Still Devastated Five Months Later

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - February 01, 2006
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A sign of hope amid the destruction
A sign of hope amid the destruction

“It’s the worsest thing in history!” The young woman behind the New Orleans Marriott registration desk shook her head slowly as she summed up our conversation about her own Katrina ordeal last September. And in the context of her “history” it undoubtedly was the “worsest.”

Nevertheless, our desk clerk and most of the Orleanian working class we encountered in the course of the previous three days remain optimistic. With Mardi Gras in sight, the downtown seems to throb with hope. Crash repair activity clogs every street with construction equipment and materials. Flood water marks on walls and light poles, and the blue tarps that covered shredded roofs are gradually disappearing. In the hotels transient construction laborers, and government personnel share the lobbies with a growing number of tourists and a dwindling number of refugees from the suburbs. But the suburbs ... “aye, there’s the rub!”

The map used for our briefing by Brig. Gen. Hunt Downer, Deputy Adjutant General of the Louisiana National Guard, shows the greater New Orleans area divided into nine “Parishes” (suburbs), all sandwiched between Lake Pontchartrain on the north and the winding Mississippi on the south. Two major canals come off the lake, one - with locks - connecting the lake and the river to accommodate barge traffic, and the other designed for ... flood control! Downer explained that although when it hit New Orleans Katrina had technically diminished to a Category 3 hurricane, it’s specific angle of impact generated a 20-foot storm surge on the lake, then packed it all downward into the canals.

The surge breached the levees, opening gaping channels for the water to rampage through surrounding lower neighborhoods.

The result, as Downer appropriately put it, “was biblically cataclysmic!”

The Black Hawk helicopter tour which followed the briefing revealed 80 percent of the city was flooded, much of that to the rooftops and higher. The homes in five parishes suffered serious damage from wind and flooding and few will be reoccupied for months to come. But the two easternmost parishes - St. Bernard and East New Orleans - constitute the other side of the coin from downtown - they are devastated! From the air the destruction falls away to infinity. Literally thousands of homes and business buildings, are mangled and set askew, or are simply gone. Only the streets have been bulldozed clear for access, outlining blocks of nondescript wreckage and rubble. A later ground tour on our own revealed cars crumpled into balls of rust, a doll baby captured in a tree, or an easy chair on a roof where it had floated to rest. Terse symbols sprayed on every structure recorded dates and results of the search for bodies and pets left behind. Out here, hope is iffy!

True recovery depends primarily upon two major “ifs.” First, if the Army Corps of Engineers can rebuild the broken levees and reinforce existing levees to withstand similar pressures in the future, thereby regaining the confidence of bitter, displaced Orleanians who feel betrayed by false assurances. Second, if the future leadership of the city and state can avoid the endemic political pandering and political correctness which resulted in the appalling images of incompetence, poverty and dependence which shook America in those first few days. To be sure, there were federal shortcomings as well, but the outcome of New Orleans’ April mayoral and City Council election will be most critical.

Unfortunately, the current mayor, clearly pandering to his constituency, opposes a moratorium on rebuilding, yet FEMA has yet to redefine the new “flood zones.” Owners rebuilding prematurely in flood zones will likely owe insurance premiums beyond their means, or risk losing it all again.

Many Orleanians currently absent from the city are not likely to return, simply abandoning their wreckage. Will taxpayers be willing to pay for new infrastructure serving only the few returnees to an endangered or contaminated neighborhood? Could condemnation with fair compensation through “Eminent Domain” to rebuild a smaller yet orderly and safer New Orleans be sold to skeptical returnees?

The coming year for the Crescent City will be instructive for leaders in all American cities. Let’s hope Honolulu’s leaders are paying attention to how this city’s leaders seize - or fail to seize - a rare chance to begin again.

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