Today marks 11 years since I packed up my wife, cat and belongings from our condo on Poeyfarre Street in the Central Business District of New Orleans and evacuated. Some 20 hours later, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast. I haven’t lived in New Orleans since 2011, but any time I hear storm announcements my first thought is encroaching water.
Katrina is permanently a part of my being, like it is for hundreds of thousands of others from the Gulf Coast region. No matter whether you returned to New Orleans to rebuild or opted for a new life in a different city, Katrina was a difference maker and it exposed vulnerabilities that couldn’t be overlooked – and that stays with all in America.
Proponents of big government or small, it mattered not, both failed the residents of the impacted region. A new low in malfeasance and ineptitude from public institutions was set. Bush/Cheney, Chertoff, Brownie, FEMA, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Gov. Blanco, Mayor Nagan and the individual levee boards – all are synonymous with terms like corruption, greed, graft, incompetence and political chicanery.
Some 50 plus breaches were recorded in the improperly installed levee system protecting New Orleans; at least 1,245 people were killed; and property damage was estimated at $108 billion – yet no one was to blame. Talk about too big to fail.
Going forward I carry with me the knowledge that when Mother Nature intends to unleash her wind and rain, it’s best to heed that warning and get out of her way. I also am left with the realization that our government is prejudiced in who it chooses to assist and at what speed. There is no other excuse for why water and provisions took so long to reach the stranded in New Orleans. Yes ineptitude was involved, but the disregard and dismissal in this instance draws a similar parallel to why the underprivileged are continually left to subsist with subpar education, limited job opportunities, high crime and unfair treatment from law enforcement.
I’m encouraged by the progress the city of New Orleans and surrounding locations have made since 2005. Residents in the coastal regions of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas are strong, proud and resourceful individuals. For New Orleans, the city has retained its originality, its soul, but the social landscape was transformed significantly post-Katrina. Politicians love to chat up economic prosperity and rejuvenation, but less about accountability. It makes no sense why public officials allowed all those areas that were hit the hardest during Katrina, that remain high risk and in harm’s way, to once again be built upon, predominantly by low income residents.
I realize many didn’t have great options to rebuild elsewhere, but this was a time when the government should have taken a leadership role and intervened to prevent high-threat flood zones from being re-occupied. It’s merely a matter of when the next storm comes along that all these same conversations are revisited, and families again lose loved ones to a preventable disaster.
Ironically this anniversary comes as Baton Rouge and large swaths of southern Louisiana are currently witnessing historic flooding after more than 30 inches of rain fell in a few days starting Aug. 11. Search parties went door-to-door to locate survivors as 13 were confirmed dead. This is the worst natural disaster in the U.S. since Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
The initial four parish disaster area was expanded to include 20 counties by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Waters have begun to recede, but at least 40,000 homes were impacted. Many didn’t have flood insurance, either because the properties were not considered to reside in a high risk flood location, or the banks that owned the original mortgages sold them off to new providers and those financial institutions failed to carryover the flood insurance option. Once again across Louisiana there are temporary shelters filled with folks wondering whether they will ever get to return to their former houses.
I heard a report on NPR recently detailing the cleanup process in Prairieville, a suburb of Baton Rouge. I spent some quality evacuation time in Prairieville after Katrina. Exactly one month after the storm, my law firm acquired temporary housing for staff in Prairieville to allow us to work in Baton Rouge at a loaned office space. You couldn’t get into New Orleans without a Governor’s Pass for a couple months, so Prairieville was home until storm cleanup allowed our return.
Baton Rouge was a hot mess. Its population grew by 100,000 overnight when the levees broke and New Orleans flooded. It was a survivalists landscape back then. Any available housing was snatched up by the independently wealthy from New Orleans. Stores like Best Buy looked as if they had been looted, as all appliances were in high demand.
Storm damage and the extra population made driving anywhere an agonizing adventure. It could take hours to go 10 miles. Accidents and car fires were everywhere, but no law enforcement or EMS were available to respond. As you can imagine getting ahold of any insurance agent was nearly impossible anyway.
My thoughts and prayers are with all across Louisiana, as folks struggle to clean out damaged interiors and avoid mold infestations, but with temps in the 90s, it’s tough work for weary residents. Some tens of thousands of cars are also out of commission from water submersion. I’m hearing the closest place to find a rental car is over in Alabama.