New Orleans has always been on my list of “must see’s,” in particular, I wanted to experience the Lower 9th Ward, which was devastatingly ravaged by the Category 5 Hurricane Katrina on August 28, 2005. Of all the cities around the world I have visited, I find it ironic that the warmest, friendliest people are often the ones who have endured tougher times, and this sentiment is captured perfectly in New Orleans. I sat for a few hours over lunch talking with the locals – they are not bitter, hostile or angry. Instead, they are survivors; inviting, and joyfully enduring. They expected Katrina to stay a Category 3 Hurricane and to bypass New Orléans. For days little was done to prepare beyond a potential Category 4 Hurricane Warning until it powered up to a Category 5 storm with winds at 175mph in the Gulf of Mexico and was heading directly for New Orléans. By this time, according to the locals, it was too late, with little less than a day to decide their course of action.
The aftermath of Katrina (source)
The levees in New Orléans were built for a Category 3 Hurricane. What’s scary is that most levees built around the USA are designed exactly the same way. As Katrina hit, the levees that separate New Orléans from the surrounding lakes broke, contributing the damage caused by the winds and the hurricane itself. The Ninth Ward of New Orléans was the worst affected area from with water levels initially reaching 20 feet but settling at around 13. Almost 80% of New Orléans was under water – the French Quarter being one of the luckier areas as it sits 10-15 feet above sea level and the majority of New Orléans. The Lower 9th Ward – the hardest hit, is also one of the poorest. Today, more than 1 in 4 residential addresses are vacant or blighted.
It’s often (quite rudely, I think) asked why people didn’t leave when they knew Katrina was going to hit. Discussing this with a bunch of locals over lunch, there were 3 reoccurring reasons. The people of New Orléans were not informed Katrina was going to hit until around 12 hours earlier, many people in New Orléans do not have personal vehicles and rely on the metro system and Greyhound to leave the city and New Orléans is Home and home is your heart. Many people didn’t want to risk losing everything without fighting for it.
What I found devastating about the event is that most people died by drowning in their own attic. Many people climbed into their attic – the highest level of a house other than the roof to protect themselves from the flooding and winds. However, the water level rose so quickly they had no time to leave to reach higher ground – trapping them inside.
After the hurricane it took 2 months for the water to be drained from the streets and 8 months for electricity to be reconnected. This does not mean you had electricity, just that it could be reconnected. 700 people are still reported as missing as a result of Katrina, 15 million people were affected by it in different ways including gas prices and water, the last death toll was roughly 1600, drinking water was unavailable due to a broken water main that served the city and as of late August 2006, insured losses reached $60 billion. People who chose to climb on to highway overpasses had to survive almost 9 days with only the supplies they took themselves.
Heading into the Lower 9th Ward, I saw a gentleman using any material he could find to roof his home – carboard boxes, tin, aluminium, tile. Today – 7 years later, he is slowly rebuilding his home. Still. One woman lost 27 members of her family to Katrina and she refuses to return to the city she grew up in. Over 120,000 left New Orléans and have not returned. These evacuated citizens have spread to 51 states.
One gentlemen told me he lost everything. He had transportation at the time of Katrina and drove to Georgia to stay with relatives but his sister and brother remained in New Orléans. The whole family lost everything they had – but he reiterates only material possessions. The only house they owned that can be saved was his mothers but they are still saving to this day to rebuild it. His mother visits but refuses to move back. His sister and brother have since left for Georgia and he remains the only one here because “this is home, many people left and found a life somewhere else and refuse to come back and face what happened, others just visit every now and again. But this is my home, this is where I grew up and it’s where I want to be.”
I ask, cautiously, if the people of New Orléans fear another hurricane or natural disaster and if the city has a plan. He replied, “ We have a good mayor now. One who knows what he is doing. I mean, we could have another hurricane God Forbid but they fixed the levees which they had petitioned for years before Katrina to be fixed. But its money man, the government doesn’t want to spend money…they had to wait until something like Katrina happened to fix it. They needed proof it needed fixing. All those people paid with their lives. Now it’s fixed.” I ask if he thought it was ironic that the poorer, predominantly African-American population perished while the richer areas of the French Quarter and the Garden District remained relatively – in comparison – unscathed. He looked at me with both sadness and humor in his eyes. “That’s the way it has always been throughout history. New Orléans aint no different. Poor people give their lives so rich folk can keep on living. But I aint bitter, it’s life. What will be will be.”
Brad Pitts’s Make it Right Foundation is located in the Lower 9th Ward. The foundation has completed 60 of the proposed 150 storm resistant, solar energy powered homes. Make It Right, quite smartly, has employed not only economically friendly design and resources such as solar panels which allow the home owners to remain credited on their power bills, paying a set amount each month often more than the actual bill, allowing the owners to become financially free and use the money on rebuilding their lives. The programme participants attend home buyer education, financial classes and sustainable homeownership courses to fulfill requirements for the counseling part of the program. The houses are made with eco-friendly materials and resources such as metal roofs for reflecting heat, solar power energy panels, roof hatches, elevation of 5-8 feet of homes, eco friendly Bluwood and rainwater harvesting. The interiors feature tankless water heaters, spray foam insulation, solar heat, low flow plumbing fixtures, dual flush toilets and mold resistant drywall. Many of the people in the Lower 9th Ward – like the Garden District, owned their homes with families inheriting the properties for generations. Others like a woman Make It Right is helping brought he Lower 9th Ward home – her first home – only months before hurricane Katrina hit. If you can please donate.
New Orléans is slowly rebuilding after 7 years. In 2013, the city will host the Superbowl and the annual Mardi Gras Parade, expected to boost the now imperative tourism industry. Many of the buildings that survived have been turned into hotels. So, start saving and bring your love to New Orléans. As the chatty cab driver informed me yesterday, if the New Orléans Saints are in the Superbowl, she joked, “It’s going to look like Katrina hit again. There is gonna be no one on the streets but this time it’s not sadness and loss, it’s going to be a party. I lost my dad in 2005, my mum in 2007 and I need – New Orleans needs this. I hope you’ll come celebrate with us.” I will sure as hell try.