Photos: ‘Ninth at Night’ Revisits New Orleans a Decade After Katrina

27 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Correction: Katrina-The Water City story.

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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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). One of the items that Vincent had taken with him from New York was a very bright, blinking yellow light for his car like those on emergency and maintenance vehicles. 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.

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