Katrina: Recovery and Renewal
This essay was initially broadcast on August 27th, on the NPR affiliate, WVPE Elkhart/South Bend.
Ten years ago on August 29th, the pounding winds and rains of Hurricane Katrina weakened and then collapsed the levees protecting New Orleans, and soon eighty percent of my beloved city was under water. Like many Americans, I watched incredulously the news of a city in distress, its houses inundated and citizens stranded, others drowned in the wake of flooding waters, survivors distraught and afraid. Their hopeless and dispirited faces drained me emotionally and spiritually. The destruction was unfathomable.
My own close relatives managed to leave before the levees broke, but as I watched Louisiana’s interminable bayous and waterways swallow the city, I feared for the safety of others left behind. Miraculously, I reached my undergraduate mentor by phone. He was unaware of the enormity of the storm’s damage in other parts of the city. He was low on critical medication and had no car; he needed to be evacuated. On his behalf, I tried but could not reach the Louisiana Coast Guard. In the chaos of those days I lost contact with him, but I learned later that a neighbor helped him evacuate.
Then we all became aware of the great and perhaps lasting exodus from the city. I feared the irretrievable loss of intimate, generations-old neighborhoods like Tremé and the Irish Channel, the tidy Creole cottages and shotgun houses shaded by massive live oaks and flowering magnolias. I feared that as residents scattered across America, much of the soul of New Orleans would never return. New Orleans is its people, and without them the enrichment and cross-fertilization, the gumbo of Creole, Cajun, and African cultures, would be forever altered.
In the ten years since Katrina, I’ve made many trips to New Orleans. With each visit I see progress. My mother who initially vowed never to return is happily settled into a new home not far from her former neighborhood. The ubiquitous blue tarps on rooftops are now gone. Homes have been rebuilt elevated above the ground as required by new building codes; in some neighborhoods the houses retain the façade of traditional Creole cottages. Other homes reflect an architectural style foreign to the region. In many areas streets with gaping potholes and bulging concrete suggest an underdeveloped country. Massive rebuilding of the drainage system is creating annoyances for motorists and pedestrians alike.
On the surface New Orleans today is a bustling city. Tourism is flourishing. In the French Quarter jazz blows hotly from street corners to Preservation Hall. Steamboats roll merrily along the Mississippi. Streetcars clatter down St. Charles Avenue. Everything seems normal. The mayor speaks of a stronger more resilient city since Katrina. He cites rapid business expansion with a retail and restaurant boom. He touts the academic achievement of the charter schools. He proclaims a city on the mend with a budget surplus, reduced murder rate, and reduced homelessness, and above all, racial reconciliation. a cornerstone of his administration. New Orleans, he says, is “unbowed and unbroken.”
The Big Easy is back, but deep wounds remain. Black on black violence is an almost daily news item. Many streets still show deep potholes and buckling concrete. The predominantly black lower ninth ward is pockmarked with concrete slabs where houses once stood; weeds overtake abandoned lots. Approximately one hundred fifty thousand displaced residents, disproportionately African-American, may never return. Latino workers who came to rebuild have stayed, doubling their population in the last decade. Other young and enterprising adventurers and opportunity seekers are establishing roots.
New Orleans fifty years from now will be different. Culturally, the new immigrants will add new spice to the Creole, Cajun and African cultures that already define the city. Regional accents and neighborhood dialects will change. New tastes in food and new forms of music will emerge. In time, New Orleans will once again be a thriving city at the mouth of the Mississippi; still laid-back, still charming. I trust, as progress continues, New Orleans will be a model of resilience and redemption.