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Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans ~ 10 Year Anniversary

Hurricane Katrina made landfall August 29th, 2005 at 6 am …

I remember watching the news on August 29th, 2005. Hurricane Katrina thundered onto shore, buffering down from a category 5 (highest) hurricane to a category 3 at the mouth of the Mississippi River – but no less fierce. As the hours passed, devastation from levee breaks (more than 50 breaches) and the volume of water spilling into the city broke the hearts of the nation as we watched in horror at the images from news reports.

Hurricane Katrine reaching landfall (courtesy of britannia.com)When the hurricane passed and the sun came out, the cleanup began. As the days flowed into weeks, stories of loss and devastation overflowed into the media. Its effects are poignantly visible still today.

I had the opportunity to visit New Orleans a short while ago and included a Katrina tour to help me understand what the city truly went through.

Katrina’s damage

Here are some overwhelming stats of that natural disaster named Katrina:

  • scope of New Orleans flooding (courtesy of open.edu)Katrina was the 3rd strongest Hurricane to make landfall in the United States ever.
  • New Orleans sustained well over 50 breaches of their levee system along the canals causing flooding in all of St. Bernard Parish and devastating many wards (most memorable the lower 9th ward, Metaire and Gentilly).
  • 4/5ths of the city was under water from inches to peaks at 20’
  • It took 2 days to flood the city, 3 weeks to pump it out.
  • 134,000 homes sustained damaged, 70% of all households, 114,000 households were trailered in FEMA relief trailers.
  • Almost 25% have left the area and never returned.
  • New Orleans experienced 1500 deaths (about half over the age of 74) and $81 billion in damages.

And still today:

  • map of the Katrina flooding (courtesy of danwenson.com)Only just over half of the 37 neighborhoods have recovered to 90% or greater of their 2005 residential population.
  • In the lower 9th ward … As of the census of 2000, there were 14,008 people, 4,820 households, and 3,467 families residing in the neighborhood. As of the census of 2010, there were only 2,842 people, 1,061 households, and 683 families residing in the neighborhood … devastation in the magnitude of 75%+
  • But there’s good news too. Economic growth in NOLA outpaces the countries effects from the recession, knowledge-based economies are booming, start-ups are 50% higher than national stats.

Experiencing Katrina’s effects

For me, taking a Katrina tour helped me understand not only the depth of devastation but how it has affected – and still affects - this beautiful old city. Katrina has become part the city’s history and how it recovers will shape it’s future.

I spent the better part of my first day in New Orleans seeing first hand Katrina’s effects. I wandered through the Katrina Exhibit at the Presbytere, a Louisiana State Museum, part of the historic and picturesque backdrop of Jackson Square. Later that day, I booked a seat on a 3-hour Grayline coach tour dedicated to touring the areas affected by Katrina’s wrath. In my opinion, a very insightful, respectful way to see first-hand the ground-level view.

The Presbytere

The Presbytere at Jackson Square, New OrleansFor simply a few $$ admission, the Katrina exhibit walks you through the history of New Orleans following the theme of resilience – it’s survival after wars, hurricanes and disease – and culminates in artifacts, stories, images and the circumstances that made Katrina’s landfall especially devastating. To see the rescue boat on display, see Fats Domino’s destroyed piano and hear the stories recorded makes this a moving and monumental exhibit.

Note: The Presbytere admission also includes admission to the current Mardi Gras exhibit upstairs.

Grayline’s Katrina coach tour

haunting examples of the volunteer searchesTo see the devastation first-hand, to visualize the stories, to see the vacant 9th ward, the actual levee breaks, the somber “X” or roof cutouts on the abandoned homes, the memorial water level markings and the rebuilding efforts that continue today. Grayline’s Katrina coach tour is narrated by local experts that lived and survived the devastation and can recount the real-life stories and names of people affected.

Why would a city build itself below water level? They ask, why would a city locate itself next to mountain prone to landslides or why would almost a billion people locate themselves along the hottest equatorial areas. Why would you want to live in the tornado belt? Natural disasters are infrequent, but severe storms of the Katrina magnitude are extremely rare. Katrina’s devastation became the eerie confluence of events from a misdirected hurricane, breaks in the flood walls and the false security of lifestyle comfort living beside and below sea level.

The Presbytere holds Fats Domino piano as it was foundIt wasn’t always this way. Between the 1930’s and today with navigational and drainage canals built in Louisiana’s coastal, over 948 miles of coastal wetlands have disappeared. The drainage of the New Orleans wetlands caused soil compaction in the areas surrounding Lake Pontchartrain in the scope of 8-10’ below water level for the area of New Orleans. In the 1960’s levees were introduced to serve as a buffer to the storm and water surges of up to category 3 hurricanes.

They served well until Katrina’s wrath walloped the city.

Conspiracy theorists have made claim, now grown into popular “urban myth”, that engineers dynamited specific levee areas to attempt to divert water from wealthier areas in the path of Katrina’s surge. While unsubstantiated in any way, it is a topic of interest in the city that locals still debate with passion and fervor.

Stories of Rebuilding

The theme resilience comes to life and assistance comes in many forms …

Demo Diva – Local resident (who lost everything) turned passionate entrepreneur, with her pink demolition equipment and dumpsters, created Demo Diva in 2006 to assist in the cleanup efforts. Her story earned her the attention of investor Warren Buffet, craftsman Mike Holmes and Brad Pitt as well as the love of the city’s residents.

Brad Pitt homes helped re-establish the lower 9th wardHabitat for Humanity NOLA – While established in the area since 1983, in the post-Katrina area, the efforts have exploded with over 600 homes to give lower income families a step up with loans and a 350 hour sweat-equity investment. Also the Musician’s Village in co-concept with Harry Connick Jr and Branford Marsalis has been built to offer a musical community (think of the historical influence of jazz to New Orleans) 72 single family homes and the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music.

Brad Pitt – His Make It Right foundation is helping to support rebuilding efforts in the Lower 9th Ward with safe, sustainable, innovative homes. More than 100 homes have been built, housing more than 350 people.

Most Memorable images

From my hours exploring and seeking to understand the effects of Katrina’s power, a few key images are imprinted in my mind. This is the human effects of Katrina’s power:

  • honorary water level mark at Starbucks New Orleans“X” still visible on some of the houses made by the volunteer searchers from around the country
  • Roof cutouts on some of the abandoned homes still there where searchers rescued survivors.
  • “Memory” water markers on some buildings, showing the depth of the water from the flooding
  • Subdivisions with homes missing at the spot where the levees broke, clearly washed away.
  • Abandonment of the 9th Ward where 75% have not returned … the foundations, posts stairs as eerie markers that a community once lived here.

Katrina was flooded with millions of gallons of water from a storm surge that flooded 4/5th of New Orleans in 2 days. It took 3 weeks to pump the city dry. Almost a decade later and the city is still rebuilding. There are many tours offered in New Orleans and in the French Quarter. In my opinion, you can’t visit New Orleans without taking time to learn more about Katrina – they are now synonymous. Take these tours, empathize and experience the effect still felt from August 29th, 2005 …

Have you visited New Orleans and taken one of the Katrina tours? Can you still feel its effects? Drop a comment below or comment on Facebook or Twitter. We’d love to hear your story …

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