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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Reporter's Notebook: Katrina Plus One

Published: August 11, 2012


Jeff Young

Washington correspondent Jeff Young has been keeping Living on Earth listeners posted on the situation in New Orleans during the year since Katrina struck. He's tracked the recovery effort in the capital and spent time with the people of New Orleans at various stages of the cleanup and recovery.

(August 25, 2006) Three weeks after Katrina New Orleans was a city in shock. A curfew was in effect and electricity was out. Helicopter spotlights and military convoys swept the streets at night as I cooked couscous on my camp stove and swatted mosquitoes. What irony, I thought, eating like this in one of the country's great food cities.

Three weeks ahead of the Katrina anniversary New Orleans was a city teetering between hope and despair. There are signs of progress, to be sure. For starters, I was eating much better. The French Quarter, Garden District and Central Business District, all mostly untouched by the flooding, were back in business. Most restaurants are open again, Frenchman Street is its funky self, and Bourbon Street is full of drunken tourists throwing beads at one another. One of those tourists might come away thinking New Orleans is O.K. But the picture along this sliver by the river -- the original crescent of the Crescent City'is incomplete and deceptive. Drive just a mile or two to the Lakeview neighborhood, or to New Orleans East, or to the lower Ninth Ward, or out into neighboring St. Bernard Parish and a fuller, far more discouraging picture develops.

Crushed cars, an abandoned shrimp trawler

In the tiny part of the city that escaped flooding you would almost not know Katrina had happened. In the rest of the city it's almost as if nothing has happened since the storm hit.

Near one of the levee breaches in Lakeview I saw cars crushed by the force of floodwater still parked along the street. In the St Bernard community of Chalmette a shrimp trawler still sat in a street where the floodwaters left it.

All around, for block after block, houses still bear the crap-colored high water marks of the flood. Ruined, rotted furniture and clothing spill from some. Some houses have been gutted. Some have the little white FEMA trailers in the front yard. You have to admire the tenacity of those folks working to rebuild by day, sleeping in those cramped trailers by night. But you have to wonder, what is it they will end up with if they're the only ones on their block coming back? A few scattered houses surrounded by devastation, what kind of neighborhood is that? What kind of city will that be?

A Lack of Leadership

A visit in May happened to coincide with the last week of the city's mayoral campaign, with Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu challenging incumbent Ray Nagin. I kept waiting for one of the candidates to tackle the tough issues the city faces: Which parts will rebuild? Should the city's footprint shrink? Are there some parts of the city that simply can't be protected from storms? But questions like that were so divisive they formed a collective third rail of local politics. No one could touch it. So the tough questions went unanswered.

At about the same time, a bill before Congress to finance rebuilding was rejected by the White House. The combination of both federal and local government unwilling to address necessary issues seemed to suck the life from earlier enthusiastic plans for the city. The big ideas about a rejuvenated city fell by the wayside.

In the void of any leadership or planning the city has taken on a DIY, almost frontier mentality. Screw them, we'll do it ourselves, seems to be the motto of the tough ones rebuilding.

N.O. Return?

You have to wonder why it's worth it, especially with so many questions about the levees and the threat that it could happen again in any given hurricane season.

I asked Jim Cobb, who was rebuilding his house if maybe he was in denial. "I'm not in denial," he said, "I'm in hock!"

Financially, it's tough for many people to walk away from their homes and the program set up by the Louisiana Recovery Authority gives strong incentive for people to rebuild. But then Cobb gave a less flip answer: "I feel it's our duty for those of us who can to come back and rebuild."

Time and again I heard this, and heard about the love people here have for their city, its easygoing lifestyle, its friendliness, its creative spirit and musicality. Anyone who's been in love knows love isn't a rational thing.

Will New Orleans return? I sure hope so. But it seems an open question at Katrina -- plus one.

Back to Louisiana Storm Protection: Past, Present, and Future


 

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