This is the second of three entries on my recent trip to New Orleans. The first one dealt with the history of the city and toured some of the local sights and neighbourhoods. This entry is about Hurricane Katrina, the damage that the hurricane and storm surge did and the recovery efforts two years on. The third and final entry will deal with food, booze and the general debauchery of Bourbon Street.
Walking up Esplande Avenue on my second day in town was the first time I saw one. There, on a house still abandoned was a spray painted cross. At the top of the cross was the 9-12, signifying that the house was searching on September 12th. To the left, the team that searched the house, in this case “3 SOS.” To the right, the letters “BD” and “NE.” NE, for no entry. The house wasn’t entered.
It’s the number at the bottom that catches my eye. “0.” No dead.
Hurricane Katrina started out as a tropical depression over southeastern Bahamas on August 23, 2005. As it moved it’s way west, it picked up strength, getting upgraded to a tropical storm and then eventually a hurricane.
On August 25 the eye of the storm passed over Florida, though the storm stretched as far south as Cuba. At that point, it was a category 3 storm, and Florida saw 14 dead and over $2 billion in damages due to high winds and overturned trees.
The path of a tropical storm is hard to predict. It wasn’t until the afternoon on August 26 that Louisiana was considered a target, and not until late in the evening that it was clear that New Orleans was in danger.
The next day, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin declared a state of emergency and called for a voluntary evacuation, also indicating he would open up the Superdome as a shelter of last resort for those that had no where else to evacuate.
Sunday, August 28th, out in the Gulf of Mexico Katrina jumped to a category 5 strength storm, with winds over 280 km/h and a intensive low pressure area. At 10:00 AM, the mayor declared a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans, telling all residents to leave the city. The National Weather Service predicted “devastating” damage to New Orleans.
Most residents left the city, with some estimates putting the number at 80% of the population. However, that left 20% still in town. Some chose not to leave, some couldn’t afford to leave, some had no place to go. Some of the poor chose to stay behind because at the time the evacuation buses wouldn’t allow them to take their pets with them. Between 20,000 and 25,000 people were residing in the Louisiana Superdome, usually home to NFL football.
Early on the morning on August 29, 2005, Katrina made landfall again. The storm had weakened and was only a category 3 storm with winds of 205 km/h. At first it seemed that New Orleans had dodged a bullet, as the worst rain and wind damage missed the city, and most buildings had little structural damage from the storm.
As the storm moved inland however, about 2 hours behind it was the storm surge, the rising tide of waters that follows in the wake of the low pressure of the storm. While the storm had weakened in wind speed, it was still a very powerful storm measured both by the diameter of the storm and the intense low pressure. The storm surge travelled up the Mississippi River, following the storm. At its peak, the surge was 28 feet above the river level.
New Orleans is protected from flooding by a series of levees. A levee, also known as a dyke or a floodbank, is any obstruction to keep a body of water on one side of it. In New Orleans, originally the levees were built of earth. Prior to the 1940s, most of New Orleans was above the level of the water in the nearby Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain. However, in 1940 the Industrial Canal was built, which closed a number of smaller canals in the city. This changed the underlying water table, which caused New Orleans to sink, in some places by as much as 8 feet.
Hurricane Betsy in 1965 caused serious flooding. Betsy was a category 3 hurricane, like Katrina. To ensure preparedness for future hurricanes, the Army Corp of Engineers came in and built a levee system that was meant to protect against a category 3 hurricane like Betsy.
The surge hit New Orleans between 8 and 9 in the morning. The levee system, designed to protect against just such a storm as Katrina, failed. Over 50 failures around the New Orleans area occurred, with major breeches within the city at the 17th street canal, London Avenue canal, Industrial Canal and the Intracoastal waterway.
Flooding was extensive. There was over 8 feet of water in the Lower Ninth Ward, and 10 feet of water in St. Bernard Parish. The pumping stations that were supposed to remove the water did not work. Water kept coming in, and by Wednesday, 2 days after the initial levee breaks, 85% of the city was underwater.
As it became apparent that there was no stopping the water, a full evacuation of the city was ordered. It would take weeks for the city to be searched. There were concerns of a potential cholera outbreak. Even still, some people refused to leave, afraid of their properties being looted.
