After the Deluge

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has attracted a flood of people, money, and attention. But is the Big Easy really better off? One writer reflects on the future of his city.

by Lolis Eric Elie Published Spring 2015
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The flooding that happened on the East Coast during Hurricane Sandy was intensified by sea­-level rise. Please forgive me if I saw a glimmer of a silver lining in the misery and devastation that befell the hardest-­hit communities. Maybe, I thought, if the East Coast media and financial centers feel the effects of environmental degradation firsthand, they might move the nation to more aggressive action.

"The Big Nine," 2007

I returned to New Orleans about a week after Hurricane Katrina hit. I had two missions. I was working with filmmakers Dawn Logsdon and Lucie Faulknor to complete a documentary, Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, about one of the city’s historic neighborhoods. I was also trying to salvage what I could from my mother’s home. I did the same for a friend who lived a mile or so away, near the London Avenue Canal. The house was nowhere near any beach, but to get to it I had to trudge through three-foot sand drifts. It was in that way that I learned that there was sand several layers beneath the ground and that one of the reasons the forty-year-old floodwalls had failed was that they hadn't been dug deep enough, hadn't been anchored beneath the layers of soil and sand into something solid.

In his 2010 film The Big Uneasy, Harry Shearer interviews engineers and other experts to determine why New Orleans flooded. Their conclusions form a damning indictment of the work done by the US Army Corps of Engineers. These views parallel those reached by the Corps itself. “The hurricane protection system in New Orleans and southeast Louisiana was a system in name only,” the Corps said in its report. “Corps Takes Blame for New Orleans Flooding,” the Washington Post headline read on June 1, 2006. “Army Builders Accept Blame Over Flooding,” the New York Times said. Still, most narratives about the near death of New Orleans have everything to do with natural disaster and nothing to do with manmade catastrophe, engineering failures, or fatal budget cuts. The Big Uneasy is a smoking gun, a national call to action to improve the way the Army Corps operates. Yet the film and its message were largely ignored.

We New Orleanians have our own ways and rituals, but, alas, our situation was and is American — all too American.

It has taken some retraining, but I’ve learned to avoid the words “Hurricane Katrina” when talking about what befell my city. This isn’t a choice born of political correctness; it’s a matter of scientific fact. The storm that hit the coastal areas of Mississippi and Louisiana in 2005 was so powerful that it leveled neighborhoods, leaving little more than cement steps in places where homes had been. When I returned to New Orleans, which lies between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River about a hundred miles from the Gulf of Mexico, there were very few houses that had been similarly flattened. It was floodwaters, not storm winds, that doomed my city. It was the failure of the levees, designed and constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The hurricane occasioned those failures. But that flood­-control system was supposed to be able to withstand a storm even stronger than Katrina.

In early 2007, the US Army Corps of Engineers reported that there were 122 poorly maintained levees in twenty-­seven states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. That statement, released less than eighteen months after Hurricane Katrina, is the kind that one would expect to provoke an uproar around the nation.

It didn’t.

If you’d asked my grandmother, she would have told you that she earned her living “scrubbing floors.” And she’d also have told you how proud she was that her daughter had finished college and, at her insistence, chosen a very practical career in teaching. A practical woman, my mother made sure that her house had all the requisite insurances and that she kept appropriate receipts for big­-ticket purchases. So she was optimistic that, if fairly evaluated, her losses would be fairly compensated. Repeated calls to her insurance company resulted in little more than insults gently phrased. Then she hired a lawyer and — voilà. One carefully crafted letter later, she got most of what she asked for, though still less than what she deserved.

Imagine the various circumstances of Katrina evacuees, scattered to distant cities with little access to phones or social networks, let alone legal representation. Imagine if they had the disadvantage of sounding uneducated or “black” or “Cajun” on the phone. People in the worst of these circumstances, no matter how legitimate their claims, might have become so frustrated at the refusal of the insurance companies to honor their policies that they would have settled for the lowball offer. No need to imagine it. That’s what happened to many people. Too many people. Our experience with the insurance companies was not exceptional: “FEMA has taken the unprecedented step of reopening all Superstorm Sandy flood claims because thousands of homeowners said insurance companies intentionally lowballed damage estimates,” reported NPR in March.

Public education in New Orleans, outside the magnet schools, was bad. Even before the flood, the state had enacted a policy that would allow it to take over “failing” schools. After Hurricane Katrina, the state moved even more aggressively to take over most of the Orleans Parish public­ school system. It stopped paying teachers shortly after the storm. In December of 2005, while our people were still looking for missing relatives, burying their dead, and trying to keep body and soul together, the Orleans Parish School Board fired all its teachers. All.

My intellectual deficits render me incapable of understanding how anyone could improve a school system by firing the mothers, fathers, neighbors, and cousins of the very students they professed to want to educate. When public­-school students returned in larger numbers than expected, the state’s new Recovery School District found itself overwhelmed. Students were served frozen sandwiches. In some schools the emphasis was more on security than instruction. Inexperienced young teachers proved themselves to be inexperienced and young. Since then, many of the fired teachers have been rehired.

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