On Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, what was lost and gained from Katrina’s fury

26 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

16 LSU football players share their Hurricane Katrina memories.

In September 2005, Times reporters and editors who covered Hurricane Katrina wrote about their experiences for Ahead of The Times, our internal newsletter.The city’s redesigned levees and floodwalls should be far more resilient against storms than the ones that broke open and let Hurricane Katrina flood nearly the entire city a decade ago.NEW ORLEANS — In a story Aug. 25 about a new urban water plan for the city of New Orleans, The Associated Press misspelled the name of a chief architect of the plan.

“If you were to take a ride down there today, you would think Hurricane Katrina happened last year, not 10 years ago,” photographer Marissa Williams tells Quartz, referring to New Orleans’ historic Lower Ninth Ward.Rapidly rising flood waters that overwhelmed New Orleans in August 2005 trapped Fournette, now a star sophomore running back for LSU, and a group of family members in their home city.

But civil engineers warn that much more needs to be done to keep New Orleans safe, and they caution that people should not assume the levees will protect them from a big storm. NEW ORLEANS — Potholed streets, buckled sidewalks and off-balance old buildings are often the first impression for visitors to New Orleans, along with live oaks that lean over so far they look like they could topple over in the next gust of wind. With the family stuck for four days and five nights on the city’s Claiborne Avenue Bridge, they were forced to wade through waist-deep water to scavenge what food and drink they could find.

According to US census data, in 2014 there were 99,650 fewer African Americans living in Orleans Parish—the geographic area that encompasses the city—than there were in 2000, before the storm hit. But on Tuesday, Mayor Mitch Landrieu unveiled an experimental plan to welcome water into the city’s soil to offset all the sinking — and at the same make New Orleans greener and safer. “For our city, being resilient means more than levees holding back water and wetlands protecting us from storms,” Landrieu said. “It means striking a balance between human needs and the environment that surrounds us.” FEMA head Craig Fugate and NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan were on hand to applaud the city’s new “resiliency plan,” a concept backed by the Rockefeller Foundation. After a briefing from Becky Lebowitz, our weekend national picture editor, about what the National Desk was planning, Karen Cetinkaya, our weekend picture editor, decided it was time for us to act. At the time, Congress told the Corps to design the system to withstand a storm that has a 1 percent chance of happening every year—the so-called 100-year storm.

Nearly a third of the players on LSU’s football roster list either New Orleans or one of its neighboring communities as their hometowns, and many of them were displaced by the storm for long periods of time. That standard would allow people in New Orleans to qualify for the U.S. government’s National Flood Insurance Program, which requires that policyholders live behind adequate flood protection structures. However, a 2015 opinion poll by the Kaiser Foundation reveals much about who has benefitted most from that recovery: 70% of white residents polled view the city as “mostly recovered,” while only 44% of their black neighbors do. “Today, as a young adult, I can say that the cost of renting or buying a home has risen here since the storm,” Williams told Quartz. “The cost of living went up, but the pay didn’t.” This may be one of the reasons that lower-income areas such as the Lower Ninth Ward remain in critical condition, even 10 years after Katrina. But experts point out that the 100-year standard is not a safety benchmark at all, but a statistical guideline used most commonly by insurers to estimate the costs of insuring property against flooding damage. “It is a number which is based on protecting real estate, not protecting lives, and that is an incredibly important distinction,” said Greg Baecher, a professor of engineering at the University of Maryland and a member of the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force, a group started by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2005 to investigate the levee systems built before and after the hurricane.