In a review of the levee system, it was found that the levee system had serious design flaws and was not even built up to those specifications in some places. The American Society of Civil Engineers called the flooding of New Orleans "the worst engineering catastrophe in US History" as the damage would have been much less if the levee system and pumping stations operated as they were supposed to be designed to do.
Some of the hardest hit areas in greater New Orleans were Lakeview, the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish.
Saint Bernard Parish is located just south-west of New Orleans, closer to the mouth of the Mississippi River. Prior to Katrina, the population of the parish was over 67,000 people, originally descended from Canary Islanders who settled in the area.
Katrina covered the parish with up to 12 feet of water, impacting almost every building in the Saint Bernard. The Parish President declared all the homes unliveable. The population post-Katrina was 0. It took two months for power and water to be restored, and only then did a slim trickle of people move back into the area. For the next year, only 7,000 to 8,000 people lived in Saint Bernard, with another 20,000 coming in every day to work on rebuilding their homes and properties. In October 2006, it was estimated that perhaps 25,000 people had moved back.
Three years have passed since Katrina, but the city and surrounding area is still recovering. The population of the city has dropped in half, from close to 500,000 before the storm to just under 240,000 now.
The French Quarter, the Esplande and the Garden District, which I walked through in my previous entry, are coming back nicely. There was the occasional abandoned house along the Esplande, but mostly the place is rebuilt, or with rebuilding underway.
Though there was little flood damage to the French Quarter, Katrina, and Rita (a Hurricane in September of 2005 that followed quickly on the heels of Katrina) did do rain, wind and pressure damage.
The Hyatt Regency Hotel featured quite extensively in the coverage of the hurricane. Due to the intense low pressure of the storm, the windows popped out of their frames and falling to the street below. The hotel has not reopened, and has changed hands a number of times since Hurricane Katrina. At present, no opening date is known for the hotel, or if it will reopen at all.
With the drop in population, some places have had trouble finding workers to repair the damage and carry out necessary repairs.
However, most of the bars, restaurants, galleries and museums are open for business and there is a lot to draw tourists to the area.
In the harder hit areas, however, recovery is slow. First home owners are faced with trying to get insurance and federal payouts to rebuild, both of which take time and patience. With a smaller population, contractors and construction crews are hard to come by, and anyone who has ever tried to have work done on your house will know that contractors can be a little shifty at the best of times. Those that do choose to rebuild are then forced to answer the question - how high should I build my house?
I took a tour of the destruction and the rebuilding with Gray Line tours. I know that there has been debate on these types of “disaster tours,” and some of you probably would question my decision to take the tour. However, it felt important for me to do.
It is impossible to think of New Orleans today without thinking of Katrina, and my decision to come and visit New Orleans as a tourist was partially influenced by the fact that I wanted to support the city with my tourism dollars. I wanted to see what Katrina had done, and understand how far along the city had come, and how far it had to go. To do that, I needed to get out of the French Quarter and see the parts of town that were most effected.
The tour took us through Lakeview, Saint Bernard and the Ninth Ward, some of the hardest hit areas during the flooding. It was conducted by a woman who lives in New Orleans in a house that was flooded, and during Katrina was driving evacuees out of the city in a bus.
This house in Lakeview is still abandoned, though the one to the left of it is rebuilt and occupied. The vacant lot to the right is were a home was demolished due to the flood damage.
Another house in Lakeview, still boarded up. Beside it, another vacant lot where a house once stood.
However, Lakeview is rebuilding. You can buy a nice modular home, prebuilt and dropped on your lot, though the tour guide said these weren't very popular as people from New Orleans "like their historic homes."
Moving into Saint Bernard Parish and the Ninth Ward, we came across more extensive damage. As I said above, in Saint Bernard Parish all the homes were deemed uninhabitable, so the amount of work required to rebuild them is extensive. Mostly in Saint Bernard and in a lot of cases in the Ninth Ward, they tear down the homes...
...and just build them new, as these homes built by Mike Holmes, Canadian handyman and star of "Holmes on Homes" on TV.
Some folks, however, are still living in FEMA supplied trailers in their front yards as they try and get their houses back in order.
Because of the large amount of people that have not returned yet to both Saint Bernard Parish and the Ninth Ward, many businesses have not reopened.
However, as more and more people move back in, more business owners are lured back to reopen. And the signs of rebuilding are everywhere.
In the picture above, you see a house being raised up to above the water line. It used to look just like the house on the right. Now there will be 10 feet of space beneath the house, in the event that the area every floods again.
The Lower Ninth Ward was very hard hit, and many homes didn't survive. This got a significant amount of press coverage, however the tour guide was unhappy with something she saw as a slant in the coverage. In the coverage the Lower Ninth Ward was generally described as being very poverty stricken, however the truth was that the residents were working class people, mostly African American. They might not have been rolling in cash, however 60% of the residents in the area owned their homes, meaning that they might not have been cash rich, but at least had equity in their homes.
Unfortunately for many, a lot of that equity has disappeared, along with the homes. However, many are starting to rebuild, and there are a few really nice neighbourhoods popping up.
I had to admit that it wasn't exactly the image of the poor neighbourhood that the media coverage brought to mind.
The picture below is of Fats Domino's house in the Ninth Ward. He stayed in town during Katrina, and had to be rescued from his house from the rising waters. He has returned though, as has his wife, who lives in a purple house next door.
On the tour, the guide explained the painted crosses on the houses. The house in the picture below was visited multiple times. The first was on September 8th (10 days after the levees initially broke). This is the orange cross at the top of the house. NE means that no entry was made. Given the position of the cross, it is probably because the house was still under deep water at the time.
The house was visited again, at least twice. On September 24th, the house was visited again. At this point, a notation is made that the house was given an interior search (INT), however they thought there were 2 bodies in the attic (the H2 and HOLE painted on the window), so a further search should be made.
Painting on houses became a means of communications during these times. The tour guide explained how she went to her brother-in-law's house and painted a message on the wall to see if they were OK, and let them know she was OK. We saw this message on the tour, letting folks know that the residents of this house were good.
There were also messages left by the search and rescue crews to the SPCA, telling them they left food and water (F/W) for an animal inside the house. The SPCA rescued thousands of pets that were left behind. Some have been adopted, though this has led to a few custody cases and original owners have wanted to claim back their pets.
As we drove back into town, we passed a house with a spray-painted cross on it. In the lower quadrant, where the number of dead taken from the home is listed, was the number 6. Six people died in that one house, probably in the attic trying to escape the rising water. Even thinking about it now brings a tear to my eye.
As I walked around the city for the rest of the trip, I couldn’t help but noticed whenever I saw one of those spray-painted crosses. I ran in to them in Faubourg Marigny and Bywater, sometimes just a very faint shadow on a house, sometimes bright as the day they were first painted.
All of them were heartbreaking, for even those that had 0s, the fact that the crosses were still on the houses were a reminder that the city is still rebounding, that many people are still not home. They may never come home. New Orleans is still a city with a long way to go.
At one house in the Faubourg Marigny, however, someone had turned the cross into art, a permanent reminder of Katrina and how this city survived. From that, I took hope. Hope for a full recovery.
I’m glad I went, both on the Katrina tour and to New Orleans. Like I said, it felt like I was doing something important - supporting a city that depends on tourism. It is a $5.5 billion industry in New Orleans, and tourist dollars coming in account for 40 percent of New Orleans' tax revenues. For a city that relies so heavily on tourist revenue, it was sad to think about the first signs of Katrina damage I saw when I arrived at Louis Armstrong International Airport. It wasn't the airport wasn't in working order, because it is. It was empty gates. The airport just seemed too big for the amount of planes there.
The number of flight seats (number of potential arriving passengers) coming to New Orleans is only at 80% of it's pre-Katrina capacity. Without tourists coming in, the 85,000 people who were employed in the tourism industry pre-Katrina might not have reason to return.
Much of what a tourist would want to see, in the French Quarter and the Garden District is rebuilt. Hotel rooms are back, with the completion recently of the Harrah's Casino Hotel adding new hotel rooms to the mix, and hopefully replacing some of those that have disappeared with the still shuttered hotels.
So if you were thinking of going, Go. I promise you that the food is outstanding, the drinks are plentiful and the party never seems to stop (or at least, it goes on past my bed-time, which is still pretty late).
Next up, a look at the food, drink and party that you can find in the mostly rebuilt but fully party ready French Quarter.
Remember, after the rain, the colours come out.