In Memoriam

Today marks the 5th anniversary of the day Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.

Many other commenters, far more versed in statistics and politics, will have plenty to say about the governmental failures in the disaster and the progress New Orleans has made in rebuilding. These are all very worthwhile, but as someone who lived in the New Orleans area before the storm, it’s not the story I think that’s most worth telling nor is it the one I’m most equipped to tell. While the government and insurance companies both reared their ugly and greedy heads in the aftermath, there’s only so much good one gets out of rehashing old arguments and injuries. I want to remember the good that God has done for me and the city from this storm.

Katrina marked a significant turning point in my life, as for many other New Orleanians. When Katrina hit, I was a miserable freshman at Loyola-New Orleans who was looking to get involved in Republican politics. Because of the storm, I was introduced to LSU, a school I was too arrogant to consider applying to out of college. I fell in love with the people and atmosphere and eventually transferred. Out of LSU came many of my closest friends, my wife, and most importantly a much stronger faith life.

Other than the evacuation, my family suffered very little. My father had been one of the heads of the volunteers at the Red Cross before he died in ’91, and knew a lot about the flooding in the area (In fact, there’s a story about how he dragged the then Mayor of Kenner, Aaron Broussard, to the site of a pumping station Broussard wanted to build to show him the height of the levee and river a block away. The station was never built). My house was pretty well off the ground, and the flooding Metairie (in Jefferson parish which is west of New Orleans) received was too small to do damage to my house, though others in the neighborhood received worse. I still had the joys of cleaning out a fridge with old meat that had not been refrigerated for weeks. But I was thankfully spared from having to gut my house, a reality I can’t imagine.

As a result, my memories are less troubling than many people’s of the immediate aftermath. I saw pictures of the buses parked in my high school with the yellow tops barely visible. I remember going to my father’s grave to see the watermark eight feet (if not more) above the ground. I remember driving through Lakeview and New Orleans East, slowly numbing to the sight of house after house after house with watermarks on their roofs.

I remember thinking at this time that the city was done for. The incompetence & lack of compassion shown by government and business leaders was going to make the New Orleans that returned a shell of itself. Even before the storm, people openly talked of wanting to get far from New Orleans to Atlanta or Houston, and this appeared to be the final nail in the coffin.

But it wasn’t. It’s hard to describe it, but suddenly we recognized the good. The rich culture and community won out over all the obstacles. Those who could come back mostly did. The New Orleans that emerged may not be one economically or politically stronger, but it was one that was culturally stronger. People were suddenly proud of where they lived, their past, and their neighbors. New Orleans stopped trying to be like Atlanta and started to live in a real community bound by its own unique heritage.

That’s not something outsiders can see, though many got a glimpse of it during the Saints’ Superbowl run. The Saints were a symbol of recovery in their own right, not only due to the damage to the Superdome but also b/c the Saints were written off as gone to San Antonio. But they came back, and they came back stronger and many people drew inspiration from that. Even more than that, the resurgence of the Saints and the city-wide gatherings held on game days and the “Black and Gold Fridays” that popped up in area businesses and high schools gave the New Orleans community a way to express its new found communal strength. Black and gold became colors of the city, a city that many had sacrificed and taken a risk to live in.

When the Saints won the Superbowl, for many it was a victory symbolic of the victory of New Orleans-not only over the devastation of the storm, but the loss of self-worth that had infected the city before the storm. Now New Orleans had rediscovered its old treasures. In many ways, New Orleans has a lot to teach the rest of the country about that.

So today, we remember those that died and those that suffered tremendously. But we also remember God’s amazing grace that can take the most devastating disasters and use them to produce previously unimaginable good.

19 Responses to In Memoriam

  • [Saying people deserved to die on the anniversary of their deaths is one of the most unchristian things I can think of. I will not be tolerate it, other than to say a) everyone's location comes with natural dangers b) New Orleans is so far below sea level b/c of the federal government's levee system which made the ground sink more]

  • If I could win a trip to anywhere on earth I haven’t visited before, the first place I’d choose would be New Orleans (as long as it wasn’t during hurricane season or Mardi Gras, since I don’t really care for drunken crowds). It seems to be one of the few places left in the United States that has a genuine Old World culture.

