Saturday, May 3, 2008

13. New Orleans & Katrina

As everyone knows, New Orleans has its problems with water and flooding. A couple days before we arrived, the city received 8 inches of rain in 5 hours. There was some minor flooding, but they pumped it out and everything was okay.

We parked the car in a downtown New Orleans lot ($16) and spent a couple hours exploring the French Quarter. It’s larger than we thought. It's very colorful, and full of interesting art and architecture, funky businesses, entertaining signs and the aroma of southern cooking wafting through the narrow streets. Cars, trucks, horse-drawn carriages and pedestrians seem to conflict at every intersection but somehow things keep moving.
To get an overall view of New Orleans and its history, we took a three-hour city tour. The driver grew up in the city and could explain what it was like when he was young and how it has changed . . . and how it continues to sink. The tour covered the French Quarter, CBD, Mississippi River levees and Cemetery #3 where the driver (photo) explained how the laws of the Catholic church control how the family tombs are used, maintained and removed if not properly maintained. Fascinating.

We visited some of the neighborhoods that were severely damaged by the flooding following Hurricane Katrina, including the Ninth Ward where the water was deepest and about 450 people died. Nearly three years have passed since the hurricane. Most of the debris has been cleaned up, burned or hauled away, but many mutilated structures remain abandoned. In some cases, it appears that badly damaged homes are still being occupied. Many FEMA trailers are still in place, but many others are still living in tents. Habitat for Humanity and other organizations are very actively building new homes. We also saw many new single-wide manufactured homes, complete with front porches, have replaced many of the destroyed homes.

Large flood walls protect low lying neighborhoods from the river. We saw some of the old flood walls that didn't fail. We also saw the newest walls that are giving property owners renewed confidence that it will never happen again. The photo shows one of the new walls. The remains of a destroyed neighborhood lies to the right, with new houses being built. Personally, I’d never feel safe looking up at the Mississippi River.

Many families lost everything in the hurricane and flooding and it’s obvious that those neighborhoods will struggle for many more years. However, the central business district, French Quarter and other areas that were not damaged appear to be healthy and gaining strength.

The amir of Qatar was visiting New Orleans while we were there. His entourage of black limos, led by an extensive police escort, crossed our path a couple of times. The amir and his associates visited this area after Hurricane Katrina. After viewing the devastation, they felt compelled to help out. So far, they have contributed $100 million to the recovery effort. Most of the assistance went to Children’s Hospital, Habitat for Humanity and Xavier, Loyola, Tulane and Louisiana State Universities. The Qatar group is here to check on progress and make sure the money is going into the recovery effort and specifically for projects related to education, housing and health care. One of those projects is a 50,000 sq. ft. addition to one of the university hospitals. The addition will be known as the Qatar Pharmacy Pavilion.

Bay St. Louis, Mississippi was near the center of Hurricane Katrina. We stayed in a local RV park and drove through former neighborhoods and along the shoreline highway to see what was lost and what is being done today. It was amazing to see how low and flat the land is and how close the shoreline is to the highway and properties.

We drove through Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian where whole beachfront neighborhoods were wiped off the map. Scattered framework, foundations, pilings and some floors can still be seen with floor tile still attached. It’s not unusual to see a fancy iron fence and gate with a winding driveway leading to what was once the site of a large home, but is now occupied by a travel trailer.

We found a couple interesting churches. One was gutted, but its sturdy Gothic arched framework still stands. Another (photo) managed to save its steeple, which remains as its focal point, but now operates from the temporary structures.

It’s very sad. But time marches on and new construction is going on everywhere. Streets are being rebuilt and new homes are popping up along the beachfront. I suppose they’ll be occupied by families who feel another Katrina will never happen . . . at least during their lifetimes.