Scarred city watches, waits and prays as hurricane season begins


NEW ORLEANS LETTER:Tourists have returned to the French quarter, but four years on from Katrina, poorer areas still lie derelict, writes KIERAN COOKE.

AS THE weather heats up and the warm winds blow in from the Gulf of Mexico, the hurricane season has been declared officially open.

From now right up until the end of November, people will be watching the clouds and looking at the forecasts – and praying there’s no repeat of the events of August 2005, when hurricane Katrina came sweeping in, submerging the city and leaving at least 1,600 dead.

Walk down Bourbon Street in the old French quarter of New Orleans and it seems that one of the US’s most exciting cities – the birthplace of jazz and home to fiery cajun cuisine – has rebuilt itself. There are droves of noisy tourists. You can even try what’s described as a mind-blowing drink – a hurricane cocktail.

“It’s the greatest comeback since Lazarus,” a university professor told a group of students gathered for a graduation ceremony in the Superdome – the giant stadium which, in the wake of Katrina, was packed with thousands of desperate people seeking shelter from the floods.

Yet cross into poor, mainly black areas such as the Lower 9th Ward, and there is little sign of the city resurrecting itself. Once a bustling community, it is still – nearly four years on from Katrina – a scene of almost complete devastation. Street after street of small and once elegant wooden houses are abandoned. Many have holes in their roofs through which people desperately fought to escape the rising floods.

Others have crude red signs sprayed on their fronts, indicating the scene of a flood death.

Whole neighbourhoods have been bulldozed: here and there amongst the ruins people have returned to try and rebuild their lives. But there are few facilities. Many former citizens – who have either been resettled or have drifted to other parts of the US – are too poor, or too scared, to come back. The city’s population is, even now, only about 65 per cent of what it was prior to Katrina.

There is plenty of anger about what has and has not been done, and not just amongst the city’s majority black community. Sandy Rosenthal, a former advertising executive living in a pleasant, middle-class, mainly white neighbourhood, heads a movement demanding a fully independent inquiry into the disaster.

“People are still mad as hell round here,” she says. “The story the Bush administration and others put out was that the city was simply overwhelmed by the forces of nature. But that’s not true – basic mistakes were made before, during and after Katrina which in so many ways led to all those deaths and the destruction. We have to learn from the past or else it will all happen again.”

Perched about 50 miles inland from the Mississippi delta, most of New Orleans is below sea level. Over the years the delta’s wetlands – some of the biggest and most environmentally rich on earth – have been excavated and channelled to facilitate oil and gas exploration and shipping along the Mississippi, one of the main arteries of US trade.

The delta’s wetlands are a key element in absorbing storm surges caused by hurricanes like Katrina yet they are still being destroyed – at a rate equal to the size of more than 30 football pitches every day.

Ivor Van Heerden is a scientist who co-founded a special hurricane centre at Louisiana State University. “What really saddens me is that it’s as if all those killed have been airbrushed from history,” he says. “There’s no proper monument to them, there’s not even been an apology. Yet catastrophic mistakes were made.”

The US army Corps of Engineers, mandated to manage and develop water resources throughout the country, built a vast system of levees – in many cases 13-18ft-high concrete walls – round the urban area.

“The canals and waterways built by the corps over the years actually funnelled water into the city,” says Van Heerden. “Several levees were breached – the construction was all wrong.”

The corps, while admitting some faults in the design of its flood defences, insists it could do little in face of the power of nature. The corps is now working on walls and gates which it says will secure the city against what it estimates are once-in-a-100-year storm surges similar to that caused by Katrina.

Many doubt the corps’ calculations. Karmen Owens lives only yards away from one of the levees that breached in the aftermath of Katrina. She has a solidly built two-storey house and was able to escape upstairs as the water reached the ground-floor ceiling. She points to wrecked houses and abandoned lots around her. “Many of the people round here were old and couldn’t escape. The neighbourhood has been lost. The levee has been repaired but I don’t have much faith in the work. Every time there’s any sort of warning, I just grab my bags and leave the city.”