On August 29, 2005, a Category 3 hurricane called Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. While such an event would be expected to cause flooding and some damage, what resulted was one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in United States history.
Water levels in coastal Mississippi rose more than 15 feet. To give you an idea, here is a house next to the Pearl River on the border of Mississippi and Louisiana, about three miles inland.
That house, built on stilts well above the ground, had more than a foot of water inside!
Meanwhile, in New Orleans, disaster struck. The city is built largely below sea level, and protected by a system of levees meant to keep hurricane surge out. Those levees failed in more than 50 locations and, by the time the hurricane moved on, more than 80% of the city and surrounding parishes were flooded.
The immediate death toll was at least 1,245, and more than $108 billion worth of damage was sustained. Katrina left behind a city in ruins. Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans had a population of about 480,000. By the following summer, only 230,000 were left, the rest having fled to other parts of the country.
In March of 2009, I visited New Orleans as part of a conference of Jewish young professionals from all over North America. As part of the conference itinerary, we were taken on a bus tour of the Lower Ninth Ward, the hardest hit area in New Orleans. What we saw was astounding. (I apologize that some of the photos are blurry. These were taken with an old camera from a moving bus.)
Nearly four years after Katrina hit, the neighborhood was still a ghost town. Most of the houses still standing (which was not too many) were empty, with the rescue spray-painted quadrant still visible. The quadrant showed that the house had been searched, and showed the number of dead and missing humans and animals. Those images haunt me to this day.
The conference moved on to a more optimistic tune. While there, we joined with other volunteers and local community leaders to talk about how the city was rebuilding, and to take part in that rebuilding ourselves. In the rain we worked to help rebuild a school that had been nearly fully destroyed and was being turned into a community center.
Returning to New Orleans this year, eight years after my last visit and more than twelve years after Hurricane Katrina, I was curious as to what the city would look like. I knew that due to the concerted effort of local businesses, celebrities, and everyday people, the tourism industry had fully rebounded. But what of the rest of New Orleans?
The population still hasn’t fully rebounded. In 2015, it was about 385,000, roughly 80% of where it stood pre-Katrina. Driving through the Lower Ninth Ward and other parts of East New Orleans, you can still see empty lots where houses once stood, a vacant field that was once a mall, and the remnants of the Six Flags amusement park which never reopened.
However, much has improved. After the Corps of Engineers, which built the levees, was found to be responsible (morally but not financially) for the breaches, construction standards have improved, and officials say that a similar disaster would not lead to the same massive flooding. Homes along the rivers and bayous are being built even higher off the ground. Disaster plans are more regularly updated.
There are still vacant lots, but they are few compared to my last visit. The Lower Ninth Ward is now home to a bunch of new condos and other building projects.
Most importantly, the city has refused to allow the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina kill the spirit present in the Big Easy. The lessons have been learned (or so we all hope), but the residents have moved past it to get on with their lives. And they still serve the “Hurricane” in every bar in the French Quarter.