Nov 15, 2009
|A disturbing look at an avoidable catastrophe - Sunday afternoon, November 15
Just as no photograph can capture the power of the Mississippi River, neither words nor photographs can convey the horror that was Hurricane Katrina. Fifty one months after the storm the devastation still has the power to shock the mind and stun the senses. The pictures on this page don’t even begin to tell the story. For that you have to go there and see it for yourself.
Our bus driver for Gray Line’s Hurricane Katrina Tour was a single man who lives in a small apartment in one of the city’s worst damaged neighborhoods. He has lived in New Orleans all his life, and his love for the city was evident in everything he said. His narrative combined the skills of a professional driver and tour guide, with the knowledge and experience of a directly affected resident, and the result for us was a rare and intimate look at Katrina we could have gotten in no other way.
It is commonly believed that the flooding from Katrina was caused by the Mississippi River. This is not true. The majority of the flooding occurred because three drainage canals that run through the city were improperly built, improperly maintained, and improperly operated.
Levees and storm walls are built by the Federal Government, usually by the Army Corps of Engineers, but they are then turned over to local agencies who are responsible for maintaining them. Local agencies often fail in this responsibility, but worse, they frequently lobby the government to build substandard structures that will cost less to maintain. Unfortunately, the Federal Government too often listens to them and goes along with their requests.
In New Orleans a number of factors contributed to the disaster. Storm walls and levees were built to withstand a hundred year storm - one similar to Hurricane Betsy in the ‘60’s. Betsy was a Category 3 storm generating a 6-9 foot storm surge. Katrina made landfall with near Category 5 violence and produced a storm surge that varied from 18 to as much as 30 feet.
In several places the Corps of Engineers had constructed storm walls by driving inadequate plates into substandard levee foundations. Under the stress of the storm surge this construction washed out and failed in several locations. In one case a storm wall was never completed and ended 50 feet short of the opening! Flood waters had nothing to stop them and washed right through the empty space.
Another problem was that canals designed to drain excess water off to Lake Pontchartrain, flowed backwards when Pontchartrain filled with storm surge. There were no flood gates to stop that from happening, and pumps that normally pump water out of the city were inoperative because the electricity was out, and because their operators had been evacuated.
In one place a barge broke loose and breeched a storm wall, breaking it and flooding the neighborhood behind it. The break has since been repaired with a much stronger section of wall, but the rest of the wall that was not broken is still weak and substandard. Flood gates are now in place to prevent storm surges from backing up into the canals, but the heights of the gates are still too low to stop a surge like Katrina’s. By comparison, most European dykes are built to withstand a 1,000 year storm, and Holland builds their dykes to withstand a 10,000 year storm.
Our driver took us to each canal and explained what failed, and what the failure caused, and he told us what is being done to remedy the situation and keep it from happening again. In many cases he is not optimistic that the remedies will work. Time and again he drove down neighborhood streets and told us stories about individual experiences. He personally knows many of the people affected, and that connection made his comments both moving and riveting.
He showed us homes with the rescuer’s codes still painted on them, and he explained what the various notations meant. On one home near his apartment there were three notations from three different responders. The first was on the second floor attic and was left there by responders in a boat when the water was still 10 feet or more deep. Two additional notations were painted several days later on the wall next to the front door. The last one indicated that the house had finally been entered, and that two human remains were found inside.
The majority of deaths were of people 60 or older. He took us to one home where a man named Green lived. Mr. Green had an elderly mother and he tried to get his family out before the storm but a traffic jam made it too hard on his mother. The family returned to the home to wait out the storm, thinking they would make it to the Superdome if the storm got too bad.
Unfortunately flooding tore their house from the foundations and it floated away and crashed into another house. The family was already on the roof when this happened, and when they had to suddenly get to the other roof as their house collapsed, his mother and granddaughter fell into the water. He tried to reach them, but both were swept away and he found their bodies several days later when he returned to the neighborhood. Today he is still living there in a new house, and he is a good will ambassador working to get their story out so people will know what happened.
Actor Brad Pitt used five million dollars of his own money to start the Make it Right NOLA Foundation, which has built a number of homes for people, and is continuing to build more. Some of the best designers and architects in the country have volunteered their time and talents, and the homes they are building are ‘green’ and built to withstand future flooding if it occurs. They estimate the electric bills for these homes will be no more than $30 a month!
The people hurt most by Katrina were people who could afford it least. Huge areas of the affected neighborhoods have been cleared, but rebuilding is slow. You see vast areas of vacant lots, and the driver kept reminding us that these had been densely populated neighborhoods where there had been no vacant lots before. Some damaged structures are still standing and they can shock you when you see them. To picture a whole neighborhood of wrecked homes like them is just too awful to get our minds around.
When Gray Line originally proposed doing these tours, many people were understandably opposed to it. No one wants a bunch of tourists coming around on a bus gawking at their misery. But Mr. Green convinced them that it was a good idea, and that it would help get their story out to the rest of the country. So the tours are being done, and a lot of people who came to New Orleans not knowing what happened or what to expect, are leaving the city with a clear picture and a shaken consciousness.
For that we can thank Gray Line, Mr. Green and our bus driver who went far beyond his job description to become a mentor as well as a driver and a guide.