  • [The reasons people want to live in New Orleans are expressed in the post. Again, I am not tolerating this nonsense on this issue today. Another day, perhaps, but not today. This is your first and only warning-MRD]

  • It seems to be one of the few places left in the United States that has a genuine Old World culture.

    That it does. The city itself is different from any other city in America, in a very good way.

    As far as visiting during Mardi Gras, I’m with you; I don’t think New Orleans is at it’s best in the French Quarter on Mardi Gras. However, during Mardi Gras season you can come to a parade that’s a pretty cool environment that’s not as full of drunken crowds depending on where you go.

  • As regards those who think living in New Orleans is wrong or stupid because of its location, well, is there really any place in the continental U.S. that is completely disaster free? Anyplace on the Gulf Coast or East Coast is subject to hurricanes, the West Coast has earthquakes, mudslides, forest fires, and even a volcano (Mt. St. Helens) and the Midwest and South have tornadoes and floods. I suppose anyone who lives in those places “deserves” what they get too, right?

  • If a location requires carefully engineered public works to survive, it is reasonable to ask if resettlement should be undertaken. You might begin by asking underwriters on which portions of the territory of greater New Orleans (absent public subsidies and state compulsion) would residential and commercial development incorporate uninsurable risks.

  • Only a very small part of New Orleans proper is below sea level, most of it not.

    A priest I know was on the verge of being kicked out (“asked to leave”) of Notre Dame Seminary for the 3rd and last time. They also had their guns on 2 other men as well. Katrina hit and they were all sent to another seminary. At this new seminary, they excelled, just as they had in minor seminary. Our diocese has at least 3 fine young men as holy priests of God, possibly only due to the effects of Katrina.

  • Art Deco:

    Those questions are in fact being asked and since the footprint of New Orleans appears to be smaller, shrinking in from some of the riskier places is still being attempted (they tried to prevent resettlement immediately after the storm, but were blocked by political pressures). However, New Orleans developers are taking pains to try to take the higher land and put it to more efficient uses in order to reduce some of the risks.

    That said, the abandonment of the entire city is neither practical nor desirable.

  • Elaine,

    I disagree.

    If you live 9 feet below sea level, then deal with the consequences and don’t blame the government for a decision you consciously made.

    Your logic holds no water, pun intended.

  • If New Orleans needs the federal government to keep the city viable and to operate daily, then there is no practical nor desirable reason to continue throwing money away in the bayou.

  • There is a reason there is a national flood insurance program. There is really no “safe” area from flooding. The recent floods in Milwaukee occurred in the highest elevated neighborhoods. WRT Katrina specifically, tidal surge inundated communities over 100 miles inland. Perhaps prudence would dictate making a nature preserve from the coast line of the Gulf to 100 miles inland. More seriously, in some respects, New Orleans is better prepared for events that typically cause flooding because it has an extensive non-gravity water removal system. It wasn’t just New Orleans’s system that failed: every other system along the Gulf failed, most failing because they didn’t have a system to begin with.

    You hear the garbage with New Orleans that you hear after every natural disaster. When the Missouri and Mississippi had massive flooding a decade ago, smart people said, people should build along rivers. When earthquakes hit California, people say you shouldn’t live where there are earthquakes. When tornadoes hit the Midwest, people say you shouldn’t live in tornado alley. This is one of those areas where you can sound awful intelligent until it comes down to actually proposing a solution. There are all sorts of hazards in the world, some more easily mitigated than others.

  • Good points M.Z.

    I think it would be better if there were in fact a nature preserve from the coast and people lived further inland. Obviously for economic reasons, people tend to live near coasts.

    Another major point of consideration that has economic impacts has to do with dams and levies and other man-made mechanisms that are put into place for practical economic reasons and flood-protection measures. These things increase the pace of coastal erosion in what ever direction the water is being directed and such mega-disasters exacerbate this problem; in short, Katrina put this activity on fast-forward.

