Life Inside the Levees: New Orleans Ten Years After Katrina

27 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

10 Years After Katrina, Obama Will Celebrate The City’s ‘Extraordinary Resilience’.

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama says New Orleans is “moving forward” a decade after Hurricane Katrina dealt it a devastating blow, and has become an example of what can happen when people rally around each other to build a better future out of the despair of tragedy.ABC News commissioned New Orleans photographer William Widmer to visit three neighborhoods in New Orleans immediately adjacent to levees that failed due to Katrina – the Lower 9th Ward, Gentilly and Lakeview.

Pictured: A view of Jourdan Avenue from the Industrial Canal at sunrise, Aug. 2, 2015, in the Lower 9th Ward.

Scientists rank hurricanes according to the power of their winds–Category 5 hurricanes, the strongest possible, must have sustained winds greater than 155 m.p.h. (250 km/h).After the storm, after the flooding, after the investigations, the US came to realize that what happened to New Orleans on August 29, 2005 was not a natural disaster. We do this not in order to dwell in the past, but in order to keep moving forward,” he is expected to say in his speech. “Because this is a city that slowly, unmistakably, together, is moving forward.” Obama will give the speech at a newly opened community center in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, which was among the hardest hit by the storm. Ten years after the flood, the landscape is populated with abandoned houses and a population still demanding infrastructure improvements, but his photos also show new homes being built and life in the city moving forward.

A powerful hurricane that never reaches land will be forgotten by everyone but meteorologists, while a relatively weak storm can wreak havoc if it strikes a heavily populated coastal city. As the lieutenant governor of Louisiana at the time, I saw firsthand the outpouring of support that came from the generous hands, hearts, and wallets of people from across the world. But I also knew that Hurricane Katrina had destroyed homes and lives at such an unprecedented scale that not even the wealthiest philanthropist or most efficient government institution could single-handedly save us from the rubble. New Orleans had long been plagued by structural inequality that left too many people, especially poor people of color, without good jobs or affordable health care or decent housing.

In a notable speech, he denounced the government response and promised to help reform the city’s failing infrastructure, health care and education systems. “America failed the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast long before that failure showed up on our television sets,” he said. “America failed them again during Katrina. We cannot — we must not — fail for a third time.” On many levels, Obama fulfilled most of those promises, and the city has invested large efforts into new industries and entrepreneurship, which has created an economic upswing. Video of residents seeking refuge on rooftops or inside the Superdome or the convention center dominated the news coverage as Katrina came to symbolize government failure at every level. Eschewing the old model in which governments or NGOs try to address the planet’s ills on their own, the emerging approach emphasized the importance of pooling brainpower and resources through partnerships.

A sign for a local advocacy group that says “Hold the Corps Accountable!” sits in an empty lot on Warrington Drive, Aug. 14, 2015, near the site where the east side of the London Avenue Canal was breached during Hurricane Katrina. Even if the entire planet stopped emitting carbon dioxide, Earth would continue to suffer the effects of past emissions. “We’ve got at least 30 years of inertia in terms of sea level rise,” says Trevor Houser, a Rhodium Group economist who studies climate risk. It was then that we heard about his plans for the Clinton Global Initiative–a cross-sector platform that eventually transformed philanthropy and informed our efforts to put New Orleans back together. Bobby Jindal, a Republican waging a long-shot bid for his party’s presidential nomination who told the president that the anniversary is a time to mourn the loss of loved ones, not to espouse “the divisive political agenda of liberal environmental activism.” “A lecture on climate change would do nothing to improve upon what we are already doing,” Jindal told Obama in a letter Wednesday. “Quite the opposite; it would distract from the losses we have suffered, diminish the restoration effort we have made and overshadow the miracle that has been the Louisiana comeback.” He feels that the 17th Street Canal, which borders the property, must still be leaking water because the grass grows much faster on the lots he maintains next to the levee than the ones across the street or elsewhere in the neighborhood.

Eventually, one thing became clear: Instead of rebuilding the New Orleans that once was, we had to create the New Orleans that always should have been. Our regional economy has added more than 14,000 jobs in the last few years by diversifying our economy with a focus on digital technology and biosciences–and by getting the recovery and rebuilding boom on track. According to a new analysis by disaster insurance agency Karen Clark and Co., Florida has four of the 10 US cities most vulnerable to combined flooding events.

But the levees are there mostly to protect against the Everglades, and the seawalls about at breaking a hurricane as a hood ornaments is at breaking the wind.And none of that infrastructure is of little use in the face of combined flooding events—the sea will simply come up from below. New public schools are opening with more modern facilities, better student achievement, lower dropout rates, higher graduation rates, and more kids going to college than before. But if there’s anything the US should have learned in the decade since Katrina, it’s that storms don’t always hit where you expect them—because, you know, Sandy. “Florida is definitely the most vulnerable place, but you also have places like Norfolk that are built on the coastal floodplain, and parts of New England where there is a lot of sunk infrastructure very close to the increasingly vulnerable coast,” says Houser. When federal, state and local government aligned with private sector, philanthropy, nonprofits, faith-based organizations and community leaders, we created a model the rest of the country could follow. Louisiana’s levees couldn’t have held off Katrina entirely, but it was their collapse, not the hurricane itself, that turned the Big Easy into a bathtub. “Some were improperly designed, some were improperly constructed, the rest were improperly maintained,” says Sandy Rosenthal, the director of, an infrastructure watchdog group.

But we’re at our best when businesses such as Toyota partner with community organizations to better prepare us for future disasters, and when NGOs such as Global Green USA assist the city in building LEED-certified schools. Earlier this year, the Army Corps of Engineers released two surveys describing hundreds of dams and thousands of levees vulnerable to rising seas and stronger storms.

For example, we have stood at the forefront of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, powered by the Rockefeller Foundation that provides 100 cities across the globe with the resources and expertise to effectively weather the literal and figurative storms of the 21st century, be they social, economic, or physical. New Orleans’ leadership in this project, including the recent installation of a chief resilience officer who sits in City Hall, and the release of the country’s first holistic and actionable resilience strategy, is helping other cities think critically about ways to mitigate their vulnerability to contemporary challenges. The complex was designed to reduce risk for residences and businesses in the project area from a storm surge associated with a tropical event with an intensity that has a 1 percent chance of occuring in any given year.

And many of the things that Katrina revealed about New Orleans–from poverty and housing to infrastructure and climate change–are issues that will have to be reckoned with in cities and island nations far beyond the Gulf. According to research he co-authored for the National Bureau of Economic Research, places hit by a huge natural disaster typically take around 20 years to fully recover. In their research, Hsiang and the others found the cost to the economy is 10 times the cost of repairing the damage. “Let’s say a storm does $100 in damage,” says Hsiang (imagining perhaps a wild pool party rather than a category 3 storm). “That actually costs the economy $1,000.” The more influential investment happens long before the storm happens.

If American politicians are guilty of miscalculating flood risks, it’s partly because they are a product of their environment. “The problem is, the way that most people learn about their own risk is by their insurance premium,” says Hsiang. In fact, FEMA tried to raise rates last year and—via politicians—got a storm of opposition. “Some peoples’ premiums went up by a factor of 10,” says Hsiang. Instead, the next big hurricane swamps Houston (or Tampa, or Charleston, or Norfolk, or Atlantic City, or Boston, or …) and you’re trying to start a business in Bismark. It might hit New Orleans, where the city’s new levees fall well short of the protection Congress said the city deserved in Katrina’s immediate aftermath.

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