New Orleans ten years after Hurricane Katrina - where is it now?
Today marks the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall on the Louisiana coast, wreaking havoc throughout the gulf and notoriously causing a breach of the levees which were supposed to protect New Orleans. I won’t sit here and hypothesize on whether that breach was intentional or whether officials were at least complicit, instead I want to focus on where New Orleans is now, and where it should be.
A few weeks ago I went to New Orleans to volunteer with lowernine.org on rebuilding houses in the lower ninth ward. I was only able to stay a week unfortunately, but it’s amazing how much work can be done on a house in a week’s time. I have to be clear here - while I was born in New Orleans we moved away before I can remember it and this was my first time back since then, so I don’t claim to be any kind of an expert on New Orleans, the culture or its history. I am simply reporting on what I saw and did on this single brief trip and letting you come to your own conclusions.
The French Quarter and other tourist spots bustled with music and dancing and felt exactly as one would expect from New Orleans. The night life was vibrant and exciting, it was dirty, loud and gritty. One could hardly imagine anything like a hurricane had ever happened here, and it was obvious most of the tourists never see anything except this part of the city.
The same cannot be said for the lower ninth ward. Historically one of the poorest parts of the country, Hurricane Katrina was at least the second hurricane to cause a breach in the levees and flood this community. The levees had been in dire need of repairs and reinforcements and this was widely known, yet the funds to do so were never allocated, some say intentionally. When the lower ninth flooded 100% of the houses were destroyed. What was worse though was the response to it. Funds were allocated to areas much less damaged, insurance companies refused to pay, contractors committed fraud and the list goes on and on. The result of this is that this neighborhood is to this day, ten years later, still devastated. There has only been about 36% return rate, many lots which once had houses are now empty and overgrown and many more houses are still in ruin. What’s even more criminal is that the levees still haven’t been rebuilt properly, merely patched up. So if another major hurricane comes through, the neighborhood, still in the throws of a rebuild, may well get destroyed again.
Rebuilding the lower ninth ward has been left to a few small organizations staffed almost entirely by a rotating set of volunteers. We reached out to several of them, but lowernine.org was the only one able to accommodate us for such a short period and under short notice, so that’s who we worked with. I was put on the framing team reframing a house and though I was only there for a short time we made a lot of progress while I was there. Evenings and weekends were ours leaving plenty of time to experience the fun parts of New Orleans. I would seriously encourage you to take your next vacation to do something like this. Combining volunteer work with travel - voluntourism as it has been dubbed - is one of the most rewarding ways to spend your time off.
To end this on a positive note, let’s close out how the brass bands do - “When the saints go marching in”