Tuesday, May 6, 2008


A week ago today, we joined ten other people and toured the Katrina-damaged areas of New Orleans. This amounts to 80 per cent of the entire city, an expanse of 144 square miles, or the size of seven Manhattans. Katrina-related damage extended to four parishes: Orleans, Jefferson, Placquemines, and St. Bernard's. As we discovered on the tour, little of it need have happened: Although touched off by natural forces, Katrina was largely a man-made disaster.

Rose, our tour guide, was herself a victim of the hurricane. She led the 3-hour 45-minute tour with good humor and no discernible rancor, but with a powerful narrative in the voice of an authentic New Orleans accent that commanded attention throughout. The tour circled the perimeter of the affected areas and cut though the key areas near Lake Ponchartrain, East New Orleans, and the Upper and Lower Ninth Wards.

A retired P.E. teacher who grew up in the French Quarter, Rose eventually settled with her husband in a middle class development, most of which is now slated for destruction. Rose and her husband tried for two years after the hurricane to keep their home in the hopes that they could restore it, and finally gave up. High school volunteers from Iowa helped them remove what was valuable from their home before they sold it to the city for 10 cents on the dollar. The city quickly slapped a red X on the house, meaning that damage to the home is so extensive that it must be torn down:

Katrina collided with New Orleans on August 29, 2005 as a category 5 hurricane assaulting an eroding and poorly maintained system of levees. A storm of historic but not unprecedented proportions, Katrina was the sixth most powerful Atlantic hurricane and the 3rd strongest to make landfall in the United States. New Orleans is located 3-8 feet below sea level in a basin between the Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain, the largest American lake outside of the Great Lakes. (You can't see across the lake: It's large enough to have its own horizon.) Canals connecting the river to the lake cut across the city.

Nonetheless, its likely that New Orleans would have escaped catastrophic damages were it not for the failure of the decaying levee system, which breached in 53 places. Rose drove us by a number of the breaches, generally a hundred yards long or more. This picture shows the extent of one breach: The repaired area of the flood wall is bright white. The back yards of this neighborhood literally abut the flood wall:

As the tour progressed, we learned to read the damage. Notice the irregularly shaped hole in the roof of this picture:

This indicates that the family trapped in this home escaped by forcing their way through the roof from the inside. A square hole means that someone rescued the family from the outside by cutting the hole into the roof with a chain saw. Note that the rescuer could only have gotten there in the first place in a boat.

As volunteers arrived in New Orleans to assist with cleanup, a system emerged that allowed all teams to know whether a house had been inspected, who had done it, and what had been found, shown here with the X and characters spray-painted on this home:

A team from Georgia, denoted by the "GA" in the left quadrant of the X, examined this home on September 27 (the 9/27 in the top quadrant) and found no bodies (the zero in the bottom quadrant).

The last part of the tour took us through East New Orleans, including the now famous Upper and Lower Ninth Wards, the sites of the great majority of Katrina-related deaths. Billy Sothern, in his fine book Down In New Orleans: Reflections From A Drowned City, relates the development history of the area, which was originally two large tracts held by old New Orleanian and corporate interests. Although ownership of the tracts can be traced back to the 18th Century, they remained undeveloped until the '60's. Then, a combination of advanced pumping and drainage techniques and a federal grant to build up the levee system made it feasible to drain the wetlands comprising the tracts and develop them as a haven for whites fleeing the urban core of New Orleans.

The tracts were developed over the objections of scientists who predicted their vulnerability to a powerful hurricane. Not wishing to discourage potential buyers, developers conveniently omitted mention of hurricanes as they marketed new homes with scruples of a con man selling the Brooklyn Bridge. Over time, white families continued an eastern migration as the black working class moved into the Ninth Ward, which became the largest concentration of African-American owned homes in the city. Contrary to the images popularized by the conservative media, the Ninth Ward was not a massive network of government housing projects. Instead, as Rose explained, it was the backbone of the New Orleans working class.

Bisected by a canal connecting the Mississippi River to Lake Ponchartrain, the Ninth Ward was flooded when levees breached in two places to create an enfilade of flood waters that swept homes from their foundations and drowned over 1,500 people, primarily the old and the infirm who were unable to evacuate.

