#Katrina10: Reflecting on the Storm that Nearly Derailed a Young Life

Ryan Dalton
September 3, 2015

“It’s been 10 long years, but we still have not learned everything we have to learn from Katrina.”

In 2005, my family and I experienced the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, which forced us to uproot our lives and move to Houston—and nearly derailed me. It was in the beginning of my eleventh grade school year. We were stranded in New Orleans for nearly eight days with no way to leave. I remember swimming in the contaminated flood water searching for food, drinks and a way out.

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I saw dead bodies floating right in front my face. Pail, stiff, lifeless. It was just so weird because I was only 15 and yet I didn’t feel anything or any emotions at the time, as if I was numb to it. Today, that seems ironic, because it’s so painfuland relevant to me now.

Those days were some of the most miserable in my life. One of my sisters was only 4 years old at the time and my mother was going through a rough divorce.  My brother was away at college, so I was in many ways in charge.

The day we got out, I swam to find some food for the day. On my route, I saw a boat. As I and one of my neighbors swam, the boat got closer and closer and closer until finally it was right in front of us.

We shouted out to the men on the boat: “Come get our family out of these apartments!” and they screamed back, “Next trip, next trip!”

We shouted out to the men on the boat: “Come get our family out of these apartments!” and they screamed back, “Next trip, next trip!”

We swam back to the apartments to let everyone know we were about to be rescued. When the boat finally came, we had all our items and belongings that we wanted to save, only to learn that we could only bring one bag. We didn’t complain. We all grabbed one pair of clothes and got into the boat, which brought us to the nearest bridge.

There were helicopters flying back and forth to pick up a group of five people at a time. After sleeping on the bridge for one night, it was our turn to get in the helicopter. They were splitting families—actually using military force them to separate them—but mine managed to stick together.  We landed about four minutes later by the Causeway Bridge in Metairie, Louisiana. There were self-heating army food packages and bottled water being dispatched from several helicopters.

We slept outside for another night; the next morning, we boarded buses, waiting in extremely long lines with people who were distressed, anxious and confused. We left with no clue what our destination would be. Hours passed. When we finally came to a stop, I looked out the window and saw the Houston Astrodome, the Arena, and Reliance Center all gated up, with police and squad cars surrounding them. Officers came aboard the bus and told us about the rules and curfew. We walked in, noticing lines and lines of cots in close, intimate rows. We didn’t know it then, but this was where we would sleep for about a month.

We lost everything. Without our school records we had no proof of our actual grade levels, academic credits or GPAs. We weren’t allowed to attend to school at first; it took more than a month to get things straightened out.

“Ambushed in the Hallways”

Did you know: Katrina has experienced the most radical educational overhaul in the country with most schools becoming charter schools. Learn more.

When we finally did go to school, it was complete chaos. We were treated with indifference and called “refugees.” That word made me feel as if we were being looked down on, like we were the scum of the earth—it felt like a glimpse at what segregation was like, or at least what I have read about. We were assigned to South Side schools, where neither the teachers nor students accepted us at all. Every morning as we came to school, the Houston residential students stood on the walls along the entrance and threw soda cans and plastic bottles at us. They would also blurt out disrespectful names and make disturbing threats. Not all of the threats were empty; New Orleans students were frequently ambushed in the hallways when we were caught alone, going to the restroom or traveling back to our classrooms. They threw things at our buses after school, and even broke glasses while we were aboard, with seeming impunity.

Ryan Dalton

After about two weeks of this tormenting, a Friday morning dawned when we had all endured enough. On our way to school, we discussed and shared our feelings about what was going on. We were very upset when we arrived at school. This time, when the taunting started, we reacted by fighting back.

In response, faculty, students, and security pulled the doors to the entrances shut to keep us out of the school, as if we were the aggressors. The media arrived, and the police followed. I was among the many New Orleans students hauled off by police officers. I was brought to a holding cell until my mother came to pick me up.

