Ten years ago, Kathy Phipps seemed happy. After Hurricane Katrina forced her family from New Orleans and into the federal government’s hands, and eventually to a white, suburban, Mormon community in Utah, where her story was told again and again on national television and in local papers, Kathy seemed not only resilient, but joyful.
Kathy may not have wanted her house to be destroyed by floodwaters, or to board a FEMA-funded plane to Utah and be separated from her family, but once there she seemed to make the best of it. Amid the vastness of its snowy mountains and tranquil suburbs, she said felt like she had peace of mind. Her kids had a chance to escape the poverty and terrible schools of New Orleans. Her husband found a job.
The positivity of Kathy’s story fit in well with the narrative the mainstream media latched onto post-Katrina. At some point, television screens and newspapers stopped being filled with stories of disaster and instead offered stories of hope, redemption, and lives made better through tragedy. Former first lady Barbara Bush perhaps best exemplified the dissonance when just a few days after the storm she visited Houston’s Astrodome, where many of the storm’s evacuees were staying. “What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas,” she said. “And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.” Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about how New Orleans could be made a better city after the storm. Oprah Winfrey, after donating $10 million to construct a community for Katrina survivors in Houston, dedicated several episodes of her show to detailing the ways in which their lives had improved. And there were countless stories about people like Kathy Phipps — people who seemed to have made it despite the long odds.
These stories were undoubtedly true — many people did survive Katrina and go on to lead better lives. But they also obfuscated other, more complex truths about the difficulties tens of thousands faced in being transported far away from home, to cultures and communities nothing like what they knew. In the television reports and newspaper articles about Kathy Phipps, race, trauma, depression, and anxiety are hardly mentioned, despite the fact that those are the things that consumed Kathy’s life shortly after arriving in Utah.
When Kathy Phipps was relocated to a suburban Utah neighborhood after the storm, she was hailed by the media as an example of how the tragedy could turn into opportunity. But 10 years later, Kathy is back in Louisiana, scarred by what happened after the cameras went away.