Several weeks after Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans and left the city reeling, Denise Thornton returned to find her house submerged in water. All of her belongings were covered in mold. Even more unsettling was the desolation that had settled upon her neighborhood. There were no birds chirping. No buzz of electric wires. Just silence.
For five awful days during the storm, Denise Thornton had been holed up in the Superdome, which quickly became a hulking symbol of government ineffectiveness, of economic and racial inequality, of human cruelty in the face of disaster. Thornton’s husband was the general manager of the facility, and the couple had agreed to help the National Guard manage the hordes of people—who were primarily poor and black — seeking refuge from Katrina.
When they arrived at the Superdome, the couple did not know that they would be trapped there for five days, that the generator would give out, that the building would become unbearably hot and rancid, that there would be violence. At one point, a mob tried to break into the executive suites where Thornton and other members of the Superdome staff had set up camp. The National Guard had to expel the crowd, guns drawn.
In the wake of such disunity and chaos, Thornton saw potential. She opened up her partially rebuilt home to other people in the neighborhood, offering them Internet access and hot meals. Her house became a space for residents to come together, share information, and help one another through the process of recovery. This informal coalition grew into Beacon of Hope Resource Center, a not-for-profit organization that engaged some 30,000 volunteers to help rebuild the city.
But 10 years after the storm, bad memories linger. Thornton makes a point of leaving New Orleans every year on the anniversary of Katrina, and this August 29th, she is visiting her son in California. From there, Thornton spoke to Women in the World about her experience during Katrina and the grassroots activism of Beacon of Hope.
Women in the World: In the days leading up to the storm, did you have any sense of how bad it was going to be?
Denise Thornton: Not really. We’d been through it several times before. Hurricane George comes to mind, when we evacuated to the Superdome, went through the drill. I usually helped with the special needs patients and my husband helped the National Guard because he knows the building. We knew that Katrina had the potential for being really bad, but you know, it was the normal drill.
WITW: Do you think that you would have stayed in New Orleans and ended up in the Superdome had your husband not been the general manager of the facility?
DT: No, no, no. We wouldn’t have. We would’ve probably evacuated to relatives. The Superdome was a refuge of last resort. It was not our last resort. We had other options.
WITW: The Superdome reportedly became an anarchic, hellish place. Can you describe what you experienced during the five days that you were trapped there?
DT: It was a very frightening place, and it was every bit as nasty and stinky as you can imagine. When we first got there, it wasn’t so bad—until we lost power and then had to go on generated power. There was no electricity to charge a cell phone, so people were becoming more and more apprehensive about the whole thing, because they couldn’t communicate with their loved ones, they couldn’t tell them that they were okay, they couldn’t see what was going on that the rest of the world was witnessing. So, we had limited information.
WITW: At the time, were you aware that people were getting raped and violently assaulted?
DT: Oh yes, I knew. People were becoming violent. There were drug addicts in there, bouncing off walls. There were alcoholics who couldn’t get a drink for five days. Children, babies, didn’t have diapers and parents were becoming frantic. It was one of the most horrific experiences that I can think of, which is one of the reasons why I’m not in New Orleans this week.
When members of the Superdome staff were finally able to get a private helicopter out of the area, you were tasked with coming up with an order of evacuation. In a situation where everyone is desperate to get out, is it difficult to decide who gets to leave first?
There were a lot of staff in the executive offices, and I went around to each room with a legal pad and wrote down the names of each person and what family member they belonged with, and if they need help. We made a list: people who were disabled and the elderly would get on the first helicopters out. Then I just kept ranking in order of how I thought they needed to go. Women and children came next — children first, and then women. But the sick and the elderly obviously needed to go first, and I had no compunctions about that.
WITW: When you got back to your house after several weeks, what state was it in?
DT: Our house was submerged in seven-and-a-half feet of water. We had to axe the door down to get in. You’ve seen the pictures. It was nothing different than anyone else experienced. It was kind of horrifying to see everything you own just saturated with mold. So I took a lot of pictures and started getting contractors in a row to get everything cleared out.
WITW: Anecdotal evidence suggests that navigating FEMA and other government-run relief programs can be very trying. What was your experience like?
DT: Oh, it was horrible. Horrible. The government response was abysmal. And I knew that they weren’t coming for us. They had infrastructure-type issues to worry about. They had streets to clear, electrical lines to get out of the way to try and make the city as safe as they could by the time people came back. So I knew that government help was not coming. They would not help us navigate the tumultuous waters of this ridiculous program.
So I opened up my house as a resource center in my neighborhood. I was able to get a naked line, all the way down the street to my house so I could have Internet and communication. I ran off of a generator initially, and I bought a computer and a router so people could use my house to make a phone call, get a refreshment, send a fax—I bought a fax machine too. I set up a quasi-office in my gutted house and started a resource center to help people, to give them a place to reunite with one another and share common experience, talk about what they were going to do, the recovery, share the challenges that they faced. That’s kind of how we started. That program grew into 25 centers throughout the city.
WITW: As Beacon of Hope coalesced into an organization, what sort of services did it provide?
DT: Initially, we provided contractor referrals. We had a list of good, quality licensed, bonded and insured contractors. We provided meals, we had a first aid area, we helped people make the decision of whether they’d rebuild or not. We had phones, faxes. It was a little business center, if you will, plus a place for people to come together and share experiences.
We’ve hosted over 30,000 volunteers in our 10 years in doing what we do. We’ve helped probably 1,700 homeowner projects. We’ve built fences for schools, we’ve built benches for schools. We’ve helped clean graveyards. The volunteers were so instrumental in doing that, and we managed the groups that were coming through. We rebuilt eight parks and playgrounds. We’ve replanted 25 miles of green space.
WITW: Do you normally leave New Orleans around the anniversary to Katrina?
You know, I do. I just feel like the focus is on how much we’ve accomplished—and we need to be proud of that. But there are still so many people like my son, for example, who lost his home, and didn’t get a penny from Road Home, and was unable to return. People like that, you don’t hear about. You only hear about people in the Ninth Ward who couldn’t come back.
WITW: What does New Orleans need to move forward?
Leadership. It’s like any other city that gets a black eye from time to time. We need a better police force. We need to get our crime under control. We need better schools. I think New Orleans has made a remarkable recovery, considering 80 percent of the city was under water for 21 days. The people are resilient. It’s a special place to live, and what can I say? We love it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.