December 10, 2010

Katrina... 5 years later in the Lower Ninth Ward

A little over 5 years ago, Hurricane Katrina ripped through southern Louisiana and Mississippi causing devastation in its wake. We all saw the pictures on TV of the people trapped on roof tops, the dead floating down the streets, the crowds of thousands stuck inside the swealtering Superdome with no air conditioning, toilets, and very little food or water. What we saw was something that changed the political course of America and caused us to think about a side of America we tried to ignore; whether parts of America could really be left to suffer in 3rd world living conditions. But, have the lessons been learned?

One of the famous images from Katrina on display at the museum

We started our journey to learn about the devastation of Katrina, the causes of this catastrophe, and what efforts are being done to rebuild and revitalize the city, at the Lousiana State Museum in the French Quarter. There is no permanent Katrina museum yet. But, they have a temporary one set up in the Presbetere building next to St. Louis Cathedral and it is very well done.

A clip of a firefighter's tale the day after Katrina

As you walk in, you see lots of monitors showing videos of those fateful days during and after the flooding of the city. They also have diaries, interviews, and artifacts from the devastation. They also have an interactive science room that discusses how the hurricane causes the damage, which levees broke and in which ways, and how the coastal wetlands buffer the interior from storm surges, winds, and flooding.

This video above shows the places where the levees failed (red spots on white lines) and the spreading flood waters.  The storm surge came in from Lake Ponchatrain, up the canals, and then over the levees. Once breached, the water eroded out the tops and caused sections to collapse. Since the Lower Ninth Ward is actually below sea level, 20+ feet of water inundated the entire neighborhood. But, 80% of New Orleans was actually flooded to some degree. Why, you may ask, is the Lower Ninth Ward below sea level? Subsidence...our old friend I have discussed previously.

Of course, for many it was hard to fathom that we in America could let this happen to one of our own cities. These kinds of disasters are things that happen to far-away poor countries like Haiti, Indonesia, or Turkey. WE do not have cities destroyed and thousands die...

Thousands of desperate people seaching for water and food

The muddy teddy bear below was definitely the most powerful exhibit to Hilina. She could not understand why such a wonderful stuffed animal would be left behind in the mud. We explained that when the flood came, people had to run quickly to escape and could not save all their important possessions. She seemed to really grasp the magnitude of the event at that point.

What we saw in the museum is not unlike what we have seen on TV reports and while fascinating, did not provide a much greater understanding to anyone who'd been paying attention to the events. But, it is one thing to read about it or watch a TV show. It is quite another to go there and see it for yourself. So, after getting the background knowledge, it was time to head off to the Lower Ninth Ward to see for ourselves the devastation, as well as, to see what the progress is being made on the reconstruction front.

Without these supports, the wall would collapse

To answer the reconstruction question, the answer is "not much". The vast majority of the area remains almost as it was following the receeding waters, except there are more weeds. Maybe 1 out of every 15 homes have been rebuilt. Some have been completely demolished and all you see are concrete foundations or vacant lots. But, many remain as empty shells ready to tumble anytime the wind blows strong.

Now, there are really two schools of thought regarding what should be done with the Lower Ninth Ward. It is a low-lying area prone to flooding. Due to its subsidence and being below the water table, they already had/have to use pumps just to keep the ground water from seeping into the neighborhood from the soils even in dry times. Future hurricanes seem likely to cause major flooding again either by storm surges or heavy rains. So, perhaps it would be best to clear everything out of this area. They could make it a large city park with ballfields and an arboretumm, perhaps a nature park with marshes and swamps for education purposes, and of course you would want to include a Katrina Memorial and Museum.

What would Earth look like in 5 years if humans disappeared?
Here is your answer.

A similar thing happened when Hilo, Hawaii was hit by two tsunamis (1946 and 1960) that destroyed its waterfront twice. Finally, they decided to rebuilt the downtown further back from the beach and made the entire area suseptible to tsunamis a large beach park and parking area. When the 1964 tsunami hit, there was no damage to the city.

