Aleia Hobbs ahead of the Rome Diamond League (© Michelle Sammet)
We got out before it hit.
It was August 2005, I was nine years old, and I can still remember boarding the bus to evacuate New Orleans.
There was me, my brother, three of my sisters, my Mom, my cousins and my Grandma. It must have been 10 of us in total, all packing our stuff and leaving home, not knowing when, or if, we’d ever come back.
Within days, everyone saw the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina but back then, on that day we left, none of us thought it would be that bad – all we knew was we had to get out.
My siblings and cousins were similar ages to me, and I remember the conversations between the grown-ups: we’ve got to get the kids out of here.
There was a convention center near my house where everybody was told to go, so we did, and from there we got sent to Mississippi to stay in a shelter. There was no other choice. We didn’t have money to stay in a hotel; there was too many of us.
I can’t remember exactly how long we stayed in that shelter – a few weeks, I think – but I know it was long enough that they started talking about putting us in local schools. We were like: What? Why? We didn’t want to go to school there, but we also had no idea how badly our city had been damaged.
Being in that shelter was a crazy experience: they had prison inmates working there, there were fights breaking out all the time and someone even got raped. There were community showers, and all anyone wanted to do was to get back to their homes, back to normality.
But when we did finally get home, we came back to a different city.
Everywhere in New Orleans looked like it had been through a lot, with some areas worse than others. My aunt’s house was destroyed, but our family’s home – thankfully – was still standing. The roof was messed up but it wasn’t like other places.
We lived on the West Bank and that part didn’t get hit as bad, so we were able to move back into the same house. I remember there was no electricity for a while so we lived in the dark for the first week, but we just stuck it out – we still have that same home today.
Others weren’t so lucky. Thousands were killed, tens of thousands lost their homes and so many more had their lives changed. We were so young, and all I remember was how confused I was about why this all happened. Nothing made sense about it.
It took a lot for the city to recover and, in many ways, it’s still trying to recover – 14 years on.
But here’s the thing: I feel like as bad as it was for everyone in New Orleans, it ultimately made everybody stronger. We started appreciating things more than we did before.
Katrina had made a massive impact, but it wasn’t only negative.
Today, some parts of the city are still in the process of rebuilding, but the progress made in recent years is great. People have pulled together, made it an even better city than it was before the hurricane.
I left the city the age of 18 to study at Louisiana State University, but no matter where I go, New Orleans will always be my true home.
It’s where I first discovered my talent for running. I was eight at the time, terrified of dogs, and when one chased me after church one day I just took off. The dog never caught up, which shocked everyone watching, and soon after that I took up track.
And now, 15 years later, I’ve become one of the world’s fastest women.
Running in stadiums all over the world, it always makes me think of where I came from, of the family and people that supported me through everything.
And no matter where this all leads, wherever I end up, I’ll always be proud to represent New Orleans.