Three and a Half Years

by Gray Cargill on January 25, 2009

Flood Wall

Flood Wall

In the spring of 2005, I started to plan my first trip to New Orleans. I was looking at Labor Day weekend. Then I remembered that was hurricane season in New Orleans and decided to go to Las Vegas instead. Smart decision, as it turns out. Hurricane Katrina roared through the Gulf region in late August, and we all know what happened then. Eighty percent of the city flooded. Nearly 2,000 lives were lost. The city suffered more than $80 billion in damages. Three and a half years later, the city has still not been restored to its pre-Katrina condition. The city has half the population it did before the hurricane. By the time I finally made it to New Orleans this past December, all I knew of the city, the hurricane, and the aftermath came from the news. I needed to see it for myself.

There are a number of companies offering Hurricane Katrina tours of the city. Like many people, I had mixed feelings about whether or not it was appropriate to be driving through people’s neighborhoods on a tour bus, viewing their devastated homes.  I reviewed some online forums to see what the general consensus was and came round to the opinion that while there are some people who are not fond of this practice, most people don’t mind, because they really want people to know what the current situation is so that we will have a greater understanding and spread the word (since the media rarely covers this any more).  Is this opinion right? I have no idea.  I could be completely wrong.  But I did the tour anyway.

I chose Gray Line’s tour, which departs from the Gray Line ticket office (shaped like a squat lighthouse) at the foot of Toulouse Street on the riverfront. I was able to book the $35 tour online before I left Vermont. I arrived at the ticket office on a Sunday morning, which gave me a little time to walk along the river and take some photographs. Because I had booked the tour online, I needed to exchange my confirmation printout for an actual paper ticket at the ticket booth. Departure time was 11am, but the bus started boarding around 10:40. It was full.

If this reassures skeptics at all, let me say I thought this tour was sensitively done.  It wasn’t a gawking tour.  It was actually very educational. If I heard him correctly, our guide’s name was Sylvester, a New Orleans native, and he was very knowledgeable about the history of New Orleans and the events leading up to, during and after Hurricane Katrina. For instance, I gained a new understanding of the importance of the Port of New Orleans to U.S. commerce. Did you know the port is the second largest shipping port in the country and the fourth largest in the world? I didn’t.  All you coffee addicts can thank the city of New Orleans for your addiction, since coffee originally came to this country through the Port of New Orleans. And we can all thank them for keeping the cost of goods as low as they are (even though it doesn’t feel very low at the moment), because without that shipping port, prices would be astronomical.

One of the biggest mysteries for the past two and a half years for me was why on earth so many people stayed in New Orleans when they knew this killer hurricane was coming.  From my complete lack of experience with hurricanes, it seemed insane to think you can ride out one, especially one the size and force of Katrina.  Not to mention doing so in a city that is at or below sea level.  Sylvester explained how the city used to be protected to a greater extent from hurricanes by the wetlands (more on that in a future blog post). He also went through people’s rationale for staying.  The city had been told twice before that the “mother of all hurricanes” was coming and that if people didn’t get out of the city, they would die. Both times, most did as they were told, and each time, it was a false alarm. It was like the boy that cried wolf; people got tired of it. This time, they didn’t believe it. By the time they realized the wolf really was at the door, it was too late. Sylvester drove us past the one and only evacuation route out of the city, which dips down below sea level. Seeing is believing:  Once that route was under water, there was no escape from the city.

Katrina Tattoo

Katrina Tattoo

Of course, I was shocked and depressed at how widespread the damage still is, especially in the ninth ward. We also saw Lakeview, Gentilly, and other areas of the city, so much of which is  still abandoned or partially populated. Lived-in homes that have been rebuilt are surrounded by damaged, empty houses with weeds growing in the yards. There are still watermarks high up on many buildings in the city, and you can still see the “Katrina Tattoos”—those markings that were used to note whether anyone was found alive or dead in a building during the search for survivors—on houses.  You can also still see holes in roofs where people either cut themselves out of attics with an axe or someone else used a chainsaw to get them out.

The levees haven’t been improved. They’ve been patched, but it’s like expecting a bandaid to hold in. . .well, a raging river. If another severe hurricane came through, they wouldn’t hold. So of course many people haven’t moved back. Why should they rebuild their homes just to have them destroyed again?

Churches sit empty.  Whole shopping centers are empty husks, surrounded by vast, vacant parking lots.  Many national chain stores decided not to return; their feasibility studies told them there isn’t a big enough market in certain neighborhoods for them to be profitable. Apartment buildings that were destroyed still stand in ruins, having neither been rebuilt nor razed. There was a particular parish (St. Bernard, I think) that no longer has a hospital. Their “medical center” is a handful of trailers sitting in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Can you imagine? This is a major U.S. city and half of it is still a ghost town. Three and half years have passed since Hurricane Katrina, and outside of the tourist areas, the city is still in shambles.

So yes, tourists can go to this city and have a good time and if they never leave the French Quarter, they would never know anything had happened here. But life remains a struggle for the people who live here. I have to admire their spirit and their love for their home city.

Where is the money New Orleans should have received to rebuild? Where is the commitment of human resources? Apparently, our government over the past three and a half years has felt there are more important priorities for those resources than to rebuild a city critical to the U.S. economy and rich in U.S. history and culture.  I wonder if their response would have been the same if it were Greenwich, CT that had been demolished by a hurricane?

A house that Brad Pitt built

A house that Brad Pitt built

We did see the homes built by the organization Brad Pitt created. But even someone with his resources hasn’t been able to build more than a handful of homes. Even he has run up against the bureaucracy and red tape that grinds everything to a standstill and prevents the best of intentions from becoming reality. If things continue at this pace, New Orleans won’t be rebuilt for at least ten years.  At least.

If you go to New Orleans, you really should take the time to get out of the French Quarter and see what Katrina did to this city. A tour group is probably the best way to do this, because many of the guides are hurricane survivors and native New Orleanians. You will learn a lot more from them than you would by driving around the city on your own.  Or, better yet, volunteer your time to the rebuilding efforts for a day, a week, or however long you have.  I wish I had done that.

My one complaint about this tour is that none of the proceeds go toward the city’s rebuilding efforts.  (Gray Line used to donate $3 of the ticket price to the rebuilding efforts, but no longer does.)  In my opinion, if Gray Line and other companies are going to profit from the Hurricane’s destruction of the city, the least they can do is contribute toward the rebuilding efforts.

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