HCMC Dining Guide

Monday, August 29, 2011

Six Years of Healing

Note: Tune in to the Travel Channel at 8pm Central tonight, for an episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations filmed in the New Orleans area. It is sure to be a more nuanced and insightful look at the city than anything offered by a major news channel.
Six years ago today, Hurricane Katrina, one of the strongest storms ever to form in the Atlantic Ocean, shattered the central Gulf coast of the United States; from Mobile, Alabama, to Morgan City, Louisiana.

Mississippi bore the brunt of the storm's monstrous direct force: a huge storm surge wiped out nearly every building within a mile or two of the beach, tore up roads and other infrastructure, and even hurled a casino ship out of its moorings and onto a nearby parking lot. Driving through towns like Waveland and Gulfport a few weeks after the storm was like driving through a post-apocalyptic nightmare: pieces of people's once-proud homes were strewn across the now-barren stretch between the water and the farthest reach of the surge, where all of the trees had been stripped of their leaves. Piles of wood and bricks sat where grand houses with a sea view had once stood. It was hard to imagine the area recovering.

Ninety miles to the west, in New Orleans, a very different disaster unfolded. While Katrina's ferocious winds caused plenty of damage in the city, the area was, amazingly, spared the full force of the Category 4 monster. A storm surge did enter Lake Pontchartrain, flooding unprotected areas of the north shore and severely damaging the I-10 bridge that spans the lake, but the city itself appeared to be spared. It was, until human error came into play.

New Orleans has a problem. Much of it is located below sea level. (Although this is not a phenomenon unique to the city, as the media seems to suggest. Examples of other cities below sea level: Washington D.C., and New York.) The geography of the city is that of a bowl, so draining rain water presents a problem. To get around this issue, several drainage canals, hemmed in by floodwalls, cut into the heart of the city. Flood and rain water is pumped into these outfall canals, which flow into the lake. Somehow, no one ever thought to build floodgates at the mouths of these canals, in order to prevent lake water from backing up into them in case of an emergency. When Katrina roared through, this oversight turned fatal.

As the storm moved north, its winds blew from north-to-southeast, pushing water into the canals and up against the walls protecting the city. Eventually, so much water piled up that it began to spill over the walls, scouring out the earthen levees on which they sat. This exposed the criminally shallow foundations, built by the Corps of Engineers, and at this point the water simply knocked the walls over, sending an enormous amount of lake water pouring into the city. Within hours, 80% of the city was severely flooded, with  major neighborhoods like Lakeview, Gentilly, the lower 9th Ward, and New Orleans East under nearly 15 feet of water. The residential heart of the city was ripped out.
The floodwall breach that flooded Lakeview. You can see a section of the surviving wall on the left. This was taken about 2 weeks after the storm.
Amazingly, the city has come back, although certainly not without its fair share of problems. This post isn't dedicated to those problems, though. It is meant to illustrate the recovery of one neighborhood: My family's neighborhood, Lakeview, through then-and-now pictures.

My parents bought our house in 1984 and, after building an addition, raised me and my two younger sisters there. This is what it looked like before the floodwaters were drained:
Notice the military helicopter carrying sandbags to the breach, in an effort to staunch the flow of water.
And here it is once the waters had been drained, along with what things look like now. The water killed most of the trees and plants in the flooded areas, lending a somber, gray tone to the city for weeks afterwards.

Anyone whose house was flooded will remember this: piling their now-useless belongings on the curb, to be taken away by the garbage contractors.
Here's what it looked like inside, after we had already removed most of the ruined furniture from the first floor.

my bedroom

Now, our street:
The trees in front of our neighbor's house were snapped like twigs.

Here are some shots from the area closest to the floodwall breach:
Scenes like this were common throughout the devestated neighborhoods.

Smaller houses were simply torn off their foundation by the force of the water.

Even today, there are a lot of empty lots, and even some damaged houses, remaining.

All of those piles of belongings in front of people's houses were dumped in the middle of the huge median that runs between Pontchartrain and West End Blvd.

Of the seriously damaged areas, Lakeview has arguably come back the strongest, thanks to the fact that it is a fairly affluent, middle class neighborhood, whereas the sections east are considerably poorer. Still, even those areas are vastly improved, with many families having since returned, new businesses opening, and schools welcoming students back. Of course, most visitors to New Orleans see almost none of this, since the historic tourist areas were largely untouched. However, if you make a trip to the Big Easy, don't forget what happened here in 2005, and make a mental note of just how resilient the locals are. We'll see how the city looks in another six years.

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