Katrina at Five: The Lower Ninth Ward

The Lower Ninth Ward, hit hard by Katrina, struggles to rebuild.

August 26, 2010 — -- Michael Knight lived those harrowing images so many others remember from Hurricane Katrina: the waters rising and rising, people trapped in their homes racing to their rooftops, crawling through windows to escape Katrina's wrath.

"We've been running," Knight said back in 2005. "I feel like crying. A lot of people just died, bro."

After the pounding winds and hammering rains of Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, the worst was still yet to come. Flood waters rushed into the Ninth Ward, one of New Orleans' poorest neighborhoods.

The floodwall protecting the Lower Ninth Ward was knocked down by a runaway barge cut loose by the storm. Thousands of residents had to race to their attics and rooftops to escape the rising waters.

"We got up in the roof, all the way to the roof, and, and water came, it had just, just open up," one man told ABC News in 2005.

Some were lucky, rescued by helicopters. Others had to rely on the kindness of neighbors -- neighbors like Knight.

Lower Ninth Ward Hit Hardest By Katrina

Of all the places in New Orleans hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, none suffered more than the lower ninth ward. In 2005, Knight and another Lower Ninth resident, Harry Pryor, paddled through the flooded streets looking for signs of life. They made it their mission to rescue their marooned neighbors.

"See where them holes are at in the rooftops?" Pryor said. "We cut them out here."

Pryor and Knight had to hack their way through the roofs to free some people. They pulled them from their homes, ferrying them first to a small church in the neighborhood, and then moving them to dry land.

Knight estimates that he and Pryor saved more than 400 of their neighbors who might have died if not for their efforts.

Surviving on water and meals dropped down from Coast Guard helicopters, Knight and a few friends lived on his rooftop for more than a week after Katrina.

Today, that home whose roof became their refuge is gone. It's a parking lot now.

Knight, born and raised in the Lower Ninth, refuses to leave his neighborhood. Five years later, he's still there, glad to be in the same place where he helped so many.

Lower Ninth Ward Today

Much of the Lower Ninth Ward is frozen in time, dotted with abandoned homes, many still displaying the spray-painted markings left by search teams.

"This area on this side of the canal, they forgot about us," Knight said. "We don't exist."

About 15,000 people lived in the Lower Ninth Ward before Katrina. More than three quarters have not returned and probably never will.

There are glimmers of hope. After the storm, only rubble remained but today, new homes pepper the landscape. With the assistance of the "Make It Right" foundation, 50 homes have been constructed.

The floodwall that was destroyed in the storm has been rebuilt higher and stronger. And Knight believes that finally, after five years, there is some hope.

"To me, it looks a whole lot better. If they could just keep the grass down a little better, it's turning out pretty decent," Knight said.

Five years after the disaster, Knight knows nothing will be the same but that doesn't deter him.

"I was the last one to leave and I'm the first one to come back," he said.

He built a new home right next door to the old one.