Hurricane Katrina was one of the most devastating natural disasters to hit the U.S. in recorded history, and nearly six years later its effects are still apparent throughout New Orleans.
Despite the fact that the eye of the storm missed the city, many of New Orleans’ flood walls and levees failed in what the American Society of Civil Engineers has named the worst engineering disaster in US history, and in days following the hurricane it was reported that up to 85% of the city was submerged (with some neighborhoods buried under fifteen feet or more of standing water).
We’d looked up all these stats before we visited the city, and it was a truly surreal experience to be driving the main highways of New Orleans and thinking “six years ago we would have been under 10 feet of water here.”
We didn’t really make the jump between raw facts and actually understanding the breadth of the destruction the area sustained, though, until we turned down a random side road near where we were staying and realized that more than half of the houses on the block were still completely abandoned.
Many of districts that sustained damage have been rebuilt and restored (like the Central Business District), while others were largely spared (like the famous French Quarter and Garden District), but some areas still show the hurricane’s lasting effects.
LOWER NINTH WARD
Nowhere was the devastation greater than in the Lower Ninth Ward, the city’s industrial working-class neighborhood.
It was the last portion of the city to be officially reopened for residents in the wake of the storm, and months after the disaster it remained the last area still under curfew.
Today, large portions of the Lower 9th remain eerily deserted. I read recently that in some areas (particularly north of Clairborne Avenue) the population density is less than one person per city block. I didn’t really believe it until we drove through the streets to find abandoned house after abandoned house, furniture strewn across yards, and huge numbers of completely empty lots where the houses are just gone and the grass had taken over.
This neighborhood used to be thriving, and now barely resembles an urban residential neighborhood at all. I had to keep reminding myself that we were in the middle of a city — it really feels like an abandoned rural countryside.
One of the main reasons so many houses remain as they are is that hundreds of thousands of locals are still waiting for insurance money; they simply don’t have the resources to rebuild. I got my hair cut in town, and the stylist told me that all of her family members living in NOLA at the time lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina, and many of them have yet to receive any reimbursement whatsoever from their insurance companies.
REBUILDING AND RECOVERY
The Make It Right campaign has quite famously begun efforts to help rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward. With the support of actor Brad Pitt (who apparently filmed scenes from Interview With a Vampire in the neighborhood), they’re building sustainable and energy-efficient homes to sell to area residents on low- or no-interest loans.
The homes are scattered across a few streets, but stand out due to their quirky modern design and the fact that they’re all built on stilts to minimize potential future flood damage.
The houses are pretty cool (and yay for being sustainable!), but the effect of them juxtaposed against the backdrop of the rest of the neighborhood was quite startling.
The Make It Right campaign certainly isn’t a blanket solution (and I know that some critics have questioned whether homes should be rebuilt at all in such a high-risk area), but they have successfully brought a lot of attention to the ongoing situation in the Lower Ninth Ward… and after seeing the extent of the devastation in person, I can see that this is certainly an important goal.