08/27/2010 10:21 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Looking Back on Katrina

Iconic events happen throughout our lives that are captured in our hearts and minds forever. For many people, it's a wedding or the birth of a child. For others, it might be the first day of high school or getting that first car.

When people reflect on more tragic events of national proportions, they will often ask, "Where were you when the Twin Towers collapsed?" or "Do you remember what you were doing when the Space Shuttle 'Challenger' exploded?" Somewhere in the back of our minds we can remember the details -- how we found out, who we were with, what we were wearing, what the weather was like -- but above all else, how it made us feel.

I share this with you as all the news reports about the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina are beginning to surface. While I wasn't at Feeding America at the time of the disaster, touring the devastated areas was one of my very first experiences of leading this organization and presented moments that are etched in my mind forever.

Traveling from Houston through Miami, I visited our food banks and their agencies who had taken a beating -- not only from Katrina, but also Hurricanes Rita and Wilma that arrived on its heels. I met with food-banking veterans like Brian Green, who, when Katrina hit, was transitioning from executive director of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana to run the Houston Food Bank, and was just in time to serve the millions of evacuees arriving in Houston. I remember Brian and his team working tirelessly throughout the relief operation to help those who fled the storms and were still struggling just to get by.

That was the same story for Dave Reaney at the Bay Area Food Bank in Mobile, Alabama and Walker Satterwhite at the Mississippi Food Network in Jackson. In the months following the 2005 hurricane season, we discovered that Feeding America food banks had helped more than 6.5 million people with emergency food assistance all along the Gulf Coast. What's more telling is that 4 million of those people were not our usual clients -- they were middle and upper-middle class families who never thought they would need to rely on a food bank for aid. Fortunately, our food banks were there to help them survive the toughest ordeal in their lives.

Hurricane Katrina redefined the need for thorough disaster planning for all organizations. It prompted our team to develop stronger response plans and keep limited quantities of food products on hand for the unexpected event. And while we don't know what disasters lay ahead of us, we're ready to step up once again.

The memories I have from working with food bank staff, touring communities and meeting people affected by Katrina will always be a reminder to me that the human spirit can prevail when all hope seems lost. As long as there is someone, anyone, to offer help.