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Blog #20 - Katrina's Legacy

February 22, 2006

Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana on August 29, 2005 and the swath of its destruction stretched from the Louisiana Delta south of New Orleans across the Mississippi Gulf Coast to Alabama. Just when New Orleans was breathing a sigh of relief that it had escaped major damage from the hurricane, storm surges in Lake Ponchetrain and the Mississippi River breached levees and flooded 80% of the city under more than 20 feet of water.

The destruction I saw in the weeks following Katrina was staggering. By early October sections of New Orleans were opened to returning residents. Over the next few months the rest of the city was safe enough for people to return. Some began the slow process of rebuilding and others were overwhelmed by what had happened to their homes and left the city.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin recently estimated that half or more of the city’s 450,000 residents have returned, but the editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper has been more conservative, setting the figure at perhaps 20 to 25%.

New Orleans rebuilds

On my first day back Tom Jacobson took me on a tour of the city to bring me up to speed on the changes since I left in October and to orient me to the areas where we would be pursuing stories for the Red Cross. We visited Red Cross operations, the contract kitchen, ERV parks and the local chapter headquarters. We also went to the areas that had sustained little flooding, such as the Garden District and the French Quarter, as well as those that had been heavily damaged such as St Bernard Parish and the Upper and Lower Ninth Wards. I had been to all these areas post Katrina except for the Ninth Ward.

I began my day full of optimism, looking forward to seeing all the rebuilding that was surely going on by now. Downtown and the French Quarter were cleaned up, the salt encrusted abandoned cars were pretty well gone and the sweet, cloying smell of garbage and rotten things was absent. Debris was gone from the Garden District and homes were newly painted and the streets were full of cars and people shopping. Restaurants and shops were open, and it was almost like the Garden District I remembered from before Katrina. Metairie and Kenner were back up and in operation as well.

Moving out of the downtown, however, was depressing. Cleanup and rebuilding was more and more spotty the further we got from the French Quarter, and by the time we got to the Ninth Ward it was hard to see that anything had been done. Some of the streets were cleared so we could drive, but there were only two or three crews at work hauling away smashed cars and crews working to repair the levee. The area next to the levee failure was swept clean and houses and cars were piled atop one another along with utility lines and trees. Everything was grey with sediment and salt, and there was nothing moving. It is estimated that there may still be 200 bodies buried under the debris there. It was a ghost town and terribly depressing.

St Bernard Parish was hit hard, and rebuilding was spotty with a blue tarp tacked on a roof here and there. There might be one or two homes on a street where people we re cleaning up, and there were FEMA trailers set up in a few front yards for people to live in while they worked on their homes. Perhaps one home in ten showed work, and the rest were either vacant or destroyed. The destruction in Algiers and Gentilly was also heavy, and the extent of rebuilding also was very scattered.

I returned back to our hotel profoundly depressed at what I had seen. As Tom and I went to the hotel bar for happy hour and a much needed beer, he assured me that there were pockets where people were coming back and working hard to clean up and repair their homes, and we would see some of them in future days. Just on the basis of what I had seen today however, I was hard pressed to see where half of the city had returned.

Copyright © 2006, Allen Crabtree