In the aftermath of the storm, journalists captured New Orleans' descent into chaos. Shots of flooded streets, helicopter rescues, survivors trapped on rooftops and the scenes of human misery at refugee shelters like the Superdome defined New Orleans post-Katrina.
"I've never seen anything in my life like this. I can't put it into words the amount of destruction that is in this city," NBC cameraman Tony Zumbado said.
New Orleans has had ten years to recover from that devastation, and many parts of the city have been radically revamped in that time -- but the city's actual recovery can be hard to gauge. It's largely dependent on where you look.
Rebuilding the city's broken infrastructure gave New Orleans officials an opportunity to experiment with new ideas. The city converted its failing public schools into charter schools, demolished and rebuilt its public housing, and encouraged a wave of entrepreneurship.
Supporters credit these reforms for the city's rapid population growth, wealth of new jobs and startups and improving performance of students on standardized tests -- and several observers have also congratulated New Orleans for the dramatic improvement its made since Katrina.
"I think the best thing to happen to the education system in New Orleans is Hurricane Katrina," education secretary Arne Duncan told Roland Martin.
Some people have taken the praise for New Orleans too far. A Chicago Tribune columnist was immediately pilloried after she wished for a Katrina-like reset for the government in her home city.
Other outlets point out neighborhoods that haven't seen much improvement. New Orleans' bold reforms are often accused of excluding or leaving behind the city's poorest residents, and polling shows black residents have a much bleaker outlook on the future of New Orleans.
PHOTOS: New Orleans recovery through the years
Katrina 10 year: New Orleans recovery through the years (2006-2014)
Mayor of New Orleans: 'We've shown what's possible'
NEW ORLEANS - JANUARY 7: A sign in front of a home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina reads, 'No Bulldozing' even though it is designated as being 'in imminent danger of collapse' by city inspectors on January 7, 2006 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The New Orleans City council has agreed to wait two more weeks before starting to tear down damaged homes as a federal judge decides if he will hear a challenge from local community activists. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - JANUARY 10: Keith Jackson takes a picture of the rubble surrounding the remains of his aunt's home in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana on January 10, 2006. The home was destroyed when the Industrial Canal levee was breeched and floodwaters inundated the neighborhood, during Hurricane Katrina, in August 2005. (Photo by Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)
A crushed school bus sits under a large barge, Sunday, February 12, 2006, that broke through the damaged levee that flooded the 9th Ward in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - MARCH 8: A New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets fan holds up a sign during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on March 8, 2006 at the New Orleans Arena in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Lakers defeated the Hornets 113-107 in the Hornets first game in new Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - APRIL 20: Election workers prepare in the Voting Machine Warehouse which will serve as a polling location April 20, 2006 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The New Orleans mayoral election will be held April 22, and if none of the 23 candidates receives a majority of the vote, the top two will compete in a runoff scheduled for May 20. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 27: Cynthia Hamilton waits for a ride in front of a darkened building after helping clean her mother's damaged house in the Lower 9th Ward August 27, 2006 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The neighborhood is still without electricity in certain areas. The first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is August 29th. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - SEPTEMBER 25: A fan holds up a sign during the Monday Night Football game against the Atlanta Falcons on September 25, 2006 at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. Tonight's game marks the first time since Hurricane Katrina struck last August, that the Superdome, which served as a temporary shelter to thousands of stranded victims in the wake of Katrina, has played host to an NFL game. The Saints won the game 23-3. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - JUNE 10: Palazzola Simmons attempts to hook up a wire for a generator in the doorway of the old motor home he is currently living in with three other people in the Lower Ninth Ward June 10, 2007 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Simmons' home was on the property but was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Most of the people living in the motor home say they cannot afford rent in the city because prices have increased following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS - DECEMBER 15: B.W. Cooper public housing development residents Charlton Porter (C) and Lioneisha Dales walk past a partially demolished building in their complex December 15, 2007 in New Orleans. The demolition has sparked protests and lawsuits as affordable housing stocks have dwindled and homelessness has doubled following Hurricane Katrina. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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"So what we're seeing is growing income inequality as many of our white households are doing much better but black households are not ... It's interesting down here, if you talk to folks, it's almost like a tale of two cities," demographer Allison Plyer told WBUR.
While there's still a lot of recovery work left to do, New Orleans officials are using the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina to reflect on the progress they've made so far.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu told The National Press Club, "We've shown what's possible. That from the worst disaster there can be rebirth. Out of despair, there can be hope; out of darkness, light; out of destruction, beauty."