The ‘Katrina-to-Covid Class’: How the coronavirus era affects New Orleans students more acutely

Floodwaters and fear shaped the earliest memories of high school seniors in New Orleans. Now, they’re graduating in the middle of another major crisis for their city.


June 27, 2020

Satoriya Lambert was still a toddler when Hurricane Katrina struck her hometown. After the levees burst open, her family carried Satoriya to a waiting car on higher ground and they fled the flooded city.

Satoriya is now 18. Last month, because of coronavirus restrictions, she was allowed to bring exactly three family members to her 15-minute, individualized, graduation ceremony from Walter L. Cohen College Prep.

All across the nation, students with senior years truncated by the pandemic are feeling a sense of loss as they try to understand what exactly it means to be part of the Class of 2020. But in New Orleans, some have dubbed this year’s graduates the “Katrina to Covid Class,” because their academic careers are book-ended by Hurricane Katrina and the pandemic.

These students trace their earliest memories to 2005. Satoriya, who had just turned 3, remembers looking out the car window to see downed trees and “so much water everywhere.”

The family house that Satoriya lives in now had water to the ceiling. Memories of the disaster are particularly vivid in graduates, like Satoriya, from the city’s Black households, whose homes were far more likely to be in the low-lying, heavily flooded areas of New Orleans due to historic patterns of discrimination and segregation.

Jarrin Rainey, 20, a 2020 graduate of Frederick A. Douglass High School, remembers his uncles pushing the family to safety in a boat. All he could see for miles was “dirty, nasty water” and ruined, flooded houses, he said.

Mental-health experts say that because of Katrina, those in the Class of 2020 in New Orleans are likely to be more affected by coronavirus upheaval. “We know this is true, though they’re not going to be able to make that connection — ‘Oh, I’m feeling this way about Covid because, you know, early in my life these other things happened,’” said Denese Shervington, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Tulane University School of Medicine who focuses on community wellness as CEO of the Institute for Women and Ethnic Studies, the nonprofit she founded 27 years ago.

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