During the ten years we lived on Padre Island off the coast of Texas, we talked several times of making the nine-hour drive to New Orleans and taking in the famous sights: the jazz and zydeco music, the shotgun, antebellum and Victorian homes, the guesthouses and outdoor cafes, the live oaks draped in Spanish moss and Jackson Square. The talk abruptly ended at the end of August in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina, the largest and third strongest hurricane ever recorded in the US made landfall, wreaking devastation along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. Along with the rest of the world, we glued ourselves to our televisions and watched with horrified fascination as the events in New Orleans unfolded in the following days.
On our last visit to the US, near the eleventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we finally made our way over the twenty-three mile causeway across Lake Pontchartrain to the city known as “The Big Easy.” Wanting to experience all the city had to offer, we stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton on Bourbon Street – a choice that resulted in us wearing the ear plugs thoughtfully provided on the bed tables each night – and indulged in many of the typical tourist activities. We wandered the streets around the French Quarter, devoured the beignets at the Café du Monde and visited Jackson Square, The Cabildo and the St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in the US. An afternoon ride on the Steamboat Natchez down the Mississippi gave us a view on the city’s riverfront and levee system while the city bus tour introduced us to the wards of New Orleans. We watched the revelers after dark, listened to the famed sounds of the city, ate some memorable meals and awoke in the mornings to watch the street cleaners washing away the sins of the previous night.
Fun memories for sure and yet, our standout recollections of our time in New Orleans weren’t any of the above. The biggest impressions were made by the “Hurricane Katrina Tour” on the New Orleans Gray Line, a simple exhibit called, “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond” at the Presbytère, and a taxi ride around the lower ninth ward on a dreary, rainy morning with a drawling, middle-aged driver named Junior. We learned about New Orleans, more about Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath and were forced to question how our middle-class assumptions had shaped our views of the victims as well as our expectations of our government.
As with any story, a little context and history are necessary. An important trade route along the Mississippi River and a shortcut to the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans was founded in 1718 by the French, ruled for forty years by the Spanish, returned to France again and sold to the United States in 1803 as a part of the Louisiana Purchase. A polyglot of different cultures, including American, French, Spanish, Celtic, English, German and African (free and enslaved), the city also received an influx of Creoles fleeing the revolution in Haiti. Originally built on the slightly higher ground along the Mississippi River, the city built levees to control the flood-prone river which paradoxically increased the risk of flooding from the Gulf of Mexico. As the city grew, it began to drain (about 1890 to the 1910’s) the area between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi, known as the “back swamp” or “back woods” because of its cypress groves, using large pumps. It took several decades before it became apparent that this reclaimed land was slowly sinking; many neighborhoods developed after the 1900’s are now below sea level, an area equivalent to about half of the city’s 200 square miles. As our bus tour guide explained, it’s easier to understand how the flooding occurred if you think of New Orleans as a shallow bowl. Earthen levees, as well as concrete and steel flood walls, are tasked with the job of protecting the homes. (A spoiler: Investigations after Hurricane Katrina into the failure of the flood wall system that existed in 2005 called them the “largest civil engineering disaster in the history of the United States.”)
Before the storm: On Friday, August 26th, 2005, the city of New Orleans was alerted that a major hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico was heading for the Gulf Coast. Saturday, the 27th, when the predicted track of the Category 3 hurricane shifted to the Mississippi-Louisiana state line, New Orleans issued a voluntary evacuation order for its citizens. All major roads (Interstates 10, 55 and 59) leading out of the city were converted to outbound traffic only. On Sunday, August 28th, Hurricane Katrina gained strength as a Category 4 storm, then was upgraded a few hours later to a Category 5 with winds estimated at 160 miles per hour. A mandatory evacuation order for the city was issued, the first in its history. The Superdome was opened as a “shelter of last resort.” Approximately 1 million people left the city with an estimated 100,000 remaining. The National Weather Service issued the following statement:
“Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks … perhaps longer. At least one-half of well-constructed homes will have roof and wall failure… Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards.”
The day of the storm: Hurricane Katrina, stretching across 400 miles, made landfall on the morning of August 29th as a Category 3 hurricane, preceded by hours of heavy rains and with winds ranging up to 140 miles per hour. Flooding began even before the hurricane reached the city and, once the storm surge arrived, the towering waves overtopped some of the levees while water below the canal walls seeped through the soil and breached areas along levees on four of the city’s canals. Flood waters rushed through the ruptures and the water rose so swiftly in low-lying places like St. Bernard Parish and the Ninth Ward, that many people had little time to reach the safety of a second floor or attic.
