Remembering Hurricane Katrina by Peter Coles

New Orleans 6 months after Katrina. Flood damage to house. Writing on house says 'Michael where are you?'
New Orleans 6 months after Katrina. Flood damage to house. Writing on house says ‘Michael where are you?’

Ten years ago, on 30 August 2005, Hurricane Katrina pummelled New Orleans with winds of over 150 mph (250 kph). Over 1800 people lost their lives and hundreds of thousands of residents had to leave their homes over the following days, many never to come back.

In March 2006, I was Artist in Residence at A Studio in the Woods in New Orleans, with funding from Tulane University[1] and UNESCO.[2] During this time I was able to explore and photograph the devastation and talk to local people about what had happened.

New Orleans 6 months after Katrina. Flood damage to house. Sofa and damaged walls with mold.
New Orleans 6 months after Katrina. Flood damage to house. Sofa and damaged walls with mould.

Even though Katrina was a category 5 hurricane – one of the most violent in US history – it was not the wind that caused the devastation. Instead of scoring a direct hit on New Orleans, the eye of the storm suddenly veered east, whipping up water in the Gulf of Mexico and creating a storm surge that funnelled down the man-made Industrial Canal towards the Mississippi River and the city. When the force of the surge breached the canal wall, water gushed into the Lower Ninth Ward – one of the city’s poorest districts – which lies about three meters below sea level. Gradually, many of the city’s main flood defences – the levees – were also breached, highlighting fundamental flaws in their design and allowing water from Lake Pontchartrain to inundate other areas. In all, some 75% of the city was under water for weeks.

New Orleans six months after hurricane Katrina. Central City district, Oretha Castle Haley Street (formerly Dryades).New Orleans six months after hurricane Katrina. Central City district, Oretha Castle Haley Street (formerly Dryades).

The historic French Quarter (Vieux Carré), which was built on higher ground, only suffered wind damage, not flooding. And by February 2006, life had more or less returned to normal here. But the Lower Ninth Ward was laid to waste. There were surreal scenes, with cars on top of houses, whole sides of buildings ripped off, a black line running across the walls marking the height of the flooding, houses in the middle of the road. Above all, it was eerily empty, with just the occasional resident picking through the rubble. And rather than being reassuring, a solitary car moving slowly down the street where I was walking felt very threatening.

Recovery

New Orleans 6 months after Katrina. Car wreck with writing saying 'I'm Back' in front of house in Lakeview.New Orleans 6 months after Katrina. Car wreck with writing saying ‘I’m Back’ in front of house in Lakeview. New Orleans six months after hurricane Katrina, showing flood damage to housing and infrastructure. Damaged hotel and restaurant complex on Lake Pontchartrain.New Orleans six months after hurricane Katrina, showing flood damage to housing and infrastructure. Damaged hotel and restaurant complex on Lake Pontchartrain.

Ten years on, according to a report published by the Data Center in July this year, the city has made a substantial recovery. The population has returned to just over 340,000, compared to the 450,000 before hurricane Katrina struck. But, while there has been remarkable growth in entrepreneurship, employment and infrastructure, as well as a drop in violent crime, the city is still deeply divided. In 2013 some 44 % of the city’s African American households were among the lowest earners, while 30 % of white households earned over $105,910. Across metropolitan New Orleans poverty has risen to pre-Katrina rates, with 27% of households classified as poor.

New Orleans six months after hurricane Katrina, showing flood damage to housing and infrastructure. House with front wall washed away showing clothing hanging in a closet. Lower Ninth Ward.New Orleans six months after hurricane Katrina, showing flood damage to housing and infrastructure. House with front wall washed away showing clothing hanging in a closet. Lower Ninth Ward.

Meanwhile, metropolitan New Orleans has lost 29 % of the coastal wetlands that are a natural protection against storm surges, while saltwater intrusion from the Gulf has been recorded in eight out of nine groundwater sample sites.

New Orleans 6 months after Katrina. Flood-damaged house in Lakeview after 17th St canal level breached.New Orleans 6 months after Katrina. Flood-damaged house in Lakeview after 17th St canal level breached.

One hope for the city, which may help sustain its reputation for resilience, is the multi-billion dollar payout from BP in settlement for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf.

Peter Coles is Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Urban and Community Research, Goldsmiths, University of London.

pcoles@me.com  @PcolesPeter

[1] With thanks to Dr Doug Meffert, now Vice President and Executive Director of Louisiana for the National Audubon Society (at the time, Deputy Director of the Center for Bioenvironmental Research, a joint initiative of Tulane and Xavier Universities).

[2] With thanks to Christine Alfsen-Norodom, then Senior Program Specialist at UNESCO in New York.

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