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Hurricane Katrina: fifteen years past, but not forgotten

Natural disasters can ruin cities, but more importantly they can ruin the lives of the victims as well

Hurricane Katrina was one of the worst hurricanes to ever hit the United States and the Gulf of Mexico. The category five storm with sustained winds of 174 mph killed 971 people in Louisiana alone. In New Orleans, seventy percent of the housing–134,000 units–were damaged in the storm. It happened almost fifteen years ago but its effects can still be seen in the city today. Hurricane Katrina has not been forgotten.

Many people believe that the extensive damage New Orleans suffered was due to the hurricane itself. However, the majority of the destruction was actually due to the flaws of New Orleans’ infrastructure. Multiple failures of the floodwalls and levees which had been constructed to protect New Orleans, were instead one of the main reasons why New Orleans was as damaged as it was. If these barriers had not been breached, eighty percent of the floods would not have happened. The floods carried tens of billions of gallons of water that swept through the streets, destroying hundreds of thousands of homes and countless numbers of businesses. The city of New Orleans sued the Federal government for the damage done to the city, and won their case in court. The court held that the United States Army Corps of Engineers was responsible for the flawed design and construction of the levee system and held them accountable for this terrible man-made disaster.  

Visitors to New Orleans today will see road signs rusted from the high level of water, flood damaged housing and house lots filled with large amounts of scraps–just a few ways the damages from the 2005 hurricane still show. Yet beyond those lasting physical damages, perhaps an even greater lasting effect is the psychological bruising. Even years after this disaster, it remains top of mind for New Orleans residents. Virtually everyone I spoke to for this article described how it had changed their lives. No one escaped Katrina without cost, whether they evacuated or stayed and fought to survive. An Uber driver described the first time she saw her house after Katrina: the ceiling was on the ground and all of her belongings were destroyed, including all the pictures she had of her young son. She became emotional explaining how much the hurricane changed her, stating “Nothing phases me anymore.”

The hurricane left an abiding anger within New Orleans residents toward the American government. In the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the areas that had been hardest hit by Katrina, an elderly man named Dave said, “The government didn’t care at all about us down here.” Dave had been on his own, stuck on his roof for over five days with no assistance, in oppressive heat, all while being surrounded by filthy floodwater and hurricane debris. It took fifteen days before the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave his house a “Katrina Cross,” marking it as having been searched and inspected. Dave opened a small “museum” in the house. Inside there are objects destroyed from the flooding, and the house is left in its original state. He said, “It reminds people of what we lost that year.”

The speed in which the government reacted to the incident made the residents of New Orleans, particularly those in the lower Ninth Ward, lose trust in the government’s ability to provide for the people. The government failed to respond in a timely or effective way, which led to avoidable suffering and death. One Uber driver said that Canadian Mounties were providing much needed assistance long before anyone from the US government showed up.

On a “swamp tour” of the lakes and bayous of New Orleans, while passing the fishing and hunting camps where the tour guide grew up, he described the community and the vibrant culture that once flourished there. Sadly, what remained were only bent, collapsed, and rusted out camps that had been in that state ever since Katrina. Some sat half-submerged in water, some had caved-in roofs, whereas others were merely a pile of rubble on the land.

But new construction was apparent, too. Part of this swamp tour took place on Lake Borgne, where the boat stopped for five minutes to allow visitors to learn about the 1.8-mile-long Lake Borgne Surge Barrier. This barrier cost a staggering 1.3 billion dollars and was built in 2013 to protect parts of New Orleans from a similar disaster in the future.

Home on Lake Bornge
Photo by author
Fishing camp on Lake Borgne
Photo by author

Katrina also had a large effect on the population size and racial diversity of New Orleans. The city was home to about 485,000 people prior to the hurricane, but only about 350,000 residents five years afterwards. Even today, there are about 61,000 fewer residents of New Orleans than before the hurricane. One of the consequences of New Orleans’ reconstruction is the gentrification of the flood-damaged areas of the city, which were disproportionately inhabited by impoverished African Americans. Many of these low income families had no insurance and were not able to pick up their lives again in their original homes and neighbourhoods. Instead, their homes and businesses were replaced by those of wealthier, primarily Caucasian people.

Although Katrina had a largely negative aftermath on New Orleans, it surprisingly did have a beneficial effect on New Orlean’s educational system. Nearly every school building in New Orleans has been completely rebuilt or refurbished, and students have made immense academic improvements. An analysis found that test scores, high school graduation rates, and college outcomes all improved for students who attended school in New Orleans after Katrina. After the disaster, the State of Louisiana took control of public schools in New Orleans and performed a complete transformation of the public school system into a system of charter schools. The reforms that were taken increased student achievement by eleven to sixteen percent, increased the high school graduation rate by three to nine percent, and drastically increased the rate of college entry and college graduation. These reforms also improved all outcomes for disadvantaged students, and lessened academic inequities for high school and college students. Another new policy required all schools to provide transportation for students to and from school, so that poorer students were not penalized or separated if they couldn’t find their own source of transportation in order to attend class.

Katrina impacted the famous culture and character of New Orleans. Vast sections of the city have been rebuilt, causing the replacement of old businesses with new ones. The city is still an extremely fascinating and lively city to visit because of its shotgun housing, colourful paintings, street performers, regional cuisine and music.

However, it lost many of the family run businesses and communities that made New Orleans original such as Bucktown. Once a small fishing village with colourful oyster shops and quirky businesses, it was completely destroyed by the flood. Now the site is occupied by a huge pumping plant, standing ready prevent flooding when the next hurricane strikes.

Flickr / Pedro Szekely

1 comment on “Hurricane Katrina: fifteen years past, but not forgotten

  1. Pingback: Reflection of Learning – k

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