    There are estimates that New Orleans will be off shore in 85 years (2095) as coastal erosions continue. This is the result of what has been going on for some 300 years in terms of coastal erosion. The coastline will pass the city and New Orleans literally will be a fish bowl.

    There is great difficulty in letting go of a city with significant history and this should not be dismissed as arbritrary concerns; it is human to have such attachment.

    I am not sure what to do in this situation. But given that New Orleans is going to be 15 to 18 feet below sea level, if the predictions are accurated, and will be sitting by itself off the coast, surrounded virtually on all sides by water, I am not sure building 50-to-100 feet tall levees are going to protect the city or are worth the investment.

    The solution that is more economically viable, hospitable to life, and practical is obviously moving. But this is no easy task nor is it simply said.

  • When tornadoes hit the Midwest, people say you shouldn’t live in tornado alley.

    The most tornado prone metropolis in the United States is Oklahoma City, which typically has about one a year.
    The implications of most such tornados are the loss of some mobile homes and the roof on some garages.

    http://www.tornadoproject.com/fscale/fscale.htm

  • I think a state law requiring the purchase of flood insurance by property owners (much as a purchase of car insurance is required) would permit the formation of viable actuarial pools. Application of underwriting standards could then limit development in selected areas.

    You would need to have a state fund to indemnify property owners whose land ceased to be utile for residential or commercial development.

  • If you live 9 feet below sea level, then deal with the consequences and don’t blame the government for a decision you consciously made.

    The federal government is in control of the levee systems. Their decisions (building the MR-GO canal and refusing to redirect the mississippi to effect the natural replenishment of the wetlands) exacerbated the situation. No one blames the government for Katrina and the placement of the city but the feds (and this both parties) with the Army Corps of Engineers in particular have made poor decisions by putting immediate economic interests ahead of long-term environmental considerations. Critiquing the feds is entirely appropriate.

    Eric:

    You raise good points. The wetlands have to be replenished. Unfortunately, wetlands protection is an issue that’s not glamorous to Democrats and repugnant to Republicans. Nevertheless, the wisest course of action to to protect the city from these storms by improving the wetland barriers that diminish storms before they ever reach the city. This is not an easy thing to do, but it’s long past time for someone to start considering how to do it.

  • Shutting New Orleans down isn’t sensible, if for no other reason than it’s a huge port through which billions of dollars worth of commerce passes, especially for the country’s midsection. It would take billions to upgrade one of the nearby Gulf ports
    (Mobile? Biloxi?) to take the traffic.

    Leaving aside the fact that it’s New Orleans, for pete’s sake. Yeah, I’m sentimental, but there’s something to be said for sentiment on occasion. :)

  • I don’t disagree with you Dale. I wasn’t advocating for shutting down New Orleans. There may be other reasonable solutions that did not occur to me. What struck me as the solution that is “more economically viable, hospitable to life, and practical,” need not be the course of action that is taken. I was simply saying that giving up on the city met these criterion better than any other solution I could think of, not that it was better.

    New Orleans is a great city with a rich cultural history and it would be a terrible thing for us lose it. I support trying to salvage the city in any way possible but only if we sincerely face the facts that are serious challenges that will have to be met — and as we can see from certain comments, people from other places in the U.S. might not be too excited about picking up the tab.

  • Eric:

    Oh, I wasn’t responding to you–for one, I heartily agree on the wetlands issue. The maps showing how much of Louisiana is being lost to the Gulf are sobering.

    Actually, I was disagreeing with brother Tito, and wanted to point out the economic importance of the city, and the lack of an alternative.

  • Not shutting the city down, but not (after a transitional period) subsidizing its maintenance either.

    If the civil engineering permits, one might devolve responsibility for the construction and maintenance of the subregional levee system on an elective authority. The authority would be empowered to set tolls and make flat assessments on personal income. Conjoined to underwriting standards, this would place on local residents the full cost of real estate development in that part of the world and move the area closer to some sort of social optimum.

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