After another few weeks, we finally got our housing voucher and moved to an apartment on the north side of Houston. We enrolled in school from that address, but I quickly dropped out due to another gang fight. I was sent to an alternative school where I felt I was treated like a criminal. Students had to travel to the restroom in a single-file line with our pockets emptied and flipped inside out. We were not allowed to wear shoe strings or belts, and were not allowed to speak to one another or socialize at any time.

My mother told me if I didn’t want to go I didn’t have to, so of course, I didn’t go. I thought I was just going to enroll into another school, but weeks passed and nothing happened. I started working at a flea market and moved on my own with a roommate, into an apartment a few doors down from my mother. After a few months, my roommate moved out leaving me the apartment to myself, which was cool for a 16-year-old. But I couldn’t handle it: I lost my job, burned through the couple thousand dollars I had saved up, and wasn’t sure where to go. The streets seemed like the best idea. I got caught up.

Returning Home, With Nowhere to Go

I figured there wasn’t any possibility of graduating high school from in Houston after being out of school for an entire year, without enough credits to meet their graduation requirements, and the intensive discrimination I faced every day. I just wanted a fresh start.

twitter"It took me nearly 8 months but I did get back on track. I knew I wanted an education" @OYUnited's Ryan Dalton on #Katrina10

It took me nearly 8 months but I did get back on track. I knew I wanted an education. I moved back to New Orleans because I felt like that would be the best way to do it and get off the streets.

I enrolled myself in Frederick A. Douglass High School shortly after arriving. I recovered my transcripts and produced all necessary documents to meet all the enrollment requirements.

At first, I lived in a trailer that I rented from my stepfather’s friend. It was in his front yard, and was small but livable. As a full-time student, I had no time to apply for a job. Without an income, I often found myself without food or the propane I needed to take hot showers, wash dishes and make hot meals. Just before the end of the school year in 2007, I was forced out when the city removed the trailers. I had nowhere to go. I slept in sheds, in parking lots or in front of my friend’s apartment (when her mom left for work, she would let me inside to bathe, brush my teeth, eat and watch television). Sometimes I went days without sleeping or eating.

Everyday my situation grew more and more tiresome, but it also was motivation for me do more with my life, especially after finding out I was expecting a newborn. I had a lot of emotion and a lot on my mind for a 17-year-old boy living on his own.

I finished high school in 2007 and enrolled in Southern University at New Orleans. But when the financial reality hit me, I ultimately dropped out of college.

Back on Track and Helping Others

Fast forward to today: I am a part of the National Council of Young Leaders—the driving force behind the new national Opportunity Youth United movement—and an AmeriCorps Member, serving as a Program Instructor for the Boys and Girls Club.  I got back on track with help from God, mentors, friends and organizations that help me regain hope and create realistic, attainable goals for my life.

This journey helped me to understand that despite my circumstances, I can overcome any challenge that I am faced with.

It’s been 10 long years, but we still have not learned everything we have to learn from Katrina. Too many young people face Katrina-level hurdles every day in their lives and they too are failed by the systems that are supposed to help. I am one of many young people who fought hard to turn my life around and is working just as hard to help turn our nation around. I want to see this country live up to its promise.

While you're at it, check out what Ryan has to say about what it means to be ready for life's responsiblities:

Ryan DaltonRyan Dalton, 26, has worked as a trainer and manager for Café Reconcile’s Workforce Development training program in his hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana. He also served as an advisory board member for The John Besh & Bride Mayor Scholarship at Chefs Move!, which prepares aspiring chefs for Management positions in the culinary profession; and in that role, Ryan worked to recruit young minority chefs from New Orleans. He has also worked in the New Orleans Mayor’s Office.

Ryan speaks openly about the hardships he faced in his youth:  He was a victim of violence, shot multiple times, nearly lost his life, and experienced the murder of his oldest brother and close cousin. Reflecting on his childhood and his ability to overcome personal challenges, Ryan always reminds us that, “The solution must come from within and in order to identify the solution, you must fully understand the problem." Don’t be shy or embarrassed to acknowledge your truth and take charge of your life.

As this blog attests, he’s resilient, dedicated to empower other young people to succeed. It is this passion that sparked him to create of The PUSH Project, an initiative dedicated to helping youth develop their potential. More about Ryan.


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