NEW ORLEANS—The attic started to feel dangerous. Kimberly Rivers-Roberts and her husband, Scott, climbed up there when water entered their home. But now an unsteady roof twitching up and down was all that protected them from Hurricane Katrina.
The Industrial Canal levee, three blocks away from their Lower Ninth Ward home, breached, causing water to surge up past stop signs. Rain drummed. The 100 mile-per-hour winds sent shingles flying off their house.
Rivers-Roberts, a self-proclaimed "hustler" and 24-year-old aspiring rapper known as Black Kold Madina, had her Cadillac sedan stolen a week before. So when Mayor Ray Nagin called for a mandatory evacuation the morning of August 28, 2005, she knew there was no choice but to brave the storm. More than 100,000 New Orleanians were left stranded without mass public transportation out of the city.
“If I could have left, I would have,” she said. “But there was no way.”
Instead, without many options, she decided to record the historic event. Rivers-Roberts had purchased a Sony Hi8 camcorder on the streets of New Orleans for $20 two weeks prior. “It’s me, reporting live, Kold Madina,” she says on Aug. 28 as the rain starts. “We’ll be bringing y’all more footage very shortly.” Between this recording and the next day, pounding rainfall and walloping gusts forced her and her husband to the attic. Scott didn’t know how to swim.
“I don’t know how long we’ll be up here, but I hope it ain’t long,” she says. “We pray to the Lord that the roof don’t come off. It’s the last thing.”
They stayed in the attic like that—worrying, hoping, praying—for four hours until neighbor, Larry Sims, brought over a floating device and offered his elevated townhouse as refuge.
“We swam across to where it was,” she said. “We had to get to higher ground.”
Rivers-Roberts and her husband managed to get through the water and stayed at Sims’ place for two eerie days. No outside help came. Operators answered 911 calls but said they were not sending out rescue teams. A few locals paddled boats across the water to aid the elderly. Others were unseen and feared dead.
The storm, as locals call it, was cataclysmic, astonishing and tragic. More than 1,800 people lost their lives. Tens of thousands were displaced and scattered across more than a dozen states. Eighty percent of the city flooded. And damage estimates are north of $100 billion.
The government reaction to the storm was appalling for many in the city. President Bush was criticized for not immediately grasping or responding to the hurricane’s scale. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was accused of failing to properly anticipate the natural disaster. New Orleanians in poor African-American neighborhoods had to fend for themselves.
That was the case for Rivers-Roberts and her husband before they evacuated several days after the storm. They rented a large moving truck and drove more than two dozen people to safety in Alexandria, Louisiana, 220 miles northwest of New Orleans. The people they brought stayed at a Red Cross shelter.
Veteran documentarians, Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, were filming at the same shelter. The filmmakers recently worked with Michael Moore on “Fahrenheit 9/11” and went to Alexandria to shoot a documentary about National Guard soldiers returning from Baghdad to help with Katrina recovery. But the National Guard public relations team shut them down.
Days later, they met Rivers-Roberts who told them about what she shot. She explained her experience and what transpired in the Lower Ninth Ward. Riveted by her charisma, disarming smile and footage, they soon began working together on a documentary.
It was called “Trouble the Water,” which starred Rivers-Roberts and her husband Scott. With her camcorder shots before, during and after the storm, it provided a contextual lens of what it meant to be poor and black in New Orleans while an indifferent government and often oblivious national media told a different tale. Rivers-Roberts’ screen presence is captivating.
In perhaps the film’s most touching scene, Rivers-Roberts performs an original song called, “Amazing,” which describes her life. Written to "You Got Me" by The Roots feat. Erykah Badu, she talks about her drug-addicted mother who died when she was 13, growing up poor, selling cocaine on the street to survive, violence, and her determination to rise above these circumstances. "I don't need you to tell me that I'm amazing,” she raps.
The documentary Rivers-Roberts helped shoot with her $20 video camera was a triumph. “Trouble the Water” was nominated for an Oscar and won the 2008 Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival along with several other awards. Rivers-Roberts’ spirit stirred viewers and offered inspirational insight.
