The Katrina Krewe: The Woman Who Cleaned Up New Orleans’ Mess

When Hurricane Katrina blew New Orleans apart, local mother Becky Zaheri formed a group called Katrina Krewe to clean up the mess.

If you’re headed down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras next month, you’ll see streamers, beads, floats, and festive decorations all over Bourbon Street. You can buy poor boys from the sandwich shops, and black chicory coffee and beignets from the small cafés that line the streets. All night, the sound of jazz pipes out from crowded bars, and partygoers swarm the sidewalks, laughing and dancing.

To most visitors, New Orleans will seem no different today than in the golden era before Katrina.

It’s a far cry from the scene in November 2005, months after the storm hit, submerging the city in water and destroying thousands of homes. Then, there was only wreckage: Furniture, clothing, beer bottles, dead animals, pipe bombs, used syringes – anything you could imagine.

“80 percent of our city was underwater,” says Becky Zaheri, “so whatever landed, it landed.”

Before Katrina hit, Zaheri, a New Orleans native, was a stay-at-home mother who spent much of her time competing in tennis matches at a local club and volunteering with the PTA. But after she returned to her wrecked hometown, she knew that her priorities had to change.

“Conditions were indescribable. It had become a junkyard,” she says. “There was no way I could just pick up a tennis racket and go back to that old way of life.”

The streets of her beloved city were strewn with trash and debris, and the city didn’t have enough resources to clean up the mess properly. So Zaheri decided to take on the clean-up effort on her own.

In November 2005, she sent an email out to everyone in her address book, asking her friends and family to help her with cleaning up trash around New Orleans neighborhoods once or twice a week. Many of the email recipients were fellow stay-at-home mothers; as she wrote, “the majority of us are not contractors, but are very good at cleaning up after people.”

Within half an hour of sending the email, responses started pouring in, “some from people I didn’t even know,” says Zaheri.

15 people came to that first clean-up session, armed with rubber gloves and garbage bags. As the word continued to spread, the sessions grew larger and larger. Some weeks, Zaheri had as many as 800 volunteers helping with the trash collection, with “representatives from every state in the U.S.,” and even people who had flown in from Australia, Nigeria, and many other countries to help out.

In January 2006, Zaheri registered her rapidly growing organization as a non-profit group, Katrina Krewe. Soon, donations were pouring in from all around the globe, and the community of volunteers kept on growing.

“It grew to 10,000 volunteers in the first month,” says Zaheri. “Now, there are over 25,000 volunteers.”

In the aftermath of the hurricane, Zaheri and the rest of the Katrina Krewe managed to accomplish what few had thought possible: Transform New Orleans back into the beautiful city it had once been. In the months after Katrina, the thousands of volunteers, including everyone from children all the way up to people in their 80s, managed to remove more than 250,000 tons of trash and debris from the city streets.

Today, thanks to the Krewe’s hard work, the streets are as clean as they’ve ever been, and Zaheri believes that New Orleans is finally coming back to life, with thousands of former residents returning to town, and new restaurants and businesses opening every day.

“The harder-hit areas are slower to come back, but you could come to the city and not know that a storm ever hit,” says Zaheri. “We have come such a long way.”

comments powered by Disqus