Now, the Ninth Ward is faced with the very understandable, very human desire to rebuild a close-knit community -- to return to what was -- in the face of virtually unanimous assessments from scientists and ecologists that the area is simply not meant to withstand hurricanes, that the victims of what amounts to environmental classism will get more more of the same if the answer is simply to build higher levees. Geography professor Peirce Lewis warned in 1976 during the early development of East New Orleans of the "wisdom, much less the safety, of the new New Orleans" and of the "real estate speculation by people who were either unwise or dishonest."* Moreover, the reality of global warming means that future hurricanes may well be more powerful and more destructive. The dilemma of the Ninth Ward is replicated further east in almost all white St. Bernard's Parish, which at one point was completely submerged by flood waters.

Sadly, Mayor Ray Nagin's political leadership has been adrift, allowing citizens to return to the Ninth Ward in the absence of any master plan for reconstruction. Not that much appears to be happening: While we witnessed no shortage of people attempting to reclaim their homes, there appears to be no systematic, coordinated activity. And there were any number of abandoned homes and lots as well.

Indeed, the only complete stretch of newly developed homes was the musician's complex in the Ninth Ward. However, this came about because of actor Brad Pitt's personal interest: He donated $5 million of his own money and raised another $5 million. The artists who live here pay according to their means and take out low interest mortgages. It's not a bad model, but it's questionable that the Ninth Ward is the appropriate place for it. As Professor Lewis explains, "Putting off limits rebuilding of heavily flooded areas will prevent more death. If you restore New Orleans as it was ten years ago, you are inviting a human disaster of catastrophic proportions."** In other words, if you think Katrina was bad...

There's also the question of whether New Orleans even can be restored to what it was or whether that is desirable. The pre-Katrina population was 700,000. Current official estimates are 400,000; Rose said that it was 250,000 at the most. I will say only that the activity we saw does not suggest a city of 400,000.

For all of its spirit and historical importance, pre-Katrina New Orleans was arguably America's poorest, most neglected city. Along with massive federal assistance, the city, state, and federal governments that have already failed the city must cooperate and coordinate their activities to an unprecedented extent. The governing bodies must not only work together effectively, they must regain the trust of the community -- a difficult obstacle that can only be surmounted by consistently delivering results over time.

New Orleans itself requires a comprehensive redevelopment plan assembled with the input and approval of community groups and business leaders. This is a tall order in a city long riven by class, race, and blood lines. Groups with no history of working together will have to, but it's unclear that they share the same interests. Indeed, groups that one would think have common interests spend too much time and effort squabbling among themselves: Sothern's depressing account of community organizers arguing over who is doing the most good does not bode well for the future of the city.

And yet, the city soldiers on. We danced that night away at the seventh annual Ponderosa Stomp, which celebrates the blues, R&B, swamp rock, and rockabilly of the past. Tourists and locals of all ages congregated happily, many dressed in the kinds of costumes that typify the city's insouciance. Still, I couldn't help being reminded of Huey Long's brilliant peroration given under the Evangeline Oak in St. Martinville, Louisiana:

“…It is here under this oak where Evangeline waited for her lover, Gabriel, who never came...Evangeline wept bitter tears in her disappointment, but it lasted only through one lifetime. Your tears in this country, around this oak, have lasted for generations."

One fears that many bitter tears remain to be wept.

Citizen K. Read:
The Moviegoer, Walker Percy
Down In New Orleans: Reflections From A Drowned City, Billy Sothern


Scrumpy's Baker said...

I cannot even imagine.

Kathy said...

It's surreal to see these pictures with the green lawns and blue sky and remember the death and horror those people lived through.

Great post. Thanks.

Mr. Natural said...

I ended up here while looking for pictures of the new abandoned subdivisions in the South West. Ended up reading this wonderful post. As seems to be the case so often, the root of the problem was/is greed for short term monetary gain.

Yes, you are so right about August being the best month around here! I was raised just East of Vancouver USA, and live at the beach in OCEAN PARK. We are hoping to sell this wonderful little home in order to move to the North of New Zealand. We are both in our 60's (she is Kiwi) and believe we have one great adventure left in us.

Thanks again for a great description of what happened and is happening in the 9th.


K. said...

Joe, thanks for the comment and the encouraging words. I hope to hear more from you!

A college friend and his family moved to NZ a couple of years ago. They love it there, and that's with no family ties. Anyone I know who has been there says it's fabulous. Good luck!

P.S. Sixty is the new fifty -- you have at least one adventure left.