Not just homes were destroyed. Businesses were gutted too.

But, there is another way to look at it. This was one of the poorest neighboorhoods, not just in New Orleans, but in America even before Katrina. It had a high crime rate and deteriorating infrastructure, with 30% unemployment and one of the highest welfare recipient rates in the country. In fact, there is a faction of America who secretly didn't mind the thought of it being destroyed once and for all.

But, these are also resilient people, who struggled in a world of Jim Crow laws until the 1960's, little urban development and employment opportunities, awful schools, a famously corrupt police department, and by a state government who seemed to care little about their fortunes. These people had everything taken from them and they would like a chance to come back and rebuild their community. Perhaps it would make a statement about America, if we did what was necessary to have this community rise like a Phoenix and be better and stronger than ever?

An empty foundation near the levee and seawall that failed near the canal

Well, whatever side you fall on, it seems you are going to be disappointed. There appears to be no evidence that they will be clearing this land out to make a park and avoid future catastrophes. There is also no evidence that any major efforts are being made to rebuilt the area and improve it. Mostly, the area just looks like it is being left to rot and decay.

So, what is the plan here? No one seems to know. When you ask residents of New Orleans about the Lower Ninth Ward, they just sort of shrug their shoulders and say not much is happening there and no one talks about it much. But, wait you say...What about Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation you may have heard about on TV or in the magazines?

A rebuilt home with solar panels designed to survive future hurricanes

Yes, they are active down there. They are building new houses and they are doing them in an environmental sustainable way. They are using new technology and showing that green living can be accomplished cost effectively.

And they are encouraging people to move back to their old neighborhood

They are offering residents an opportunity to return to low cost housing. These homes are built on stilts to avoid future flooding (but not 25 foot storm surges), with solar panels, innovative shapes to capture sunlight in winter and avoid it in summer, and all kinds of energy saving devices and techniques inside too. Lower utility bills will help low income residents, as well as, the planet. It is a great pilot project for the future of home building.

Work is going on all down this street

But, that is just it. It's only a pilot project. We noticed that they are only building on about 3 blocks worth of the neighborhood closest to the canal levee. The part you see when you first arrive in the neighborhood. Of those perhaps 80-100 homesites where work is going on, only about 20-25% of them seem to be completely finished and moved into. If it has taken them 5 years to get this far, it will take another 100 to finish the entire Lower Ninth Ward. But, I doubt that is their plan. I think the foundation is simply trying to show what can be done and to encourage other developers to move in and follow suit.

To their credit, it should be noted, that the research shows that when people who live in high-crime and decrepit neighborhoods moved into brand new, clean constructed sites, crime drops off dramatically and the pride residents have soars, even if their income remains the same. Things stay clean, maintained, and manicured. So, perhaps if you could rebuild the entire neighborhood in this style, it could become a wonderful place to live.

Where is the water and why is it hidden?

But, of course the elephant in the room for New Orleans still remains the water. The Gulf of Mexico is still coming. Subsidence is still happening. The protection of barrier islands and coastal wetlands against storm surges and wind stregnth continues to weaken. So, following Katrina, representatives from New Orleans called in hydrology experts from Holland to offer advice about the future of the city. Apparently, the visiting Dutch scientists were flaggergasted by what they saw.

The Dutch know a thing or two about living below sea level and dealing with the threats of water. They have their own network of canals, levees, seawalls, and pumps. So, their advice could be quite useful in helping New Orleans redesign its urban planning and preventing another catastrophe. Clearly, the system that had been in place failed. Rather than pretend the city is not surrounded by water and that the Gulf of Mexico will not be lapping at the levees in 50 years, it is time to start integrating water into the community. Perhaps it is time to start recognizing that the coast needs to be restored and protected. That the barrier islands need to be rebuilt and new sediment needs to start flowing onto the sinking land starved of nutrients.

Whether Louisiana will listen to those ideas remains to be seen...

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