The hurricane killed more than 1,830 people in the nation’s costliest disaster. “After the last decade of Katrina, Rita, Ike, Gustav, Isaac, the BP oil spill, and the Great Recession, it is safe to say that New Orleans has faced the biggest challenges any American city has ever faced,” Landrieu said. “But New Orleans is a resilient place with resilient people.” Besides water, the city’s resiliency plan also focuses on micro-financing as a means to lift up poor communities and individuals and modernizing the city’s transportation. Karen also called a staff photographer, Vincent Laforet, who was very much interested in going but had a very important assignment to shoot on Sunday morning for the United States Open preview section. Because we did not know how bad the storm would become, and because the Sunday assignment was so important, we decided to wait a day to see what would happen. Lanard: We kept going back and forth from the bridge to my grandma’s house on Frenchmen in the Seventh Ward to get food because that’s where the food was.

A 2013 water plan that Waggonner’s firm developed envisions reconnecting bayous inside the city limits, creating large ponding areas and raising the water table. Considered one of world’s engineering marvels, the aging and costly drainage system is run by the Sewerage and Water Board, a separate branch of city government. Katrina was rated only a Category 3 when it made landfall, but the size of the storm meant the surge was significantly higher than it normally would have been for similarly rated events. “Katrina created the highest level of storm surge and waves that North America has ever seen,” he said. “Hurricane Camille, for example, was a Category 5 hurricane, and yet it did not create the kind of surge Katrina created.” These statistical models will continue to evolve in the future, and may undermine confidence civil engineers have in the levees designed to meet standards that have been revised.

Lanard: We were staying in a shelter and I don’t know who or what made these people do it — be such generous people — but they took me and my family out of that shelter and put us into a home and bought us a truck. Jacobsen told CNBC that the new levees were built with better techniques for compacting the clay that makes up the levees, and some of the structures are being armored to prevent them from eroding, especially if water spills over the top of them.

He told the officials that no one would be willing to use images made by a government agency and that he could pool his images to all the news agencies. The logistics for this story have been daunting; getting more photographers in place, trying to move and assign them with little or no means of communication, sorting through and trying to make some sense of the thousands of images we received from our staff and the wires, and putting together a series of truly spectacular sections day after day. If all elements in the new design perform “as advertised,” Jacobsen said, the structures should be able to withstand water levels from a 500-year event without collapsing or letting excessive amounts of water spill over the wall. Vincent worked primarily out of Baton Rouge, where he hired a private helicopter and a pilot to get him and our reporters in and out of areas that were impossible to get to by car. He had to navigate a maze of roads and talk his way through countless security checkpoints (we later heard that they had stopped letting anyone in, including journalists, shortly after Tyler got through).

When you walk in the house, you’ve got to watch out for snakes and everything because you never know what’s in there, and the craziest thing — you can believe me or not — was out of everything that was ruined in the house, my mom had a Bible on the table. He had a number of tense encounters with police officers and at one point found himself surrounded by several county sheriffs, all pointing their guns at him. After negotiating several more of these checkpoints, he eventually found a police officer who took pity on him and volunteered to escort him safely out of the area. If they were driving through flooded areas (all our photographers had rented the biggest S.U.V.’s they could get), they had to worry constantly about the depth of the water.

Jim’s theory is that Verizon Wireless was the common ground between the majority of rescue and police personnel and thus there was more of a push to keep that system running. Our first group of photographers is out (Jim was the last to leave, heading out on Friday, Sept. 9), and we hope they’re getting a well-deserved rest.

Rehnquist; Tyler was headed to Cuba; Erik was covering a baseball game for Reuters the day after he got home; and Marko took an assignment for the New Jersey weekly section the day he returned. I think everyone that went through that kind of [tragedy] has a [mindset] where if you bring up that period of time and those two people were both here in that time period, there’s a connection.

So it definitely changed the way people look at hurricanes, and plus every time hurricane season rolls around, I always have that, ‘What if?’ We left New Orleans East a few days before Katrina actually hit and went to Laplace, Louisiana. I remember that we loaded up the car after the game and we headed up to Baton Rouge to a friend of my mom’s house, and my dad stayed behind to look after the furniture and keep watch on the house. Basically all my family that was from New Orleans — I would say we had about 20-25 people — we all evacuated to Atlanta where we had other family members.

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