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Survivor Stories: Family reflects on how Hurricane Katrina brought them closer together

When Hurricane Katrina hit, this New Orleans family thought they'd never return.
/ Source: TODAY

This story is part of TODAY's series "Survivors: What Happens After the Headlines Fade." For more stories and videos from the series, click here.

As the final days of August 2005 neared, a tropical depression moved quickly through the Atlantic Ocean, whipping through the Floridian peninsula before picking up strength in the Gulf of Mexico.

There was a dangerous storm approaching, but residents had no idea what was to come.

New Orleans, Louisiana, Mayor Ray Nagin issued a volunteer evacuation for the city on Aug. 27, and then a mandatory evacuation the next day. Hours later, Hurricane Katrina made landfall and the levees failed, leaving New Orleans under water.

When everything changed

Joe Bridges, a New Orleans-based contractor, and his family were some of the last residents to leave the city as the Category 5 hurricane barreled closer. They initially contemplated riding out the storm, but made the decision to leave at the last minute.

Joe Bridges reflects on his experience during Hurricane Katrina, 13 years ago.TODAY

"Our first stop was Atlanta, Georgia," Bridges told TODAY. "My wife had a couple of sisters that lived there at the time, so we went to Atlanta for what we thought was gonna be two or three days."

"When the levees broke," Joe said, "everybody was in complete shock as to what are we gonna do next?"

"It felt like packing was just, like, a quick rush," Joe's son, Jordan, told TODAY. "You know, grab the pictures, grab our important documents, grab a few days of clothes."

Jordan, who was a senior in high school at the time, remembered watching the coverage of the storm on TV. When he saw images of the city's historic French Quarter, he knew everything was going to change.

"As I'm seeing people wade across Canal Street in bins, I'm like, 'We're probably not going home,'" he said.

Jordan Bridges looks through the photos his family brought with them during the hurricane.TODAY

"It was like a bomb had went off."

"At that time, my wife was in her next to last semester of law school... So work was not the priority for me; it was school, getting everybody kind of established and back in the school," Joe said.

In the weeks after the storm hit, his wife was offered a spot at George Washington University Law School, so the familythe few belongings they had taken with them and made their way from Atlanta to Washington, D.C.

Over the next days, weeks and months, New Orleans would see unprecedented suffering. Some 1,833 people died because of Katrina, the majority of whom were from Louisiana. There was more than $125 billion in estimated damage.

Meanwhile, the Bridges family stayed near the nation's capital for around four months.

Torn between two worlds

People wade through floodwaters on their way to the Superdome in New Orleans looking for shelter in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.Melissa Phillip / AP

During that time, Joe would travel back and forth to New Orleans to help rebuild the city.

"I would get up at 5:00 (or) 5:30 in the morning and I would drive from D.C. all the way to New Orleans," Joe said. "And then I would stay here for a week or two, and then I would drive back to D.C. and stay there for a week or so."

The dissonance between his life in the two different cities wore on him.

"It kind of threw me off a little bit because we were living in D.C. where everything is beautiful. It's nice," he said. "And then I would come back to New Orleans to where it was like a bomb had went off."

The family had many opportunities in the D.C. area and they considered staying for good. But Joe remembers grappling with the decision.

"Then I started thinking about it, and I'm like, 'You do electrical work, and three quarters to seven eighths of your city is out of power and you're just gonna leave, and just leave your city hanging? The place that helped you make your money, that you grew up, that you were born here?'"

The Bridges returned to New Orleans in January of 2006. Up until that point, Joe had been the only member of the family to see the state of the city, and the home that he built for his family, in person.

"I just remember (it) being an emotional few days," Jordan said. "Even getting back to the house for the first time, just all the flies. I just remember the carpet and stuff being torn up and just a bunch of flies everywhere."

Despite the destruction, Joe rebuilt the house and passed it down to his sons. Jordan continues to live in the home today, where the legacy of Katrina lingers in its walls.

"Those are the things that are gonna last forever."

Thirteen years later, the city of New Orleans is still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Even today, you can still see remnants of homes that were abandoned during the storm. The city's population still hasn't reached pre-Hurricane levels, with many families deciding it's too painful or too difficult to come back. Jordan described it as a "veil" that still covers the city.

Jordan stands outside the home he and his family left and returned to after the hurricane.TODAY

"It's this thin layer (and) some people see it; some people just walk right through it," he said.

"You wouldn't think 13 years later that people would still be dealing with Katrina issues," Joe told TODAY. "It's kind of a low profile (issue), because we don't wanna concentrate on the past too much; but a lot of people are still, some people are just moving back now after 10 or 12 years."

Though Katrina brought an unimaginable amount of suffering, it also revealed a sense of community unlike anywhere else, one even researchers have studied.

"I think we're a better city because of it," he said. "Much stronger, closer knit."

"Going through something as significant as Katrina with your loved ones and friends," Jordan said, "Those bonds, you know, those are the things that are gonna last forever."