The defining images of the Katrina Hurricane came from New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward: submerged buildings and stranded residents perched on the roofs of their ruined homes. Five years on, the district is still feeling the pain.
It is five years since the levees broke and floodwaters spilled onto the streets of New Orleans after a storm of biblical proportions.
Hurricane Katrina was one the deadliest (more than 1,800 people died) and certainly the costliest extreme weather event in US history.
New Orleans is still struggling to recover, while vast swathes of Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf coast that were laid waste face renewed uncertainty as the impact of the BP oil spill starts to be felt.
If there is one symbol of the devastating power of Katrina, it is the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans – Katrina’s “Ground Zero”.
This district, already poor and 95% black, was almost completely submerged when the levees broke.
In some places, the water was six metres deep. Hundreds, if not thousands, of buildings were destroyed.
The ward produced the defining – and tragic – images of the disaster: hundreds of stranded residents sitting on the roofs of their ruined homes, waiting in the blistering heat for rescue.
Five years on, three quarters of the district’s residents have not come back.
Some plots have been redeveloped, but many more lie fallow, with weeds and grasses slowly taking over the abandoned buildings.
“It’s very sad,” resident Mack McClendon tells FRANCE 24. “This neighbourhood was the hardest hit and most of our community is still spread across the country. It’s not acceptable.
“Before, this neighbourhood was like a village, it was a great community, very animated.
“There were problems, the schools could have been better, but now we only have one. We have no infrastructure, no drug stores, no supermarkets, no community centres.”
While much of the rest of New Orleans is getting back on its feet – the historic and popular French quarter is almost back to normal with tourist dollars begging to flow – the Lower Ninth Ward remains stuck in limbo.
The authorities, having spent millions on reinforcing the levees (dykes), were unwilling to invest in a zone of the city while it was at risk of new flooding.
Filmmaker Matthew Hashiguchi, has taken a special interest in the district and has produced a documentary charting its progress.
“I was surprised that the area wasn’t improving at the same rate as the rest of New Orleans,” he says. “I don’t think it was intentional but other parts of the city attract more tourism.
“The Lower 9th now looks like a farm. For every house that is lived in, two are vacant. In the northern end of the neighbourhood it is just grass.
The hurricane is constantly on people’s minds, but they know how to live – despite all these problems people remain very positive. But this neighbourhood will never be what it once was.”
New Orleans not the only victim
But New Orleans’ Lower Ninth wasn’t the only place that was wrecked by Katrina.
The storm devastated a huge swathe of the south-eastern United States, destroying homes and livelihoods across Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Teacher Jimmy Wilson remembers how his house in Lamar Country, Mississippi, was in the eye of the hurricane, the epicentre of destruction around which limbs of trees “flew like torpedoes”.
Two thirds of his town’s homes were made uninhabitable.
“Obviously it was nothing like what happened to New Orleans,” he tells FRANCE 24. “But along the Mississippi Gulf coast there were far more deaths, far more houses destroyed.
“Mississippi bore the brunt of Hurricane Katrina.”
Mr Wilson says a spirit of cooperation kicked in – people looked after their neighbours and local church groups did everything they could to bring help.
He also rejects the accusation that the government was slow to react to the people’s plight.
“The local authorities did everything they could,” he says. “Their focus was on taking care of the citizens. And the Federal Government did everything they could to help the local authorities reach us. And how could any government have been fully prepared for a disaster like Katrina?”
Close to five years after the hurricane, things had been looking up for the Gulf Coast. There were still abandoned houses in Lamar County, but the economy had rebounded and things were getting back to normal.
And then came the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and with it, a new feeling of uncertainty.
“Most of the economy here is based on oil and fishing,” he says. “Now the beaches are closed, the fishing industry faces uncertainties and the president has imposed a moratorium on further oil drilling.”