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10 years after Katrina: Optimism amid lingering signs of trauma

The signs of the storm are still visible high up on the sides of houses in New Orleans.

A spray-painted X in circle accompanied by odd numbers and letters is the symbol of a catastrophe that cost an estimated 1 300 people their lives and that still affects the city and region a decade later.

Hurricane Katrina was one of the worst disasters in US history. It caused more damage than any other US natural disaster, and the last one that killed more people was 90 years ago.

Tens years after the storm there are scars nearly everywhere and there are wounds that haven’t completely healed, but there also are signs of optimism in the city known for its Mardi Gras celebrations, jazz music and creole and Cajun cuisines.

“The X was the first thing I saw. It was an odd, almost occult symbol,” said Etienne Skrabo after returning to the city six weeks after the storm. He said it took him and other people a while to understand what the symbols meant.

Members of the National Guard drew the numbers and letters to represent the date the house was searched and dangers present such as a gas leak or poisonous snakes. Pausing to reflect, Skrabo recalled how one of the numbers indicated how many corpses the rescue teams found.

There are symbols like these everywhere in New Orleans. They are among the ever-present reminders of Katrina, a massive hurricane that struck New Orleans and other parts of the US Gulf coast on August 29 2005, after pounding the Caribbean.

Another New Orleans resident, Shanice Williams, was four months pregnant.

“I didn’t want to go, but we had to. And that was a good thing, otherwise I’d be dead now,” she said. Looking at her 9-year-old daughter playing languidly on the lawn, she paused and then added, “not just me, both of us”.

When she and her family were allowed to return to their house four weeks after the storm, the water was still 1.5m deep.

“It was terrible, but it was home.”

New Orleans is practically an island, and levees built to protect the low-lying ground were good, but not good enough. The flood barrier was breached in about 50 places, resulting in flood water in about 80% of the city. The bodies of hundreds of New Orleans’ estimated 1 300 dead were never found. More than half the people killed were 75 or older.

Collapsing buildings, downed electrical cables and exploding gas lines were all deadly hazards, but drowning claimed most of the victims.

Underestimated Katrina’s magnitude 

After the storm it became clear that many mistakes preceded the catastrophe. Among them were the city’s decision to ban public transportation before the storm hit, leaving many people without a way to get out. The state of Louisiana also underestimated Katrina’s magnitude as it approached, and the federal government didn’t respond because there had been no formal request for help.

Sandy Rosenthal, who leads an organisation for people affected by Katrina, called it a “disaster in engineering”. She blames the US Army Corps of Engineers for building the flood barriers too low at about 5m high.

Since Katrina the region’s hurricane and storm preparedness has undergone a $14.5bn makeover, according to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. It includes the world’s largest drainage pumping station and an 8m-high storm surge barrier stretching 3km.

Many people lost everything they had, which amounted to a lot even if they had so little to lose, said Carolyna Gallup, director of a Christian centre in the Ninth Ward, the poorest and worst affected part of the city.

“It looked like a war zone here,” said Gallup. The area’s inhabitants had either fled or they were dead.

Gallup said now the people of the Ninth Ward stick together than ever before, and crime is down. She appreciates the millions of dollars that were pumped into the city’s reconstruction efforts. There’s more money for education, she said. Health care also is much improved, particularly for the poorest people.

Nevertheless, people say the city will never be the way it was. Streetcars might be operating again and jazz might be playing in the bars on Bourbon Street, but outside the tourist area life is different. There are new houses, but between some of them are empty plots where houses once stood and where people once made their lives.

Immediately before Katrina the population of New Orleans was 480 000. A few months after the storm it was half that. Many of the people who were evacuated were disbursed to temporary housing throughout the United States and not all of them wanted to return to the poverty-ridden city that is sweltering in the summer and often a target in hurricane season.

But slowly most of the former residents have returned, and the population is now 95% what it was before Katrina, according to Landrieu.

He’s been at the helm for five years and is optimistic about the future.

“The large reconstruction projects are already – or nearly – completed, the region is clearly better in crime fighting and prosecutions, offers better education, [and] more chances to promote economic opportunities.”

He says New Orleans is America’s best comeback story.

Written by PH

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