A decade after Hurricane Katrina hit, iconic photographer Mary Ellen Mark traveled to New Orleans to document the city's recovery. One month later, she passed away. This was her final assignment.
"I would die if I had to be confined. I don't want to feel that I'm missing out on experiencing as much as I can. For me, experiencing is knowing people all over the world and being able to photograph." — Mary Ellen Mark
"We came up here and picked up lives – 1,200 potential children that are going to come into this world, and they wouldn't have had a chance had we not gotten there." — Lt. Curt Lewis, Illinois Conservation Police

These embryos survived Katrina: Meet Sam & Ben

Sam and Ben were once frozen embryos, locked in a canister and stranded in a hospital without power after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.

Parents Andrea and Jon Will were in Mississippi at the time and immediately thought of the embryos, which they considered their babies.

Andrea prayed. "OK God, they're yours. I can do nothing about this."

They didn't know it, but after the storm, a special task force from Illinois made a daring rescue to save the embryos. Under Louisiana law, the embryos were considered people.

"The doctors said we need[ed] to get them because the amount of liquid nitrogen that was keeping them frozen was quickly depleting, especially in the heat, and we had to get them back into cold storage," said Lt. Curt Lewis, an officer who carried the containers containing the embryos to safety.

The Illinois Conservation Police recovered a canister containing 1,200 frozen embryos from a flooding hospital in New Orleans.

Months after the storm, Andrea and Jon heard the news: Nearly 1,200 embryos belonging to 485 couples were saved.

Their embryos had made it, and Andrea and Jon just had to decide whether or not to go forward with trying to have them.

"If God took care of them before they were born, I knew that He was going to take care of them and they were going to be wonderful and normal," said Andrea.

Sam and Ben, now 8 years old, were the first children to be born from the rescued embryos. (While other children were born from the rescued embryos, the exact number is unknown.)

Ben has grown into a bit of a troublemaker, while Sam is quieter. Andrea said Ben is "going to be a typical Southern boy with a big truck with a gun in the back."

The family lives in Mississippi. Ben and Sam have two older brothers, both twins born through the same in vitro process. Jon and Andrea work at the same high school: He's the principal and she's the choir teacher.

Andrea said the experience she's gone through with her boys has made her stronger, even as she has wrestled with her relationship with God. The first time she got pregnant, three embryos were implanted. One didn't make it.

Andrea thinks it was a girl.

"That was very hard, because I was like, 'I did everything you wanted to do and you took away this baby,'" she said.

She finally came to a place of peace. Plus, she says, the best things come in twos.

"You know, Noah's Ark?" She said. "They came two by two."

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"After Katrina, the whole school system had to be reborn. ... It, however, has not changed enough when it comes to educating children with special needs." — Jacqueline Case, Founder of Raphael Academy

Here's how Katrina changed special education in New Orleans

Even before Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans, the public school system was in ruins.

Nearly two-thirds of students were enrolled in failing schools. Only 35% of students attained "proficient" scores on state exams.

Less than three months after Katrina made landfall -- and New Orleans schools' were either shuttered or destroyed -- the state legislature transferred over 100 low-performing schools to the Recovery School District, paving the way for the largest charter school experiment in American history. Today, 91% of New Orleans students are enrolled in charter schools.

The Recovery School District boasts impressive results -- the on-time high school graduation rate is up nearly 20% from 2004. Now 62% of students receive proficient scores.

But who's been left behind?

Thomas Schulingkamp lives with 4p- syndrome, a chromosome deletion that's led to cognitive and development problems. He's non-verbal. He was a teenager when Katrina struck and his family evacuated to Michigan.

"Thomas is a New Orleanian through and through," said his mother, Miriam Schulingkamp. "Not only does he dress like a New Orleanian, he's a big Saints fan, he loves live music. He's very happy in New Orleans...so he was anxious to come back."

But it would be eight years before Thomas returned to New Orleans. He eventually enrolled at Raphael Academy, a small private school founded in 2012 by Jacqueline Case, the mother of an autistic son who was also frustrated by the lack of special education in the rebuilt school system.

"Some of our students were just able to move back to New Orleans a year ago because there was finally a school that they could come to," Case said. "They hadn't been able to come back home because there wasn't a program for them."