After the storm: Picture if you will, Louisiana in late August after a heavy rain. The heat would have been sweltering, in the high 90’s coupled with an ungodly level of humidity. The sun would have been a blinding reflection off a toxic soup of sea water and mud, gas and oil from ruptured pipes, sewage from shattered lines, and all manner of household and yard debris as well as hundreds of drowned animals and floating human corpses. Survivors sitting in attics or on roofs had to have been completely overwhelmed and stunned as they surveyed the aftermath. And perhaps the worst was yet to come in the days following the hurricane as thousands made their way to the Superdome seeking water, shelter, food and medicine. According to one of the information signs at the “…Katrina and Beyond” exhibition at the Presbytère, the majority of the deaths were due to drowning (many residents did not know how to swim) or physical trauma caused by debris. However,
“… A substantial number died in attics or unflooded homes due to dehydration, heat stroke, heart attack, stroke or lack of medicine. The elderly were most at risk with almost half of Louisiana’s fatalities over the age of 75.”
Initially, parts of New Orleans seemed to come through the hurricane with little damage but as more levees were breached, they too experienced flooding the day following the hurricane. It’s estimated that as much as 80% of the city experienced some flooding and in places the water may have been as deep as 25 feet.
What we remember most in the days following Katrina, while we watched the horrific devastation unfold on our TV’s along with millions of others, was the appalling disconnect between what was being reported and our government’s botched response. Thousands of people desperately awaited water, food, shelter and medicine. FEMA’s (Federal Emergency Management Agency) eventual response, assistance and evacuation plans were miserably inadequate. In the first days following the storm, New Orleans relied almost completely on the heroic efforts of hundreds of first responders, the US Coast Guard, medical personnel, neighbors and ordinary citizens. We watched civilization break down inside the Superdome where hasty preparations had been made to shelter no more than 10,000 citizens as a last resort; up to 35,000 people sought assistance in a reeking space where the heat was stifling, the plumbing systems had failed, the dead were unceremoniously discarded and violence and mayhem reigned. Outside was no better. Our thoughts were similar to Clarence Page, a Chicago Tribune columnist, who asked, “Is this America?”
Perhaps our most sobering lesson came, during our time at the museum exhibit when we found ourselves examining our own biases and assumptions about the New Orleans victims of Hurricane Katrina. Our biggest question over the years had been, “Why did so many stay?” The eye-opener was realizing how, for many, poverty can truly cut off avenues of escape as more than a quarter of New Orleans residents at the time of Hurricane Katrina lived below the poverty line. Almost 30% of the city’s residents did not own a car nor did they have a place to escape to or a social support network outside the city. Many lived on government assistance and, since it was the end of the month, had no available cash nor a credit card to pay for any expenses away from home. Many were disabled, elderly or caring for someone else with chronic disabilities, the aged or young. Many, who relied on their TV’s for information, learned of the impending hurricane far too late to take advantage of any public transportation that would have helped them flee the city. One of the saddest and most ironic stories we heard from our tour bus driver was that many of the drivers authorized to provide emergency transportation out of the city had left New Orleans during the voluntary evacuation.
Hurricane Katrina was the worst urban disaster in modern US history and the emergency response to the people of New Orleans following the storm was a national disgrace. No one knows for sure how many people died during and after Hurricane Katrina although the estimate most quoted is 1,836 with 1,577 from Louisiana. It was over a month before the city was dry and many of those who evacuated the city following the hurricane never returned.
We were happy to have a chance to visit New Orleans after all the years we’d dreamed of going and found it to be a charming city that well deserves to be on anyone’s bucket list. In fact, if you didn’t know about its recent history, you might not question how many neighborhoods seem to be refurbished or new, the numerous boarded-up buildings, the ongoing construction or the many vacant lots that still remain in the Ninth Ward. In the French Quarter, there are few troubling reminders from the storm that ravished “The Big Easy.” Life goes on and it’s an awesome place to celebrate a special occasion or just the sheer joy of living. But, like other cities that span a few centuries, there’s a tragic side to the city as well and it’s well worth the time to learn those stories as well.
By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash