Story & Photos by Ron Bernthal
I was in New Orleans during August, 2005, a few weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit the city, and I returned again this summer, to see the city one year after the “Great Deluge,” as one recent Katrina book calls the storm, devastated a good part of the lovely Crescent City.
On a hot, steamy, summer afternoon, as I drive slowly along what remains of Wuerpel Street, in the Lakeview district, I spot Mike Cooper sitting on a chair in front of his gutted, but intact, New Orleans bungalow home. Cooper is one of the few residents still living in the neighborhood, where every house was destroyed when the nearby levee breached, and flooded the area with over 12 feet of water. Mr. Cooper lives in a small FEMA trailer next to his house, and what caught my eye was the 12-foot totem pole he had crafted out of hurricane debris found after the storm. He wants to show visitors how high the flood waters rose on his street, and the pole provides a good indication of how terrifying it must have been, although it is still impossible to comprehend what it must have felt like to be surrounded by it.
“I’ve been living in Lakeview for 15 years,” Cooper says, happy for someone to talk to, not hesitate to convey his Katrina experiences, perhaps for the hundredth time, to a stranger with a tape recorder and notebook. “I saw the water rising during the day and went up into the attic for the night. If I realized how high the water would get, I would have moved more of my belongings upstairs with me. Look, I made the decision to stay, because I rode out several other hurricanes before this one, but this was just too powerful for me, too much water, and too scary.”
Mike Cooper spent several days in his attic, and when his water and food ran out he jumped out the attic window into the water below, swam over to a neighbors house where they were rescued by a passing boat. Lakeview is not a functioning neighborhood any more, there are no people walking the streets, no stores, the school is closed, few cars come down the desolate roads, still lined, one year later, with storm debris. I saw less than a dozen homes in Lakeview, out of the hundreds that were destroyed, that have been rebuilt.
“I’m not sure I’m going to stay around here,” Cooper says, waving his arm around to show the expanse of destruction and despair that surrounds him. “This is really hard, living here in the trailer, with few people around, and so much to repair just to get back to the way it was. The government has not really helped much either, with so little grant money going to those who really need it. I don’t think my neighbors are coming back.”
So many people were affected by Katrina that it is almost unimaginable. Eighty percent of the city was flooded, and much of it remains uninhabitable. More than 200,000 homes were completely destroyed in metropolitan New Orleans, and thousands more severely damaged. The city lost 64 percent of its residents after the storm, with a population that dropped to 158,000 following the storm, from its pre-Katrina 437,000 residents. A year later it has slowly climbed back to 200,000 people. The city is smaller, older, and whiter, and the hurricane is still a major part of every conversation among friends and strangers, in the daily newspapers, and on TV and radio talk shows.
Richard Campanella is a geographer at Tulane University. He and his wife, Marina, had to evacuate their home and flee the city just before the storm hit. Campanella is an expert on the terrain of New Orleans and his new book, Geographies of New Orleans: Urban Fabrics Before the Storm, describes how and why New Orleans was so vulnerable to hurricanes. He says that there were several lessons to be learned from last August’s storm, and one in particular.
“There were a multitude of lessons that we learned from this storm, but the most important one was that the city’s levees were only as good as the weakest link. It wasn’t the biggest and strongest levees that broke, but the smaller ones, and this was somewhat unexpected, they seemed to slip under everyone’s radar screen,” Campanella said as we sat in a cozy café in the French Quarter.
To me, the New Orleans of today, one year after Katrina, is a very different city than the one I visited last summer. Certainly, the neighborhoods that I visited outside the French Quarter, away from mid-city and the relatively untouched Garden District, places like Lakeview, the Lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly, Bywater, and New Orleans East, were all devastated by flooding, and it seems unlikely that they can be brought back anytime soon. Even the French Quarter, where most of the hotels and tourists congregate, seems different, not in a physical sense, the area received little flooding and the bars and restaurants are all open and busy (although less busy than last year), but there is an aura about the city now that wasn’t there before. Katrina is like a bad dream hovering above the entire Gulf Coast, a heavy burden that will have to be carried for years, perhaps decades.
The café was busy and across the street Jackson Square was beginning to fill up with tourists, despite the muggy humidity that covered the city like a thick blanket. On the sidewalk, next to the café’s outdoor patio, street musician Hack Bartholomew began to play Amazing Grace on his trumpet. Some people continued to talk, cars went by nosily on the street, but as he played and sang most of us, visitors and locals, were quiet as we listened to the sad, yet uplifting, hymn. As dozens of us glanced at each other across the tables, there was no doubt what we were thinking. One year after Katrina, New Orleans has a very long way to go before we can again call her the Big Easy.This malaise of the spirit was most noticeable one Sunday morning when I walked to the Café du Monde for a coffee and beignet, the deep-fried, sugary donut that is a New Orleans tradition.
Be sure to read…
Geographies of New Orleans: Urban Fabrics Before the Storm, Richard Campanella, Center for Louisiana Studies, 2006
The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Douglas Brinkley, Wm. Morrow, 2006
Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City, Ted Horne, Random House, 2006
Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security, Christopher Cooper & Robert Block, Times Books/Henry Holt, 2006
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