricane Katrina Broke More Than the Levees

Phyllis Montana-Leblanc will never forget the horrible memories of August 29th, 2005. One year after Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, Leblanc shared her anger about what happened to the city in Spike Lee's documentary film about Katrina, When the Levees Broke. This year, Leblanc recounts the same story in a new book, but, as VOA's Faith Lapidus tells us in this report by Faiza Elmasry, it has a different message.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Phyllis Montana-Leblanc, her husband and other family members spent a week without sleep or food, waiting in line after line until they were airlifted to San Antonio, Texas.

"The hardest thing about it was the slow response to help us, to help out the city of New Orleans," she says. "Everybody saw us, you know, the bodies floating in the water, people treading through water with infants and elderly people. It took so long for the government to send help for us."

That delay in assistance made Katrina's survivors really angry. And that's what Leblanc and others had expressed when they were interviewed for Spike Lee's documentary two years ago.

Book has new message

"In the documentary, the message was more the anger and disbelief of the government's slow response to help us," she says. "The message in the book is to have hope. And there is nothing wrong with having hope because in the documentary you may see some signs saying, 'hope is not a plan.' I agree with that, but hope is a really, really strong emotion to hold on to because it keeps you going. It keeps moving forward."

In Not Just the Levees Broke, Leblanc explains how she and others in New Orleans moved from anger to hope. She says that's what helped her family endure a tough, unstable life, as they moved from shelters to a hotel room to a trailer. Just a few months ago, she says, her family finally settled down in a new home.

"When I first entered the home, I'm looking at it, I know we did the paperwork, but I still was unsure," she says. "I've been in a trailer for almost three years. It was like, 'O.K. how long am I going to be here?' So, it's much more comfortable now."

Living through Katrina, and surviving it, Leblanc says, has had a profound impact on her, personally.

More aware and self-reliant

"I'm a registered voter," she says. "I'm still going to vote and everything, but the government's slow response to our situation has now made me more aware. I'm always reading the paper and watching the news."

Leblanc says she pays more attention to what's going on and to what the government is doing. She and her husand have also become more self-reliant. "We make sure that we put money on the side in case anything happens again, we won't be stuck in a wait and see position."

In addition to feeling more empowered as a citizen, Leblanc has been trying to influence people around her.

"I'm always talking to people about, 'Make sure you register to vote so you can have a voice in who we put in office," she says. "Even if they don't get put in office, at least you exercised your right.'"

With city residents becoming more active citizens, Phyllis Montana-Leblanc predicts life in New Orleans will soon return to normal. "I think we're going to come back," she says.

She notes that businesses in the French Quarter, which is frequented by tourists, are up and running, but in some parts of the city, she says "it still looks like Katrina hit yesterday."

"It has been three years now and we still don't have a hospital in the area where I'm living," Leblanc says. "But I have a lot of hope in what I can do and what a lot of people are trying to do in the city of New Orleans, and that's bring New Orleans back."

That's the greatest challenge Katrina's survivors are facing everyday. The third anniversary this month brings back the memories. But more importantly, Leblanc says, it renews her determination to bring a better life back to her city.