“Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans, to miss it each night and day?” In the 1947 movie “New Orleans” Billy Holiday, accompanied by Louis Armstrong, sang these words. An always popular and wistful song, it has gained new poignancy since Hurricane Katrina struck four years ago: August 29th 2005. If there was ever a theme song completely made for a city – that would be it.
Like many people, I was glued to the TV and the CNN coverage of Katrina and its aftermath. As an instructor of a course in homelessness at Ryerson I immediately began teaching my students about the disaster; my students are always stunned to see the destruction and to learn there is still a lot of rebuilding to be done. This past May 23 students joined me on a two week trip to rebuild houses, replant the wetlands, create community gardens and do whatever else we could to help bring families home.
It is estimated that the population of New Orleans has reached about 75% of its pre-storm numbers. But more than 25% of the residents are not home; the numbers include large influxes of Hispanic labourers and young (mostly white) professionals who want to help rebuild the city. The face of New Orleans is different; it’s not the “Chocolate City” that Mayor Ray Nagin said he wanted to recreate after the hurricane.
Sadly, in many ways this vibrant city has been forgotten. The news media doesn’t talk much about it anymore and so it slips away from our consciousness. We assume that everything is back to normal; it isn’t. The traditional tourist areas are restored from the very light damage they received mostly from winds. The Central Business District had very minimal destruction and is back to normal. Even the infamous SuperDome, scene of the sad footage of thousands of hot, tired, hungry and thirsty displaced New Orleanians is fully functioning.
You can travel to New Orleans and never know that there was ever a problem. If you don’t look hard that is. If you don’t leave the downtown area. If you ignore the boarded up businesses or assume it’s just the recession that has caused stores to close. If you have blinkers on your eyes, then all will be fine. But the moment you open up your eyes, ears and heart, you will notice the changes.
Musicians are fewer; their music more wistful. Many have been forced to leave the city in order to make a living; in order to have the money to rebuild their houses. Mardi Gras is still a celebration, but it feels muted, smaller, less colourful. The crowds on Bourbon Street are smaller, less raucous.
The tourist who takes a drive outside of the downtown core will soon see that the wrath of Katrina still remains. Just a few blocks from the vibrant French Quarter the houses began to look rundown, empty, abandoned. Large X’s remain on house exteriors and doors, the mark of the search teams. Too often the dates are well into September; too often they say “NE” – no entry – the search teams couldn’t enter the houses even then.
As you cross the Industrial Canal from the Upper 9th ward to the Lower 9th ward – where the levee broke in two big spots – the scene gets even more heart wrenching. Instead of empty or damaged houses there are almost none, especially in the north part of the ward. The houses were washed away, sometimes within minutes of the levee breach, or destroyed afterwards by order of the government.
Many of the deaths connected to Katrina happened here. People were sleeping in the early morning hours when several feet of water flooded the area within minutes. They too were washed away.
The Lower Ninth, named not for elevation as many assume but for geographic position in the city, was home to many workers from Bourbon Street’s restaurants and the local hotels. It was also home to many of the city’s musicians including Fats Domino.
There is some rebuilding happening here; Brad Pitt has built several houses through his Make it Right Foundation. Canada’s Mike Holmes joined forces with him to build a house in time for last year’s anniversary; there are ongoing repeats of the TV show documenting his struggle to finish the build in the hot and humid New Orleans weather. Holmes and Pitt are not alone, many community organizations are rebuilding in the Lower Ninth Ward and throughout New Orleans.
Next door to the Lower Ninth ward, the St. Bernard Project struggles to rebuild that community. St. Bernard Parish is the only community in North America to ever have been 100% affected by a natural disaster. Every single home was damaged with most sitting for weeks in the 4-20ft of water that flooded the area. With $15,000 and a team of volunteers, it takes the St. Bernard Project about 12 weeks to rebuild a home; they’ve completed 228 already with 40 more in progress. Only 1/3 of the residents and 1/3 of the businesses are back.
People want to return home; they should be allowed and enabled to do so. In many cases the destruction was caused by the breeches, not the hurricane itself. It wasn’t that the city was built below sea level; rather it was the poor and inadequate construction of the levees. It took less than four years for Europe to be rebuilt post WWII. On the fourth anniversary of Katrina we must ask ourselves, “Why is it taking so long for New Orleans to get back to normal, or something closely resembling it?”