New Orleans: After Katrina, Then and Now

July 18th, 2011

New Orleans, or NOLA, is a great place to attend a conference. I recently attended my fifth American Library Association annual meeting there. In June 2006, ALA was the first conference in NOLA after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the City. It was in the New Orleans convention center that was made famous by the hordes of people who had nowhere else to go during the flooding. The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is over a mile long, but only a part of it was ready in time for the ALA conference. The first thing noticeable while driving into New Orleans in 2006 was the number of roofs covered with blue tarps. We stayed south of the city, in a hotel that was probably kept in business by the construction workers. Many of the stores in that area had not yet reopened; however, the lumber yards were all flourishing with business. At the convention center and the area around it you could see no visible signs of the hurricane’s remains. The French Quarter did not suffer from major flooding because it is actually built above sea level

nola convention center

However, as we left NOLA, we drove east on I-10 through some of the 9th Ward. You could see buildings and houses without windows and full of mud. As we drove into Mississippi, I wanted to drive along the Gulf coast to view the interesting, historic looking houses. But many of their houses were destroyed when Katrina’s storm surge hit. Ten months after Katrina there were still piles of debris everywhere, and FEMA trailers.

Something people may not think about in the aftermath of a disaster like Katrina is what is done with the debris left after the storm. An interesting book about this is Do Not Open: The Discarded Refrigerators of Post-Katrina New Orleans. Pictures of Katrina’s destruction show demolished houses and buildings. While some items, in certain locations, can be burned (tree branches, wood, etc.) larger items like cars and refrigerators had to be removed.

I was excited about getting the opportunity to return to NOLA to see the progress made over the last five years. The blue tarps were gone. In fact, there were little signs of Katrina’s visit. But that was just on the surface. A bus tour of New Orleans provided a deeper observation.

New Orleans is described as a bowl, with the Mississippi River bordering the south and Lake Pontchartrain bordering the north. Almost all of NOLA experienced some flooding. Some neighborhoods received a few inches while others a few feet of rain. However, the 9th Ward was covered with over 8 feet of water because of an out-of-control barge that had broken the levy. Houses just a few blocks from the downtown area still had the graphic X’s on them. The X’s were painted by rescuers to show the house had been checked for dead bodies and/ or survivors. While some homeowners painted over them immediately upon their return, others left them there, perhaps to show a badge of survival. The X’s were visible throughout the city.

Houses that were damaged in the historic areas had to maintain their outer structure. The insides were gutted, with all of the plaster, walls, flooring, wiring and plumbing removed. Their “insides” were then rebuilt. Those homeowners who lived outside the historic areas had the freedom to rebuild or tear down and start over. I saw a for sale sign advertising a gutted two bedroom house available for $7,000.

Houses in the 9th Ward were dramatically different from the rest of the town. There, with assistance from Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, new houses were being built. These houses are above the ground, like beach houses. They face the street at an angle, to better protect them from hurricane force winds. They also have solar energy panels, reducing energy costs by over 75%. These houses are being sold at cost to the original owner or an immediate family member who had been living there during the time Katrina hit.

Hurricane Katrina had a drastic effect on New Orleans. The city population has 100,000 fewer people now; many who were evacuated never returned. Many businesses never reopened, including an amusement park that sits deserted off of I-10.

It is interesting to see how a natural event can wreak havoc on “life as we know it.” But people are resilient. It was gratifying to see the progress and changes those five years can make.