On August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina plunged Louisiana and New Orleans into chaos. Nine years on, reconstruction continues as Louisiana strives to heal its wounds. But the threat of a new disaster is never far away.
New Orleans inhabitants have turned into very talented storytellers. They share sad anecdotes, happy memories, and many a story of survival. Every year, come mid-March, there are thousands of tales detailing how revelers survived another Mardi Gras of drunken debauchery.
These are light-hearted, positive tales. The other stories of survival are bittersweet. We have assembled a few in our report. It was filmed during the last week of hurricane season. That, too, was another story of survival, because the season passed without major storms and without major incident.
New Orleans looks nervously over its shoulder every year for six months, toward the new levees. While the levees have been rebuilt, and the new pumping stations surround the city, there is one big problem. The floodwalls will be able to handle another hurricane of Katrina’s ferocious strength. But stronger storms exist, and there is no guarantee that the storm of the century will not hit New Orleans. There’s a niggling, scary doubt, expressed to us by Robert Ricks, the meteorologist who put out the original warning from his weather station on the outskirts of New Orleans.
Enough has been done at least to "safeguard against another Katrina, or something less than Katrina. We still feel there is a big vulnerability for a category 4- or category 5- type threat”, Ricks tells us during his night shift at the weather station.
It was from there that he published the original warning, the text that warned of impending doom. We ask him to read the warning out loud. His prediction came true. Robert Ricks solemnly reads these words: "Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks, perhaps longer. Airborne debris will be widespread, and may include heavy items such as household appliances and even light vehicles. Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards.”
Over eight years later, the stories of survival don’t quite resonate in the Lower Ninth Ward. It’s largely a wasteland. Very few houses have been rebuilt. Wild grass now grows where families once lived, and subsequently perished in the rising floodwaters.
The few houses that have been built on this forlorn land come on stilts, just in case the waters are to rise again. And they have escape hatches built into their roofs, a timely reminder of how many people died trapped in their own houses.
Wayne Harris shows us where his family house once stood in the Lower Ninth Ward. He saw it all, including his neighbours’ deaths. He heard it all too: the ship that smashed through the floodwall, and the screams of his desperate friends.
Wayne was forced to leave New Orleans. He is now back in the city, and makes his living in the New Creations Brass Band. His was one of many departures. In 2005, one year after Katrina, the population had decreased by half. Now, it is back to 76 percent of what it was in the year 2000.
FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, still calls Katrina “the single most catastrophic natural disaster in US history.” In 2005, 80 percent of the city of New Orleans was flooded. A long time after the last floodwaters receded, a final, official death toll was published. Hurricane Katrina was responsible for the deaths of 1,836 people, most of them in New Orleans.
New Orleans has survived, though. Some had written off the whole city after Katrina, but it now resonates to the sound of hammers and power drills, as well as to the usual sounds of the city’s jazz scene.
New Orleans is rebuilding. The new University Medical Center should be finished soon, for example. This 1.2-billion dollar investment will replace the no man’s land created by Katrina. Money is being invested, but all the good intentions in the world won’t change the simple fact that large parts of the city lie below sea level, and are vulnerable to the elements.
Protecting New Orleans from the worst of storms is almost impossible. But the city lives on, ready to write another chapter in its bittersweet recent history.