What Hurricane Katrina Taught Me About Survival in a Crisis

“I was born and raised in New Orleans. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, my wife and I were transitionally homeless refugees for nearly two months, cut off from a city that was on lockdown, vacant of commerce and resources. In fewer than three days from the moment we all started paying attention to Katrina, Louisianans and Mississippians found their lives violently uprooted by nature, and complicated by the decisions made in moments of crisis.


“Now that I live in Kansas City, I have continually reflected on my Katrina story, especially as we navigate the unsure waters of this pandemic. As CEO of the 126-year-old nonprofit, MoKan Goodwill, and as a leader who had to furlough 78 percent of our workforce, survival is top of mind. Also of concern are the effects of the decision to disrupt families and inflict mental anguish on so many, much like Katrina did to us 15 years ago.

One thing I learned quickly was perspective.
It is this respect of perspective that makes for the most effective and compassionate leaders in times of crisis. While I distinctly remember having to beg the hotel manager for free shelter and food because we were broke, I still knew at that moment things could have been worse. I deeply understood the meaning of appreciation when he gave us shelter and food. I remember the knee-buckling humility when his church gathered money to get us on the road to stay with friends in Vermont. This is where Kansas City can step up. Kansas Citians have a natural disposition to give and support, and there are tens of thousands in need. Each of us have a unique perspective of the challenge that lies ahead.

The next thing I learned was the power of selflessness.
To be of service to another is one of our greatest human gifts. I believe New Orleans’ service mentality is the source of how New Orleans rebounded and thrived post-Katrina. Friends cleared out friends’ flooded houses. Collectively we protected our 300-year-old culture. We made sure our neighbors had full bellies and a roof over their heads. To our very core, we served and were of service. Here in Kansas City, I’ve seen firsthand the selflessness of volunteers and community, whether it be the festivities on First Fridays or the work done at donation drives or the collaborations between businesses to address big problems. We need to keep that up.

The next thing I learned was the destructive nature of false hope.
This is where the acts of survival get waylaid. There is a level of uncomfortable ambiguity in every decision you make—where one must compartmentalize and simplify complex situations on the fly. Unfortunately, these decisions can have lasting complications. After Katrina, I saw a government that abandoned its people. I saw folks lose faith in the institutions of home and family. I saw their loss of faith in themselves. It was their loss of faith, eroded by the bleakness of false hope of help that never came, that caused the most devastation. Few ever recover when hope is lost. Kansas City will never lose hope because it is not part of her character. We are a blend of grit and determination with a focused intent to do great things. We are realists, yet we are driven to purpose. We need to rely on this cultural DNA to deliver hope.

And yet, I saw the vigor of hope post-Katrina.
It rang eternal in the smallest of things and many grand actions. I saw volunteers come from across America to help demolish and rebuild our lost heritage. I saw United Way, Red Cross, and Goodwill offer support to those who needed it most in a time of great crisis and unprecedented need. I saw neighbors rebuild each other’s homes, one wood plank at a time. Kansas City is destined to rally because we are built for the recovery. I look forward to the day we all see each other again at the K, for that cathartic relief that only comes through unity in a challenge slayed.”

Ed Lada, Jr. has been president and CEO of Goodwill of Western Missouri and Eastern Kansas for nearly two years. He holds a Master’s in Public Administration from Marist College, a Bachelor’s in Social Sciences from Loyola University of New Orleans.