Tag Archives: New Orleans

New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina: When the Levees Failed

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.

Neighborhoods (source)

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.”)

Elevation map (source)

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.

 

explanation for “Katrina Crosses”

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.

Sculpture of house in a tree – Katrina Bus Tour

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

Vacant lots and empty houses, Ninth Ward – September, 2016

Looking For America: Thoughts on our Travels and Black History Month

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

We’re not special.  However, we won the birth lottery by being born in a rich, western country.  And, dare we state the obvious, we won the lottery again by being born white in the US.  With no apparent barriers in our way and a little native intelligence, we reached out for the opportunities afforded by having university educations and grabbed our piece of the American dream.  We never critically questioned our privilege.

Several months ago, in September of 2016, we returned to the US for a short visit and once again, became tourists in our own country.  Against the backdrop of the divisiveness of the US election where race, religion, gender equality, basic healthcare and immigration status had become massive issues of contention, we explored for ourselves what it meant to be citizens of the US.

Gettysburg Battlefield monument

Gettysburg Battlefield monument

One of our first stops was in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to visit the Civil War battlefield where thousands of men died fighting for conflicting ideologies: State’s rights versus Federal rights, slavery versus abolitionism and a rural, southern society versus the social disruption the north was experiencing with the spread of manufacturing, commerce and the industrial revolution.

WWII and Washington Monuments

WWII and Washington Monuments

We moved on to Washington D.C, one of our favorite cities and spent a day on the National Mall, walking past the almost finished National Museum of African-American History and Culture, returning to those monuments honoring the men and women who have served our country and many times made the ultimate sacrifice.  This was also our first visit to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, located on the west bank of the Tidal Basin not too far from the Lincoln Memorial on whose steps Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech where he visualized an end to racial inequality.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

 

Just a few steps away is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, one of our favorites, a four-room outdoor monument commemorating each of his four terms. Perhaps because of its proximity to Martin Luther King Jr.’s memorial, one of FDR’s quotes seemed to have a special meaning.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington D.C.

 

Jackson Square with St. Louis Cathedral in background, New Orleans

Jackson Square with St. Louis Cathedral in background, New Orleans

We drove from Georgia to spend a few days in New Orleans, Louisiana, another first-time visit for us in this city renowned for its French and Spanish Creole architecture, music and food.  The city’s graciousness contrasted sharply with its 19th century history as the largest slave market where more than 700,000 slaves brought to the Deep South arrived via the “forced migration of the domestic slave trade.”  Here we saw, too, where race and deep poverty played a part in 2005 in determining who escaped Hurricane Katrina – one of the deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States – who lived through the disaster that reduced the city to a desperate, hellish nightmare and who perished. Since we were living on Padre Island off the Texas Coast at that time, we remembered watching as the tragedy played out on the news, questioning if this was really happening in “our” America.

condemned house - 9th Ward

condemned house – 9th Ward

Spending a couple of days in Natchez, Mississippi, we visited a few of the magnificent Antebellum homes, spared from the Civil War and preserved with loving care.  Before the war, Natchez boasted it had the most millionaires per capita of any city in the US.  And yet, here again we were reminded that these houses and great fortunes originated from growing sugarcane and cotton using slave labor.  Here we also learned that Natchez had been home to the second largest slave market before the civil war.

Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama

Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama

From the Vicksburg National Military Park, another Civil War Battlefield honoring those who fought and died, we made our way to Selma, Alabama.  We arrived in the small and dusty town of less than 21,000 on a September afternoon that had us wilting with the temperature hovering at almost 100 degrees.  Evidently the heat had driven everyone inside because, except for our car and a very few others, the streets were deserted. However, in our imaginations, Selma had attained an almost mythical status because of the Selma to Montgomery marches.  Here was where “Bloody Sunday” occurred on March 7th, 1965, when John Robert Lewis, now a U.S. Representative from Atlanta, Georgia, led a group of six-hundred marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, en route to Montgomery.  Blocked by local police and Alabama State troopers, they were ordered to turn around, beaten with clubs and tear gassed with over fifty people requiring hospitalization.  Civil rights activists poured into Selma and Martin Luther King Jr. attempted a second march on March 9th. Finally, on March 29th, after receiving federal protection, Dr. King led a group of 10,000 marchers from Selma.  By the time they reached Montgomery five days later, the marchers had grown to over 30,000 people, black and white and representing many faiths.

Our last destination took us from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, only an hour by car.  Arriving on a Saturday, the downtown area streets looked all but abandoned and, again, the late September heat was smothering.  We paid our respects to the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” inside the Rosa Parks Library and Museum. Rosa Park’s arrest in December of 1955 for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger inspired a 381-day bus boycott in Montgomery and ended with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses is unconstitutional.  Possibly even more thought-provoking than this museum was our visit to the nearby Southern Poverty Law Center. The Civil Rights Memorial, outside the center, is a black granite memorial inscribed with the names of forty-one Americans who died between 1954, the year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in schools was unlawful, and 1968, the year Martin Luther King was assassinated.  Inside the building, a timeline of the Civil Rights Movement explains the events that occurred and honors those who gave their lives.  At the end of our tour, deeply moved, we were given the opportunity to add our names to the “Wall of Tolerance” where we pledged that we too, would work for the same ideals of justice, equality, and human rights.

"We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Martin Luther King Amos 5:24

Our road trip in the US a few months ago gave us a chance, again, to learn and reflect more about our country and ourselves.  In the past, our country has honored multiculturalism and diversity while straddling a divide that threatens to grow wider each day. As bleak as it seems however, there is much to celebrate and many reasons to remain hopeful.  The US’s own Civil Rights Movement continues to provide inspiration for those who seek justice today as well as sanctuary.  And it’s becoming more and more evident that there are thousands willing to take up their banners and march.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash