New Orleans NOW
New Orleans NOW: For the very first time
August 29th, 2009 is the 4th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's devastating visit to New Orleans. Perusing CNN's online coverage I was intrigued by, "New Orleans Economy: Recovery Interrupted" which describes how the city is weathering the recession better than many cities, although a lot of businesses are still struggling. Again, another testament to this amazing and invincible city. Here's the link: http://money.cnn.com/2009/08/19/news/economy/new_orleans_economy/index.htm
On the home front, Windsor's unemployment rate remains the highest in Canada (15.2% at last count) and a bitter 4-month-long city workers' strike which ended in mid-summer did not help matters much. (see my story: http://my.nowpublic.com/world/windsor-ontario-going-waste)
There is a bright side however; Windsor is starting to emerge as a viable location to set up alternative energy industries, and the government is pumping money into infrastructure projects (although still in the planning stages).
By Elaine Weeks (aka skintone)
Is New Orleans worth the trip? A first time visitor to New Orleans, 3 ½ years after Hurricane Katrina, shares her experiences and observations, as well as comparisons to her city of Windsor, Ontario, an auto town being hit hard by the global economic melt down.
Arriving, Jan. 29, 2009
It’s growing dark as our taxi heads to downtown New Orleans from the airport. There’s not much to see anyway from the freeway, other than some industrial buildings and a number of billboards for sleazy strip joints.
I’m not getting a good feeling here.
Ok, stay positive. Things can’t be all that bad. I mean, we’ve heard how New Orleans isn’t the same post-Katrina, but surely it hasn’t lost its soul.
Must focus on other things. Everything so far seems pretty normal in fact, and there’s no obvious evidence that we are in what was a recent disaster area. The fact that the ride is so nice and smooth it’s actually worth noting.
My husband agrees. “The roads don’t go through the heaving from the snow and ice like ours do.”
Could the entire freeway been repaved, I wonder? Back home in Windsor, Ontario, the streets and expressways will be more of a mess than usual come April, when hopefully, winter will be finally over. I heard a true story about someone with a dislocated knee being transferred to the hospital after we’d had a melt. The speeding ambulance hit a deep pothole and the fellow’s knee popped back into place. It may sound far-fetched but I’ve navigated those potholed streets and they are a menace.
I wonder how our driver fared during and after Katrina. I sense this is a perfect opportunity to find out from a local what it was like, but I feel a bit hesitant to ask in case it might be still too painful to talk about, even after 3 1/2 years.
He has the news on. The announcer is describing something rather extraordinary – an orangutan escaped from the local zoo that day by wrapping a t-shirt around the electrical wires surrounding his exhibit and clambering over top. He wandered about for 10 minutes and then jumped back into his enclosure.
We all start chuckling. Chris says, “He probably wanted to go get a cocktail and then realized it was safer inside than out.”
The news segues to a female jazz artist who’s singing about food, lots of it, in great detail. She’s so good she’s making me hungry. Wondering if she might be a local, I ask our driver if he knows who she is but he doesn’t.
Escaping orangutans, a jazz song about food…. Somehow it all makes sense since we’re about to enjoy a few days in a city world famous for its jazz, food and party animals. I sit back to enjoy the rest of her song.
Then, reality hits. Chris and I spot the unmistakable shape of the Louisiana Superdome up ahead to our right.
As he and I gaze at what was a temporary “prison” for 25,000 poor, unfortunate souls who couldn’t leave the city and were stranded here with no food, water, sanitation or even light for a week, I take the opportunity to finally ask our driver, Leroy, how he fared during the storm.
“I got out before Katrina hit and went to Atlanta,” he replies in a quiet, matter-of-fact voice. “I’ve got relatives there.”
“Did you lose your house?”
“Not much you can do when there’s 7.5 feet of water inside.” He paused to let this sink in. “You can’t imagine the devastation. Houses were swept off their foundations or just reduced to piles of rubble.”
I learn later that Hurricane Katrina had an average 12-foot storm surge and in New Orleans it reached 22 feet. The highest recorded was 27 feet in Mississippi.
Despite having seen countless news stories about the incredible destruction left behind when Katrina ripped through the area in August 2005, he’s right. I can’t really imagine it because thankfully, I didn’t have to live through it. But millions of people did.
"Do you think it could happen again?” I ask.
“Possibly. But, the good news is, the levees are being built up and reinforced with concrete.”
And indeed, the radio supports his claim with news about work being carried out in the industrial canal district.
Researching later on-line, I learn that New Orleans is partially below sea level and shaped like a bowl, its levees serving as the rim. Some suburbs are within the levee system, while others lie outside it. Since 2005, the Corps of Engineers has repaired some levees, made others higher and put gates on certain canals, enabling the city to block a storm surge.
But equivalent gates have not been installed on major navigation waterways in the eastern part of the city. Despite our driver’s confidence, a strong storm surge could barrel down the waterways and inundate the city and suburbs, once again.
We arrive at the historic and beautiful Crowne Plaza, conveniently located right in the heart of downtown, on the corner of Canal and Bourbon streets. We collect our luggage, say goodbye to Leroy and immediately begin experiencing a palpable energy coming from the street. There are knots of people strolling about and a trolley is trundling down the middle of Canal. How charming is that! I am definitely feeling much better.
My husband is here to attend the International Downtown Association DOWNTOWN INSTITUTE, a two-day conference devoted to rejuvenating and energizing downtowns anywhere in the U.S. or Canada. It includes a close-up look at New Orleans's core and the neighborhoods hardest hit by Katrina, as well as strategies, programs and projects employed during the crisis and after by New Orleans Downtown District Development Staff.
Chris recently took on the role of Executive Director for downtown Windsor’s business area, a job that has tremendous challenges since Windsor, an auto town, was hit hard at least two years before the current downward spiral of the global economy.
Windsor's downtown, a magnet for tens of thousands of young drinkers every weekend from Michigan and Ohio during the '90s and early '00s due to the lower drinking age, (think Ft. Lauderdale north), endured a huge blow after 9/11, which has made the one-mile border between Windsor and Detroit much tougher to cross.
So the kids aren't coming like they used to and, with the malls and big box stores springing up in Windsor's suburbs, over the last few decades, downtown retail has become almost non-existent.
Given these circumstances, Chris is cautiously optimistic the conference will provide him with some inspiration. If a city almost obliterated by a hurricane can survive, surely Windsor will also rise again.
Chris and I have extensively travelled the world but somehow, never made it to New Orleans. Leaving the doom and gloom of Windsor in the middle of what has been a bitterly cold and snowy winter for a few days is definitely an attractive option. I am looking forward to finally seeing the Big Easy, or, as I call it, the new New Orleans, and to write about that experience as a first-time visitor post-Katrina.
What do I expect? I expect to see a place that is trying mightily to recapture the allure and mystique that has drawn millions of people from around the world for decades. I expect to see people bravely carrying on like their city wasn’t nearly swept off the face of the earth. I expect to see a thin layer of sadness underlying forced smiles and drunken reverie.
Ok, that last part is a bit much but I definitely was led to believe that things are not the same here and never will be. Oh, and that crime is still a huge problem. Stories about the filmmaker shot dead in her own home and her husband being shot while protecting their baby son have permeated my subconscious. I was nervous enough to leave my diamond ring at home. I certainly hope my fears will be unfounded.
To Hell and Back
Chris has a cousin living in New Orleans so our first night in the Big Easy included a fabulous Creole dinner with Dawn and her husband at the Upperline Restaurant, a 1877 town house crammed with a treasure trove of 400 local art objects and memorabilia accumulated over 40 years by the genial owner and manager, JoAnn Clevenger. With her round, red spectacles we couldn’t miss JoAnn as she moved from room to room, visiting tables of guests. I was pleased at the opportunity to ask her about her Katrina experience.
“We had to take all the art down before the storm but we were open almost right away – but just the one room,” she recalled.
What an enormous job I think but amazingly, she seems to have taken it all in stride.
“Our customers back then were mainly the neighborhood people and they were so happy we were open. We thought it was important to try to bring a sense of normalcy back to the area.”
I also quizzed Dawn and her husband about their experience. They had evacuated their young children, several neighbors and friends to her parents’ house in Arizona ahead of the storm.
“Before we left, we moved tools and other essentials to the upper floor of the house,” explained Dawn whose husband owns a construction company. “We thought we’d be back relatively soon so we didn’t pack a lot of clothes.”
Needless to say, they didn’t come back for months and when they did, they had to live upstairs as their main floor was a muddy mess. But they soldiered on and their house is just about back to normal while their business has done very well due to all the re-building activity.
After our delightful introduction to some of New Orleans’ best food and hospitality, we were eager to learn more about how this fabled city was coming back from the brink. Bright and early the next day, The “Devastation Bus Tour”, (organized and conducted by the New Orleans’ DDD), took us from the hotel into another world – the areas hardest hit by Katrina and the storm surge.
We first explore the Lower Ninth Ward, a low-income area once populated mostly by African Americans. The term "Lower" refers to its location further towards the mouth of the Mississippi River, "down" or "below" the rest of the city.
Nowhere in the city was the devastation worse. Storm surge floodwaters poured into the neighborhood from at least three sources. To the east, water flowed in from Saint Bernard Parish, while to the west the Industrial Canal suffered two distinct major breaches: one a block in from Florida Avenue, the second back from Claiborne Avenue. A huge barge actually slid into the neighborhood through one of the breaches leveling homes beneath it as it floated in the floodwaters.
I am struck by the emptiness and the eerie quiet. The scoured out streets, with porch steps leading nowhere and twisted street signs on the corners give me the illusion that we are seeing the aftermath of an atom bomb. Was this once a real neighborhood where thousands of people lived?
And after the floodwaters poured in, were these acres and acres of empty lots really the scene of uprooted houses and smashed and piled up cars, of people sitting on their roofs praying for rescue while bodies floated down the streets? The multitude of images flashing across TV screens and filling newspapers and the Internet for weeks after the storm had left an indelible imprint on my brain.
Finally, we see some life. We pass some workmen who are appearing to be readying a lot for a new home, and our guide points out two houses in the distance “built” by move stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as part of their contribution towards the rebirth of the area. Somehow, the homes’ pastel colors and whimsical shapes only add to the surreal quality of the devastated streets.
We also see a couple of examples of structures called “camp” homes, houses built on “stilts” to avoid the effects of flash floods. Sounds sensible except that insurance won’t cover these kinds of homes if there is another catastrophic surge so there’s no real incentive to build them. Incredible.
It would take a lot of courage to actually want to live in this forsaken area again anyway.
Our bus then takes us to what used to be the marina on Lake Pontchartrain. Here the driver makes a short stop to allow us to stretch our legs and gaze at the stumps of piers that once held a multitude of boats but now are just roosts for seagulls, egrets and pelicans. The only boats we can see is one for sale near the road and a barnacle-encrusted seadoo in the middle of the empty parking lot. The sole person we encountered was an older woman I thought might be considered a local character, who was striding past the bus and waving as we pulled up.
The second part of our tour is a significant contrast: The “Sliver by the River” is the nickname for the area closest to the Mississippi River that escaped major flooding after Hurricane Katrina hit. The “Sliver” is situated on higher ground made of the natural levee built up by hundreds of years of flooding before there was a human settlement in the area. It includes the French Quarter, Warehouse District, and Garden District areas of New Orleans. Most of the major damage in this area was from wind.
There is no real sign here that anything is amiss. The beautiful old homes look well tended and the streets are bustling with cars and people going about their business. It feels like we’ve entered a completely different world.
A Catalyst for Positive Change
That afternoon, we go on a walking tour, also organized and conducted by the DDD, through some of downtown to get a sense of how Katrina impacted on the business district. Two Public Safety Rangers, kind of like downtown “hosts” who serve as extra ears and eyes on the streets and provide visitors not only with information but security, accompany us.
When Katrina passed east of New Orleans on August 29, 2005, winds downtown were in the Category 3 range with frequent intense gusts. The Hyatt Regency is still empty due to heavy damage from the roof of the SuperDome blowing off and smashing into it. We spot the building and notice that roof top sign spells “yatt.”
Right after Katrina, there was talk of giving up on New Orleans because of the extent of the devastation, and a lot of people who had the means to come back didn’t. But, because the city is world famous, there was tremendous outside support to save it.
It is evident from the walking tour and our own meanderings later which takes us past and into fascinating shops and antique stores as well as tempting restaurants and bars, that New Orleans is experiencing a major revitalization. There is also art every where we look – even the trolley shelters which have all received a “skin” of artwork after a call to artists went out from the DDD to help jazz them up.
The four main attractions: music, food, art and architecture still serve as the major draws to New Orleans. In fact, bars were the first businesses to reopen in many areas of the city (two remained open in the French Quarter even during the worst of the storm and the official mandatory evacuation). Most other businesses, such as gas stations, supermarkets, appliance stores, and restaurants, followed somewhat later as they required more work before they could reopen.
Among the few businesses to do significantly better business after Katrina than before were new car dealers. Flooding totaled an estimated 200,000 vehicles in Metro New Orleans, and dealers able to get in shipments of new cars quickly found customers.
There occurred what some call the “Disaster Boom” – construction work, nursing and other medical jobs that surfaced during the re-birth of the city. There was also an influx of young, talented entrepreneurs who took advantage of cheaper housing and the opportunities to start new businesses while helping New Orleans re-invent itself.
As our brief, safe and invigorating time in New Orleans drew to an end, Chris and I knew we would be back. We also pondered whether our hometown of Windsor needed a disaster even worse than the economic one it’s currently suffering to allow for any real positive change to occur.
This is a terrible thought of course, and we know that though the reality is things will probably get worse, that more factories will close, more people will lose their jobs or move away to look for one, and the city’s infrastructure will continue to crumble, we know that there is a life force that won’t let the city die.
Windsor has managed to come back from several previous recessions. The city’s creative class hasn’t given up on it and hopefully they will attract more like-minded people who see Windsor’s potential. In his role as Executive Director of the Downtown Business Area, Chris is keener than ever to tap into that energy and is ready to tackle the job.
If New Orleans can do it, why not Windsor?
Facts and Figures:
As of March, 2009, Windsor's unemployment rate stands at 12.6 %.
The city of New Orleans had a population of 485,000 before Hurricane Katrina and the census estimate for July, 2008, was recently upgraded to 288,113, a difference of almost 50 percent less people.
The final death toll of Hurricane Katrina was 1,836 people, which made it the third deadliest hurricane in US history. The count does not include the people who were never seen again and could have been washed out to sea.
Before Hurricane Katrina, the murder rate in New Orleans was ten times higher than the U.S. average. After the situation in New Orleans was brought under control, criminal activity in New Orleans dropped significantly.
Ninety percent of the residents of southeast Louisiana were evacuated in the most successful evacuation of a major urban area in the nation's history. Despite this, many remained (mainly the elderly and poor). The Louisiana Superdome was used as a designated "refuge of last resort" for those who remained in the city.
Reasons for staying were numerous, including a belief that their homes or the buildings in which they planned to stay offered sufficient protection, a lack of financial resources or access to transportation, or a feeling of obligation to protect their property.
These reasons were complicated by the fact that an evacuation the previous year for Hurricane Ivan had resulted in the illnesses of many elderly people since cars were stalled in traffic for six to ten hours. The fact that Katrina occurred at the end of the month, before paychecks were in the hands of many was also significant.
Most of the major roads traveling into and out of the city were damaged. The only route out of the city was west on the Crescent City Connection as the I-10 Twin Span Bridge traveling east towards Slidell, Louisiana had collapsed. The 24-mile (39 km) long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway escaped unscathed but was only carrying emergency traffic.
One third of New Orleans police officers deserted the city in the days before the storm, many of them escaping in their department-owned patrol cars. This added to the chaos by stretching law enforcement thin.
By August 31, 2005, eighty percent of New Orleans was flooded, with some parts under 15 feet (4.5 m) of water. Most of the city's levees designed and built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers broke somewhere, including the 17th Street Canal levee, the Industrial Canal levee, and the London Avenue Canal floodwall. These breaches were responsible for most of the flooding, according to a June 2007 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
In 1965, heavy flooding caused by Hurricane Betsy brought concerns regarding flooding from hurricanes to the forefront. That year Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1965 which, among other issues, gave authority for design and construction of the flood protection in the New Orleans metropolitan area to the Corps of Engineers subject to cost sharing principles, some of which were waived by later legislation. The local municipalities were charged with maintenance once the projects were completed.
When authorized, flood control protection design and construction were projected to take 13 years to complete. When Katrina made landfall in 2005, the project was between 60-90% complete with a projected date of completion estimated for 2015, nearly 50 years after it first gained authorization.
On August 29, 2005, floodwalls and levees catastrophically failed throughout the metro area. Many collapsed well below design thresholds (17th Street and London Canals). Others collapsed after a brief period of overtopping (Industrial Canal) caused “scouring” or erosion of the earthen levee walls– an egregious design flaw. The American Society of Civil Engineers refers to the flooding of New Orleans as the worst engineering disaster in US history.
Although Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city, many people refused to leave. Beginning at noon on August 28 and running for several hours, city buses were redeployed to shuttle local residents from 12 pickup points throughout the city to the "shelters of last resort."
By the time Hurricane Katrina came ashore early the next morning, Mayor Nagin estimated that approximately one million people had fled the city and its surrounding suburbs. By the evening of August 28, over 100,000 people remained in the city, with 20,000 taking shelter at the Louisiana Superdome, along with 300 National Guard troops. The Superdome had been used as a shelter in the past, such as during 1998's Hurricane Georges, because it was estimated to be able to withstand winds of up to 200 mph (320 km/h) and water levels of 35 feet (10 m). While supplies of MREs (Meals ready to eat) and bottled water were available at the Superdome, Nagin told survivors to bring blankets and enough food for several days, warning that it would be a very uncomfortable place.
On August 29, as people were being turned away at the Superdome and rescues continued, rescuers began dropping people off at the Convention Center, which, at 8 feet (2 m) above sea level, easily escaped the flood. Captain M.A. Pfeiffer of the NOPD was quoted as saying, "It was supposed to be a bus stop where they dropped people off for transportation. The problem was, the transportation never came.” By the afternoon of the 29th, the crowd had grown to about 1,000 people. The convention center's president (who was there with a small group of convention center employees at this time) addressed the crowd near dark, informing them that there was no food, water, medical care, or other services. By late on the evening of the 29th, the convention center had been broken into, and evacuees began occupying the inside of the convention center.
Reconstruction has been easiest and quickest in the areas least damaged by the storm, mostly corresponding to the parts of the city developed before about 1900. These areas were built on naturally higher ground along the Riverfront (such as Old Carrollton, Uptown, the Old Warehouse District, the French Quarter, Old Marigny, and Bywater), along with areas along natural ridges (such as Esplanade Ridge, Bayou St. John, Gentilly Ridge). Most of these older areas had no flooding at all or escaped serious flooding because of the raised design of older architecture, which prevented floodwaters from entering homes. Another high area, much of which escaped serious flooding, was the set of Lake Shore developments between Lake Pontchartrain and Robert E. Lee Boulevard, built at a higher level than nearby land from mid-20th century dredging.
Hurricane Gustav, though carrying a far less destructive punch than Hurricane Katrina, had a major impact on the Industrial Canal in the fall of 2008. Dozens of junked ships and barges owned by a scrap recycling company were ripped from their moorings on the east side of the canal and were swept to the canal's west side. A few of the vessels slammed into a floodwall and a warehouse. Gustav’s intermittent squalls and southeasterly water surge ripped 20 to 30 of the company's vessels from their anchors, including three large naval ships.
Strange but true department: