New Orleans After Katrina

News Analysis

By Ralph E. Stone
Tuesday April 27, 2010 - 12:56:00 PM

My wife and I just returned from a visit to New Orleans. While there, we toured some of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, and Hurricane Rita in September 2005. Rose Scott was our personable and knowledgeable guide for the tours. Rose, born and raised in New Orleans, is a retired high school teacher who now works as a tour guide. Katrina flooding and an oil spill rendered her St. Bernard Parish home uninhabitable. 

Metro New Orleans is divided into four Parishes: Orleans; Jefferson; St. Bernard; and Plaquemine. A Parish is equivalent to a county. 

Taking a guided tour left us feeling somewhat like a voyeur viewing human suffering. Yet, Rose assured us that New Orleans folk do not want America to let the horror of Katrina fade away. And, of course, the City needs tourist dollars. 

My trip impressions are not intended to be comprehensive. Rather, I am reporting what I saw, heard, and read in The Times-Picayune. 

We stayed in a hotel on Ursulines Avenue in the French Quarter. During our visit, we took the street car along St. Charles Avenue to the Garden District. Both the French Quarter and the Garden District are on high ground and, except for some wind damage, were largely unaffected by Katrina and Rita. Not long after the hurricanes, a tourist could drink, eat, and listen to music in the French Quarter and never see any of the damage caused by the hurricanes and the ongoing rebuilding. 

When New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Katrina, extensive damage was caused by heavy rain, high winds, and then the Gulf of Mexico waters were pushed up the Mississippi into Lake Pontchartrain causing breaches in the levees and flood walls. A surge of water 30 to 35 feet high swept over many parts of New Orleans and then flooding up to 15 to 20 feet deep. After temporary repairs had been made to the levees and flood walls, the City began pumping the water out. Evacuees began returning to view the damage. Then Hurricane Rita hit, causing many of the temporary repairs to rupture and flooding to begin again. 

About 1,836 people died in Hurricane Katrina. 

Prior to Katrina, the population of New Orleans was about 485,000 with about 67 percent black. A year later in 2006, the Black population had dropped to 58 percent while the White population jumped from 26 to 34 percent. Will this new ratio of Blacks to Whites continue into the future? Some are calling this the “whiting” of New Orleans. Many Katrina/Rita victims were evacuated immediately after the storms and later many were relocated to other parts of Louisiana or to other states, including 160 to California. Almost five years later, the population of New Orleans is about 300,000, but 3 of the 4 Parishes have shrunk since Katrina. 

Most of New Orleans is 3 to 8 feet below the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. About 80 percent of the city, covering 144 square miles, was flooded, destroying 204,737 homes. Most of the uninhabitable or blighted homes have been razed. However, New Orleans still has more blighted homes than any other major city by a wide margin. The wood and cement foundations are being ground up and used as landfill. We did see some cement foundations painted pink, indicating the cement was toxic requiring special treatment. Large grassy areas or cemented areas marked where homes, shopping strips, hospitals, schools, and office buildings once stood. Buildings had a water mark around them ten to 15 feet high, like a ring around a bathtub, indicating how high the water had risen. One can see holes punched through the roofs of some houses where people tried to stay above water and other houses had square holes cut in the roofs so rescue workers could pull people from their flooded homes. 

After Katrina, teams went throughout New Orleans inspecting each building, placing marks on the door indicating the date of the inspection, who inspected the building, and the number of dead found in the building. It was a sobering sight to see homes with these markings. 

About 270,000 autos became salvaged after sitting in salt water for weeks. They are being crushed and sold as scrap. 

Katrina completely destroyed the only movie theater in St. Bernard Parish. During our visit, The Times-Picayune reported that a brand new multiplex theater would open in June, just in time for the release of Disney’s 3-D The Toy Story 3. The theater will continue the popular tradition of “dollar candy.” This will fill the need for family entertainment in the Parish. 

Flood insurance is generally unavailable except through a national program. This month, Congress extended the national flood insurance program, which had lapsed. The lapse left many thousands of Louisiana homeowners without coverage and made it difficult for those in the process of buying a home to close the deal. With levee and floodwall repairs ongoing, no one would feel comfortable rebuilding or buying without flood insurance. Residents are rebuilding with their collective fingers crossed. 

Louisiana established “The Road Home” program to provide compensation to Louisiana homeowners affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The Road Home program is the largest single housing recovery program in U.S. history. The Road Home program disbursed $8.44 billion to 127,159 applicants. The applicants agreed to rebuild and reoccupy their homes within three years. Unfortunately, the state calculated the grants based on pre-hurricane home values, and not on the construction costs that exploded after the hurricanes. HUD ruled that grant money had to be paid in a lump sum, rather, as the state wanted, in installments as work was completed. As a result, many grantees did not meet the three-year requirement. It is unclear how many took the money and ran and those who just need additional help to rebuild. The state is now in the position of taking possession of many of these properties in lieu of return of the grant money and then putting them up for auction. 

Many homeowners rebuilt using drywall manufactured in China. It turned out this drywall makes occupants sick, corrodes metal fixtures, and renders homes unfit to live in. The cost to tear out the drywall is estimated at $116,000 per house. About 700 to 1,000 families are affected. There is litigation pending, but it is doubtful whether successful litigants can compel payment from Chinese firms. And insurance companies have largely been denying claims. 

Actor Brad Pitt is a well respected figure in New Orleans. Pitt spent much time in the city prior to Katrina and he and Angelina Jolie bought a home in the French Quarter after Katrina. In 2007, frustrated by the slow pace of rebuilding in the Lower Ninth, Pitt set up the “Make It Right” foundation; the foundation then commissioned 13 architectural firms to design affordable, green houses. The organization plans to build 150 homes, all for returning Lower Ninth residents. So far, just 15 of them are occupied, but those 15 make a big impression. It’s impossible to miss the Brad Pitt Houses, as everyone there calls them. They are sprawling, angular buildings in bold hues. 

We also passed through the new Musicians’ Village, the inspiration of two New Orleans-born luminaries – singer-pianist Harry Connick Jr. and saxophonist Branford Marsalis – consists of a cluster of about eighty brightly painted homes mostly for musicians, but for other artists too. 

Katrina devastated most of the City’s school buildings and supplies. The vast majority of schoolchildren enrolled in schools in other parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas where they are known as the “Hurricane Kids.” In late 2008, almost 30,000 students attended K-12 – about 55 percent of pre-Katrina enrollment. A vast majority of the schoolchildren experienced a period of dislocation, trauma, and personal loss. 

As of June 2009, 27 of 39 hospitals were opened. 

Work on the levees and flood walls, and drainage systems is continuing. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has yet to provide Congress with a list of projects to protect New Orleans and other areas of Louisiana’s coastline from catastrophic hurricanes. It is estimated that the cost of providing protection for the state’s coast will be between $70 to $136 billion. Do you protect from just a “modest” Category 5 hurricane – a so-called 400-year storm that would have a 0.25 percent chance of occurring like Katrina, or a much stronger Category 5 hurricane – a 1,000-year storm with a 0.1 percent chance of occurring in any year? And what should Louisiana’s coastline look like in light of the continuing loss of 24 square miles of wetlands along the coast each year and the fact that the Mississippi River carries only half the land-building sediment it did 100 years ago? These are questions Congress and Louisiana are now grappling with. 

For those interested in the before, during, and shortly after Hurricane Katrina, I highly recommend Spike Lee’s four-hour documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (HBO). I also recommend 1 Dead in Attic by Chris Rose. Rose was a columnist with The Times-Picayune, who wrote a collection of short stories recounting the first harrowing year and a half of life in New Orleans after Katrina. In 2006, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Commentary and was awarded a share of The Times-Picayune staff’s Pulitzer for Public Service. Finally, I recommend the 10-part drama Treme by The Wire creator, David Simon, now showing on HBO about life in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. 

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Tim Goodman described Treme as “a love letter with bruises.” We have thoroughly enjoyed the first two episodes. While walking in the Treme area of the City, we stumbled on the Treme crew filming a segment of the drama. Treme has been renewed for a second season. 

The citizens of New Orleans have shown resilience and are moving forward, but with some trepidation. New Orleans is underfunded, undereducated, impoverished, with little tax base and a dysfunctional infrastructure. As New Orleans mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu recently remarked, “New Orleans is the symbol of America’s inability to do big things. It has become the symbol of America’s inability to think, to plan, to invest, to understand not only in physical capital but in human capital as well. We as a government – federal, state, local – have not done the job that needs to be done.” 

“If there was no New Orleans, America would just be a bunch of free people dying of boredom.” (Judy Deck, a New Orleans resident).