Skip to content

A Katrina survivor with a disability tells her story

Karen Nix was working at Tulane Medical Center, monitoring the vitals of patients, when the levees failed and Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans on August 29, 2005.
Karen Nix sits in her home before leaving for her evening work shift in New Orleans, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022. Nix tells her story of surviving hurricanes Katrina and Ida while living with cerebral palsy. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Karen Nix was working at Tulane Medical Center, monitoring the vitals of patients, when the levees failed and Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans on August 29, 2005.

By evening the medical center was inundated – water rose several feet into the first floors of buildings. Everyone in the hospital spent the night on upper floors, waiting for their chance to get out. Nix, who usually worked the night shift on the fifth floor, continued to attend to patients. Then the backup generators began to fail.

Conditions deteriorated, especially for Nix, who has mobility issues caused by cerebral palsy. “I remember that it was hot and we didn’t have power, so it was miserable,” she said. Medical staff began gathering in pockets of the hospital where it was cooler. That crowded Nix, who uses a walker.

The next day patients started climbing stairs to the seventh floor of the parking garage, where Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters waited. As part of the hospital staff, Nix stayed behind another night, caring for patients that remained.

When it looked like her turn had finally come, Nix needed help climbing two flights of stairs. The elevators weren't running. Nix and other medical staff ended up spending a third night in the parking garage, using a makeshift bathroom, before finally boarding helicopters that took them to a shelter in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Using that commode chair, surrounded by borrowed emergency room curtains for privacy – is burned into her memory.

“I worked the whole time and it was horrible …. That was a difficult time for me because of my disability,” she said.

Nix, 59, has lived with cerebral palsy most of her life. She was diagnosed when she was six and said because it isn’t as severe as for some people, she has been able to work, go to school and graduate from college.

Still, she imagines a world where she would not have to work when hurricanes and storm surges are on the horizon, but would instead get some type of disability pay since most places she’s worked, even hospitals, become inaccessible during disasters.

That way, she could spend more time making preparations to get out of town. She can't board up the windows of her house in New Orleans East to withstand potential wind damage. And in the event that rain and wind damage her home, she can't do the cleanup.

She has support, though. She is married and has children, so her family are often the ones to fortify the house before a storm and clean up the damage.

But not all disabled people in regions getting hit by climate-related disasters have that support. She said local, state and federal governments don't create adequate emergency plans for people with disabilities, whether for hurricanes, floods or wildfires.

“I think you get left out of the equation if you’re not self-sufficient or don't know how to get the resources you need,” Nix said, “or if you don’t have someone to be a voice for you.”


Follow Drew Costley on Twitter: @drewcostley.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

By Drew Costley, The Associated Press