Here on the ground

A firsthand look at some of the troubles that still lie ahead for victims of Hurricane Katrina

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 10/27/2005

NEW ORLEANS — In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, most media have portrayed New Orleans as a city completely wiped off the map. But that’s far from the situation today.

Two months after the Category 5 hurricane that swept through the famed Crescent City, as well as many other communities along the Gulf Coast, people have started returning to their homes, more businesses are opening back up; you can hear laughter in bars and music on the streets.

Café du Monde is packed with people eating beignets and drinking coffee, including the occasional smirking soldier with shopping bag in hand, and out-of-state National Guard troops are trickling back home. Police swarm the streets and workers clean up the piles of trash.

They still have a long way to go. The cleanup effort began on Sept. 26, but large piles of debris still sit dormant in the meridians, or "neutral grounds." The mountainous dumpsite on Pontchartrain and West End boulevards in Lakeview is one of three where 167,000 cubic yards of debris has been collected in Orleans Parish, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported Friday.

Fences have been torn down, signs lean at a 45-degree angle, houses and buildings that collapsed have yet to be cleaned up, and every now and then a strong whiff of sewage and death hits your nose. The lawlessness is over, but there is still a sense of unease, and people don’t completely trust each other just yet.

Restaurants and other businesses have limited hours and menus, and they are all hiring. Wendy’s and other fast-food chains are offering $10 an hour. There are signs poking out of the ground near off-ramps and intersections all over the place announcing the reopening of certain institutions. The hurricanes left more than 281,000 Louisiana residents without jobs.

The city was also planning to start enforcing parking laws again by the end of the week. Traffic has been working largely on an honor system.

Driving over the Greater New Orleans Bridges one is struck by the sight of a sea of blue roofs. FEMA went around and inspected the damage to roofs and if yours qualified, it was draped in a blue tarp, whether you wanted it or not. Every house and building has an X spray painted on the front. On top is the date the structure was searched. On the left and right is who searched it, and on the bottom is how many dead bodies were found.

The signs that read "We will shoot" and "No looting—100% protected" remain, next to broken windows, burnt out buildings and skeletons of cars.

The National Guard, the American Red Cross, FEMA and others have been handing out boxes of MREs (Meals-Ready-to-Eat) to whomever wants them; no questions asked. These army rations contain everything you need for one meal, and they’re actually quite tasty.

"Ninety percent of the people whose houses were flooded didn’t have flood insurance because they were in supposed no-flood zones," said Darrin Chapman, a chief engineer for several hotels in the city and a cousin once removed of the author.

The population of the nearby capital city of Baton Rouge has doubled as property values have skyrocketed. Everyone’s doing the best they can, but some people don’t have the means to gut their homes to rebuild.

The big question is about the levees. Saturday’s Times-Picayune reported that the Army Corps of Engineers who designed the 17th Street Canal flood wall knew that they were building it on soft soil and weak peat moss.

New Orleans in a day

Chapman, who had passes from FEMA, took me on a tour of the heavily damaged areas on Saturday. The Superdome looms eerily over the adjacent freeway, its roof all but pealed away. Inspectors walk around on it, surveying the damage. The Convention Center is still a hotbed of activity. One of several military encampments is set up in a vacant lot nearby.

Chapman’s passes let us into a restricted area, the municipal yacht yard next to Lake Pontchartrain. We walked around hundreds of boats that had been flung around and smashed on the piers, docks, and shores. They were not salvageable.

We went to the 17th Street levee breach, which is about 20 to 30 yards long. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and others spoke about a conspiracy that involved intentionally blowing up the levee to rid the area of black people, but the community directly next to the breach was affluent and mostly white. However, that does not negate years of neglect on the government’s part in keeping the levees strong.

"President Bush isn’t planning urban renewal, he’s planning urban removal," Jackson said in a recent newspaper column. "The planners will turn New Orleans into a gentrified theme park. They’ll rebuild the white communities, even those like middle-class Gentilly and wealthy Lakeview that are as prone to severe flooding as the Ninth Ward."

After the incident where police beat an unarmed black man on Bourbon Street and the chief resigned due to reports that police let the looting happen — and participated in it themselves — the city has a lot of work to do to convince the black community to return to New Orleans and rebuild their lives here.

Police officers broke into a Cadillac dealership during the confusion, stole several cars, and drove around proudly. They told the community that the owner of the dealership let them in and told them to take what they wanted, a contention that turned out to be false.

The day after the storm, everyone thought the worst was over. It was just like any other hurricane. Then the levees broke and the looting began. The looters scavenged everywhere, all the way to the outskirts of the city. This left everybody vulnerable. When the power went out, the food in everyone’s refrigerators rotted and ruined the inside, forcing them to bring their fridges out to their parkways along with the rest of their damaged personal belongings.

When asked whom or what he felt resentment towards, Chapman, who waited out the storm in one of the hotel’s that he inspected, said, "FEMA obviously dropped the ball on this one, but I’m really upset with the people who took advantage of a bad situation. I can understand stealing water, food, diapers and other necessities, but what’s the point of smashing everything you don’t take and then burning the house or store down? The looters, which include poor white and black people and the police, made it 100 times worse for everybody else."

Nature’s thinning

On the plane out of town, the lady next to me ordered three bloody marys then turned to me and asked, "Have you ever been in a hurricane? It’s not fun. It took me three days to get out of Cancun. My hotel was flooded up to the third floor, connecting the lagoon to the ocean. The airport was closed, of course, and when they opened it up again we had a three-hour window. Then that got canceled. I’ve been surrounded by hysterical people this whole time. But the important thing is that we’re alive. I don’t normally drink like this. I just need to calm my nerves."

She drank her bloody marys and went to sleep. No rest for the weary as Hurricane Wilma makes landfall on Florida and record-breaking storm Alpha follows in her wake. 

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