For many New Orleans residents, 29th August is the painful anniversary of an event which claimed many lives and shattered even more. On 23rd August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans with devastating force. Over the next eight days, the hurricane pounded the buildings and streets of the city, causing widespread damage. In addition to high winds, extreme flooding resulted in enormous amounts of disruption. Essential services, including electricity and access to fresh water, were severely compromised. Families were forced to flee their homes, living in hotels or staying in their vehicles in order to try and escape the torrential rain and rising water levels. No one who survived the hurricane was left unmarked by the experience.

Sadly, for survivors, the struggle to rebuild their lives was only just beginning. With homes destroyed by the storm, entire families were forced to depend on the goodwill of relatives to house them. Survivors forced to relocate elsewhere didn’t just lose their homes; they were also bereft of the warmth and solidarity of the local community – a hallmark of life in New Orleans. More than a decade later, some survivors have still not moved on from the traumatic experience. For others, sheer persistence and tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds have turned their story of tragedy into one of success. Such a survivor is Adam Davies, a 25-year-old man who currently lives in Lafayette, Louisiana, with his family.

Hurricane Katrina

Adam Davies – the early years

Adam’s early life wasn’t ideal. Raised by his grandparents, his father played only a minimal role in his life. Adam recalls, “My mother, who suffers from mental illness left me in their care after I was born. She has always been caring and supportive of me despite her condition”. Despite these issues, Adam is grateful for the love and care which his grandparents showed when he was a child. His grandmother and mother were very protective of him, which he felt prior to Hurricane Katrina had a negative impact on his confidence.

Hurricane Katrina

23rd August 2005 – the hurricane struck

Adam was 12-years-old when Hurricane Katrina struck. The hurricane early warning system in place meant that the family had notice that their home would potentially be badly affected.

Adam recalls, “Katrina struck and uprooted the lives of my family and me. To a fault of our own, we did not evacuate. Instead, we rented a hotel room not too far from home. Several of my family members from around the area were there with us. The traumatic experience that followed is still vivid even today.” Adam recounts how the flooding began, with the ground floor of the hotel soon underwater. Fires (started both intentionally and unintentionally) began to break out. One started in the hotel. Frightened for their safety, Adam, his aunt, mother, grandmother and other relatives waded out to their vehicle to spend the night.

By the morning, the water had risen even higher. The vehicle was undrivable; they returned to the hotel on foot, with the water up to Adam’s neck at times. It was impossible to see what was in the flood water as they waded: Adam only found out much later that his mother had been bitten by a snake during the trip! Unable to access medical treatment, she had uttered no word of complaint, even continuing to search for food in order to prevent her family from starving.

“We were stranded as leaving was near impossible. We had almost no food, except for small rations of what we had left. In hindsight it wasn’t much to fill that of a small child’s stomach. My mother, who remained strong in this situation. Instead of panicking as most would, she remained calm and continued as one of the leading members of our unit”, Adam recalls.

The next few days passed in a blur of fear and misery. The family were still stuck in the hotel, which had no power or other amenities. Food was difficult to come by and sanitation non-existent. Adam remembers that they were all just grateful to be alive. He recalls seeing an older lady in a wheelchair, looking ill, trapped by the rising water in the hotel. Sadly, he found out after his rescue that she hadn’t made it out alive.

Eventually, Adam and his family were rescued by the National Guard and taken to the Ernest Memorial Convention Centre, along with many other flood survivors. Extended family from Baton Rouge offered to take them in; thus began the next chapter of Adam’s life story. Adam said of his experience, “But I took that negative and looked at it as a [positive] … Again, we were blessed that we all made it out alive, but it also was an opportunity for me to grow stronger and to really man up around the age. I had met someone a few years ago at where I’m at now in life, that said they did a survey on victims of Hurricane Katrina and she just was astounded at where I am because so many people who went through that ordeal didn’t really look to excel. They just kept the blaming it on that one incident and were in that same place that they were years ago….”.

Hurricane Katrina

A chance for an education!

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, Adam’s education had been patchy. He attended elementary school briefly, but struggled enormously with some subjects, particularly maths.

Adam explains. “I noticed as time went on, that I struggled to keep up with the other kids my age. I was later diagnosed with chronic asthma, and several allergic reactions to some of my once favorite foods, such as fish sticks and orange juice. My vulnerable immune system kept me out of school frequently.”

Lacking in confidence, he was eventually withdrawn from school and home educated by his grandma. His formal education did not continue again until the family relocated from Baton Rouge to Lafayette, buying a home there. In Lafayette, Adam had the opportunity to attend Carenco (Louisiana) middle school. He was terrified of taking the initial tests to attend, convinced that he would do badly. Although his initial results weren’t promising, he took advantage of the opportunity offered to work hard, doing his best to bring his grades back up.

He succeeded in his aim, so much so that teachers at the school urged him to take his GED (General Education Development) test in order to provide externally validated proof of his ability. Unfortunately, the run-up to the GED coincided with his grandfather’s dementia taking a turn for the worst. Unable to put in the necessary study time for his GED at the same time as caring for his grandfather, Adam decided to devote himself to providing assistance to his grandfather during his final days. He was badly affected by the death of his grandfather in 2013, but vowed to keep trying to improve himself.

Over the next few years, he didn’t attend a formal educational setting, as he was needed at home. Undaunted, he used online learning resources (notably the Khan Academy) to continue with his education. Noticing how hard he was working, his grandmother urged him to return to formal education and take his final test (the GED). Adam was reluctant initially, believing that he still didn’t know enough to be successful. His grandmother finally persuaded him to sit the test at Lerosen Academy. Not only did he pass; he did so well that the Lerosen Academy team applied for him to study on a CYT (a gifted and talented education programme) at SLCC (South Louisiana Community College).

Hurricane Katrina

Peer-educator and more

On CYT, Adam continued to work hard, not only striving to get the best grades he could, but also to encourage other students. He even undertook peer educator work, helping other students with their studies. His outstanding commitment and positive attitude did not go unnoticed: SLCC offered him part-time work, as well as suggesting that he pursue a degree at the college. Encouraged by supportive staff, Adam is currently working 25 hours a week at the college, as well as pursuing a degree in Business Administration. He is hoping to complete the degree in 2021. As he says, “..the biggest satisfaction for me is helping others become successful. It’s my way of contributing back. And many people that I have met, have [again] asked me to publicly speak and share my story in hopes that it will inspire others. So whatever I do, as long as I know that I’m helping other people be successful in life, that’s the direction I want to go in.”

Adam’s is an inspiring story not only because of his own perseverance in the face of quite considerable adversity, but also in his positive, supportive approach to others. Although beset by family problems and held back by a lack of confidence in his early years, he has continued to push forward, refusing to let setbacks deter him from reaching his final goal. Unlike many Katrina survivors, who have been unable to recover from the devastating experience, Adam has used the challenges he faced to help him grow into the strong, determined and ultimately successful young man that he is today.

By refusing to give up, despite suffering considerable misfortune, Adam shows that, with the right attitude, almost anything is possible. Hopefully, his story will serve as an inspiration to others, proving that, with hard work and the right support, there are few barriers to success which can’t be overcome.