Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina overran the Gulf Coast. A week before the storm my son started college – at the University of New Orleans. As I moved him into his dorm I told him that he had a great room – “look over the levee and you can see the lake!” A week later the lake was in his room.
This coming October, assuming his dissertation defense goes well (it will), he’ll get his PhD in Physics. From the University of New Orleans. The school did shut down for a semester in the Fall of 2005 but through heroic efforts came back to life the following January. Only a third of the students returned, but I’m told that today they are approaching pre-Katrina enrollments. Graham went back as soon as they reopened and has lived and worked in that city ever since. New Orleans worked its voodoo on him and he is completely enamored by the city and its residents.
We have visited many times and will be back to sit in on his defense of his dissertation. For an old guy like me, Bourbon Street is fun – once. Unfortunately Bourbon Street is the main image many people hold of the city, but in fact the place is bursting with charm, music, food, and fascinating neighborhoods. I can spend all day just listening to the accents of the old-timers and those speaking the creole of the bayou.
Today, New Orleans is back. Some areas aren’t, and probably never will be. Others are better than ever. A quarter of the population never returned.
In my opinion the destruction of New Orleans was largely an engineering disaster, generally resulting from the same lack of political will that plagues the rest of our nation. We returned after the storm to try and rescue some of Graham’s belongings. For one person’s view of this engineering catastrophe, here’s an excerpt from my journal after that trip:
In 1927 the Mississippi overflowed its banks and inundated Louisiana. Randy Newman’s homage to that catastrophe – Louisiana 1927 – is a bitter song of poor folks abandoned by the North, of an uncaring president, and of flooded communities.
Two months ago another storm undermined the levees and again flooded Louisiana’s coastal communities. Graham escaped from the University of New Orleans shortly before the storm. This weekend we returned to rescue his stuff from the dorm room. We also met with staff at UNO to try and anticipate the near future of that school, and visited LSU as a possible alternate in case UNO doesn’t open in January.
About 150 miles from the city a few signs were down. Then there were more. Broken trees started appearing. Fifty miles away every sign is down. Then they’re just gone – blown away by the wind. Half the trees were snapped like toothpicks. Closer, and the trees were ripped from the ground, great clods of dirt trapped in the root structure. In many places the guardrails are twisted not by careless drivers, but from trees falling from the median onto the roadway.
Then we entered the city. The scale of destruction in New Orleans beggars description. Few areas in Orleans Parish are untouched. Many – oh, so many – are devastated. The TV images just don’t convey the scale of damage.
Graham’s dorm, like most buildings, had mold taking root everywhere, blackening the walls, ceilings and his stuff. We were able to rescue about half his belongings, things not absorbent, and washed those down with bleach. Marybeth had thoughtfully brought extensive cleaning supplies and protective gear with us.
Refrigerators are stacked in the dorm’s parking lot like an army of soldiers at attention. If there’s one impression of the city it’s the refrigerators. They line every street, strapped tight with tape, the contents no doubt decomposing into a fetid pool of slime. We saw thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, making me wonder why some entrepreneur doesn’t collect and recycle these appliances.
Fridges in the school’s parking lot
What the water didn’t destroy the wind did. Some cities impress you with the materials used for their roofs: tiles, slate or colorful tin. In New Orleans it’s now blue tarps. An aerial photo would have two colors: brown mud and blue plastic.
Most of Orleans Parish has no power and therefore no traffic lights. The city placed temporary stop signs at every intersection, even on large roads. The signs work surprisingly well, as there’s almost no traffic and drivers are cautious and courteous.
The Red Cross has distribution points for free water and food, with workers soliciting passers-by like carnival hawkers. We saw few takers. FEMA is notable for keeping a stunningly low profile. Refrigerators, the new canvas for graffiti artists, sport plenty of day-glow messages directed at that agency, as well as ads.
The city groans under mountains of debris. Mounds of once-valuable possessions piled curbside six feet high counterpoint equally-tall heaps of shredded sheetrock. Entire gutted house interiors lie on front lawns, waiting for trucks that haven’t come. If anyone is removing the debris it’s not obvious. In 150 miles and two days of driving in the city we saw only two or three trucks engaged in garbage removal.
The debris piles are found only in areas of the city lucky enough to have had some human attention. Just across the street from UNO’s Lakeside Campus cars are on top of houses, fallen tress still lie on shattered roofs, and the yards and streets are filled with garbage. It appears no one has been back to great swaths of the town.
Across the street from UNO
The 9th Ward is for all intents and purposes gone. No house is habitable; many have shifted off their foundations, sometimes crashing into the home next door. Cars, the biggest purchase most people make other than their homes, line the streets. Now muddied rusting hulks of steel with the word “junk” scratched out of the muck, they await some wrecker to haul the valueless asset away. The yards are showered with possessions puked out of the houses by receding floodwaters.
A small part of the lower 9th
Yard signs plea for reconstruction, not bulldozing, but I can’t imagine these places ever getting rebuilt. There are no blue tarps in this district. There’s too little left to build upon, and the residents were already mostly poor.
On the Lakefront tents and mobile homes (with license plates from everywhere except Louisiana) house itinerant workers cleaning up the mess and starting the long, slow process of reconstruction. Other temporary buildings are homes to, we guess, displaced residents.
Lakeside Marina is littered with large expensive yachts tossed ashore, their roller-furling sails now shredded bits of Dacron. Joe’s famous Crab Shack is indeed now a large shack, its entrails sagging into the boatyard’s basin.
I’m pretty sure this is a no-docking zone.
Every street corner is covered with a snowfall of cheap plastic signs advertising house gutting services, remodelers, and, oddly, dentists. Yet we found few crews working. One can drive for block after block seeing no activity at all. No workers, no cars – other than abandoned ones with waterlines above the windows – and no residents. It’s eerie to see a formerly crazy-busy place abandoned.
Yet the French Quarter is back to life. Though many businesses remain boarded up, more than half are open. Somehow they manage to get beer into the city (Bud trucks clog Bourbon Street) but they can’t get the garbage and debris out.
We did stay one night in the Quarter, and as usual the drunks paraded Bourbon Street till the wee hours. Unusually, a curfew quieted the street at 0200. And the quotidian dense crowds are now small groups of three or four people.
The CBD and Garden District were flooded and endured wind damage. Yet they’re recovering. Those stately mansions that grace so much of the city won’t need much reconstruction. A lot of the city’s charm is under a thin cover of easily-removed mud. It’s the poor and middle-class areas that suffered most.
I think New Orleans will be rebuilt, but whole sections will be cleared, and many square miles of houses and their residents will be lost forever. The effort will take years, far longer than I’d thought by watching TV news. Hundreds of thousands will never return, creating a New Orleans diaspora. But there is a strong survivor element; a lot of residents seem determined to rise from the destruction and construct a new New Orleans.
I can’t wait to see what they build.
You have to love the New Orleaners’ sense of humor
Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges, and works as an expert witness on embedded issues. Contact him at . His website is .