But years after the storm, she still saw Katrina all around her. She saw it in the changes to her beloved city. And she viewed the success of “Trouble the Water” as the right platform to become an activist in her New Orleans community.
Rivers-Roberts first noticed differences in her Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood. Since Katrina struck 10 years ago, several displaced neighbors never returned. In 2000 there were 14,008 people residing in the Lower Ninth Ward and in 2010 fewer than 3,000 lived in the area. Currently she says the neighborhood is at 12 percent occupancy.
But its new residents aren’t from New Orleans. The combination of locals leaving, cheap real estate and vacant homes paved the way for gentrification. This altered the established culture in the once mostly African-American area where the rate of black home ownership was one of the highest in the city. That shifted as more white people moved in, and she said this happened around the city.
“It’s changed the face of New Orleans, both good and bad,” Rivers-Roberts said. “People have no clue what it is to be from New Orleans. People buying houses think they own the culture. But you can’t take the spirit of New Orleans. Other young people are being a part of this magnificent city and bringing in important ideas and technology.”
Rivers-Roberts saw other changes in New Orleans that spurred her to shoot a documentary. “Fear No Gumbo,” which she hopes to release by year’s end, looks at what she says are faulty facilities at Oliver Bush Park in the Lower Ninth Ward, a juvenile detention center built across from a high school in a black neighborhood and people using work from local African-American artists without permission.
“Fear No Gumbo is to show that Katrina is still alive and well,” she said. “She’s still interrupting quality of life for citizens of New Orleans who are not middle class and rich. For people in other neighborhoods it’s still tough. The Lower Ninth Ward didn’t get enough help or money to rebuild. That’s why so many didn’t come back. The kids don’t even have access to bathrooms in a park here – that’s Katrina in another form.”
Rivers-Roberts says another post-Katrina problem has been the lack of programs to aid poor women, men and children. “FEMA dollars changed New Orleans,” she said. “They built infrastructure but failed to really help the people with programs to get men and women jobs outside construction and the service industry.”
Like with so many challenges in her life, Rivers-Roberts saw this as an opportunity. She started raising money for the New Orleans Women’s Shelter eight years ago, which opened after Katrina to aid homeless women and children. Rivers-Roberts also made direct donations and spoke at the shelter several times.
“The women who have experienced her speeches are often mesmerized by her spirit and her story,” said New Orleans Women’s Shelter executive director Dawn Bradley-Fletcher. “She is committed to helping women and children who are in need. She’s a true inspiration. Our women love her and they can relate to her when she speaks to them.”
Deal, the filmmaker who co-created “Trouble the Water,” shared similar sentiments about Rivers-Roberts in an email. “Kimberly embodies the spirit of New Orleans that we all love,” he wrote, “and in sharing her voice through our film, through her music, and her public advocacy work, she continues to be a force of nature."
Rivers-Roberts has recorded a new rap album called “Queens,” which she’ll release by the end of the year. She gave a TEDx talk called “Triumph Over Tragedy.” She created Amazing Unbreakable Speakers Bureau to inspire people around the country. She’s thriving post-Katrina but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy.
“I have PTSD. I know people who died. I still cry. The losses are still seen today. People should never think Katrina is over,” she said. “I was minding my business. Katrina came bothering me. Now there’s still work to be done here.”
Despite the work and the many changes, she believes the future is bright for her 7-year-old daughter Skyy Kaylen and her hometown. Rivers-Roberts says the education system improved, and there are other reasons to be optimistic. “Now I can see my daughter starting her own business and being active in the community. She’ll have opportunities I never had growing up.”
To learn more about and support Rivers-Roberts' latest film: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/fear-no-gumbo#/story
Henrick Karoliszyn is an award-winning freelance journalist. A former staff writer at the New York Daily News and the New Orleans-Times Picayune, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Aeon Magazine. He was a contributor to the book, "Rolling Stone Cover to Cover: The First 40 Years."