Sculingkamp and Case's experiences were not unique. In 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class action suit against the Louisiana Department of Education, among others, alleging that it "failed to ensure that public schools offer disabled students the same variety of educational programs and services as are available to non-disabled children."

It called the practices "nothing less than disability discrimination."

The parties eventually agreed to a settlement, and Recovery School District vowed to hold charter schools accountable for providing adequate education to special needs students.

Laura Hawkins, a spokeswoman for Recovery School District, told CNNMoney that special education services "weren't perfect, but the organization has made a concerted effort over the years to improve," pointing to increased funding for charter schools that have innovative special needs programs. In addition, a new enrollment process is blind to a student's special needs status, so charter schools cannot reject students that might strain their resources and budget, as they had in the past.

Still, whereas one of the main selling points of New Orleans' charter system is choice, empowering families to select the school that's right for them, parents of special needs children feel they have limited options.

Thomas is thriving at Raphael Academy, based on Rudolf Steiner's Camphill philosophy, which emphasizes community inclusion and vocational training. But the $14,500 tuition is prohibitively expensive in a city where 39% of children live in poverty.

Case, who waives half her salary as director of Raphael, understands that the school is a small solution to a big problem. "When [parents] call... and they can't afford the tuition, there isn't one public school that I know of that I refer and say 'this one's got it right.'"

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"The party lives on, but it's bigger and better." — Drew Brees

A tale of two underdogs: Drew Brees & New Orleans

Football star Drew Brees says the city of New Orleans has been resurrected from the dead.

He moved to the city a decade ago, when it was still reeling from Hurricane Katrina. It was six months after the storm, and he describes it as a ghost town.

There were boats in the middle of the road, and cars upside down in people's living rooms. It wasn't just the city that had to make a comeback.

"A lot of guys came here in 2006, including myself, as somewhat of castaways," he said. "Many of us did not have many other options."

Brees had been let go by the San Diego Chargers due to a shoulder injury. The Miami Dolphins had been interested in bringing him on, but were counseled against it because of his shoulder.

The New Orleans Saints was the team to put an offer on the table.

"We chose New Orleans because we felt like we could do something special down here," he said. He moved to New Orleans with his wife Brittany, and he soon developed a close tie to the city.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees celebrates with his son Baylen as the New Orleans Saints beat the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. (Photo by Joe Rimkus Jr/Miami Herald/MCT via Getty Images)

"We leaned on each other in so many cases," he said of his fellow New Orleanians. "As people are trying to rebuild their homes, rebuild their lives, they're still coming to games to cheer on the Saints because it just gives them so much energy and enthusiasm ... just this feeling that we're all in this together."

Every time the team stepped on the field and won a football game, it captured the spirit of the entire city, he said.

There's a certain game that sticks out. It was 2009, and the Saints were playing the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. The Saints won the game, and Brees was awarded the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Award. The team was welcomed back to the city by thousands of fans, and -- in true New Orleans style -- a blues band.

"When we won that Super Bowl, it was that culmination of all those ups and downs, all those hardships," he said. "[It was] just that sheer elation of, we've done it, and we've done it together."

Since then, Brees has not just continued to play, but has also developed a charitable foundation that provides care, education and opportunities for families in New Orleans and beyond.

"The party lives on," Brees said. "But it's bigger and better."

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"If you can't get out there and try to change the youngsters coming up behind you, you ain't worth nothing." — Harry Sims, Founder of Running Bear Boxing Club

The Lower Ninth, rising off the mat

Drive through New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward – even today, a decade after the deadliest U.S. hurricane in 75 years -- and you’ll see the legacy of Katrina.

Downed trees, overgrown lots, homes in every state of disrepair -- without roofs, without walls, but mostly, without people. Only 37% of the neighborhood’s pre-Katrina population has returned.

Head west on N. Miro Street toward the Industrial Canal. They've repaired the breach there, all quarter-mile of it. Those faded "Xs" spray-painted on homes – that's how rescue workers indicated that they’d searched the residence. Sometimes they found survivors. Too often, they found corpses.

Take a right on Flood Street -- where else? -- and that’s where you’ll see it. An outdoor boxing ring, rising out of the tall grass like an oasis. Except this is the real thing. This is the Running Bear Boxing Club, home of Harry Sims.

Every day after school, Sims trains a dozen children, including his twin 14-year-old grandsons, De'Shane and Dennis.

"He started boxing because he didn’t like what he was seeing in the streets. People selling drugs and fighting on the street and going to jail," Dennis told CNNMoney.

"We lost our dad because he was on the street selling drugs," his brother added.

Sixty-three-year-old Sims, a recently retired longshoreman, founded and self-financed the club in the early 1990s. But in the chaotic days following Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward sustained 12 feet of flooding. Sims evacuated to the Superdome. His home was destroyed and his boxing club was washed away.

Two weeks later, he was back, one of the first Lower Ninth Ward residents to return. He soon began rebuilding his ring. "You make it better by fixing it," he said, "Don't run from it. I can’t run. I’m not a coward to run."

Sims estimates that Running Bear has cost him $100,000 (he doesn't charge for the training), but he’s had success. He’s trained hundreds of boxers and several have competed in the Louisiana Golden Gloves. Others have returned to coach the next generation.

"You're responsible for your own village," he said. "If you can't get out there and try to change the youngsters coming up behind you, you ain’t worth nothing. ...I'm trying to get it straight. The Lower Ninth Ward gonna grow bigger."

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"For so many of us, our pets are our families. It's hard to imagine leaving your pet behind." — Ana Zorrilla, President of Louisiana SPCA

Katrina changed animal evacuation laws

Helen Hester spent the months after Hurricane Katrina sitting in front of a cage, reading the newspaper to a dog named Chaz.

He'd been wandering the streets, and it wasn't safe for anyone to interact with him. Hester was determined to get him used to people again. She went to the Louisiana SPCA in New Orleans every day, sat right in front of his cage, and read.

"He didn't remember that humans were his friends," she said.

She would read The New York Times and sometimes The New Orleans Times Picayune. She mostly read about the storm and the recovery, but sometimes, just for something lighter, she'd read him the arts section too.

Chaz was in the crate for months. The SPCA had lost its building in the storm so the shelter was housed in a coffee warehouse with no running water and no air conditioning. There were tarps on the roof but it still leaked. Hundreds of rescued dogs came in every day.

"I remember just being amazed at the commitment and dedication of the staff and the volunteers that were there around the clock," said Ana Zorrilla, CEO of the Louisiana SPCA in New Orleans. "[They were] just doing everything they possibly could to make the animals comfortable and to help them get over the stress. "

As time wore on, the dogs around Chaz were adopted, but he was continually passed over because he still seemed too aggressive. Hester kept hoping his real family would come back for him.

No one was sure where Chaz had come from, but he'd been found in one of the most flooded neighborhoods.

About 1.2 million people were evacuated from the New Orleans region before the hurricane hit. Those evacuated were told they couldn't bring their pets.

After the storm, the Louisiana SPCA in New Orleans embarked on the largest animal rescue operation ever seen in the U.S. Volunteers took rowboats to the flooded streets, picking dogs off the roofs and cats out of the water. It's estimated 15,000 pets were rescued.

But nearly 90,000 New Orleans-area pets have never been accounted for, and the Louisiana SPCA estimates that 50,000-70,000 pets died across the entire Gulf Coast. The rescued animals were kept in crates. If they had become too wild, like Chaz, they went into a special area, called the "rehab tent."

The packs of dogs running through New Orleans after the storm, and the news reports of heartbroken owners searching for their animals, garnered national attention.

In 2006, the Senate passed the the Pet Evacuation & Transportation Standards (PETS) Act, which authorizes FEMA to rescue, shelter and care for people with pets and service animals. This could save not only the lives of pets, but people too -- about 44% of the 100,000 who did not evacuate stayed because they didn't want to leave their pets behind, according to a report by the Fritz Institute.

Chaz's owner never came to claim him. Once Hester knew he wasn't going to be claimed or adopted, she had to make a decision. The shelter was only getting more crowded, and some animals had to be euthanized.

"Gradually it came to me that his real family had found him, and it was myself," Hester said. Now together for ten years, and she says he's a loving dog who still gets terrified during thunderstorms.

Hester, who was a cat person before Katrina, now has three dogs, including Chaz. She also has a van -- just in case. "I can fit both the cats and the dogs in there safely," she said. "And maybe a neighbor or two."

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