I’m flying to New Orleans and the Gulf region by way of Ronald Reagan (Washington, D.C.) and George Bush (Houston) airports to see how “less government” functions in the face of a coastal catastrophe. But we already know the answer. There was a complete failure in terms of precautionary actions, preparation and response.
Clearly the Louisiana National Guard was not up to the task of dealing with more than a million environmental refugees and victims in the state. Some 5,700 guards were operating out of a flooded headquarters, while a third of the force, 3,200 members, were deployed in Iraq—along with much of their gear.
I arrive in Baton Rouge with a planeload of relief workers, FEMA functionaries and crew-cut contractors, all working their cell phones and Blackberries. After renting a car and making my way through the daily traffic jam (Baton Rouge’s population has exploded since the storm), I head south on Interstate 10, tuning into the United Radio Broadcasters of New Orleans, a consortium of local stations playing 24/7 information and call-in reports on Katrina’s aftermath.
Around the New Orleans airport in Jefferson Parish, I begin to see big-box stores, warehouses and motels with their roofs ripped off or caved in, downed trees and broken street signs, house roofs covered in blue tarps and high-rises with glass windows popped out like broken eyes. I hit a traffic jam and follow an SUV across the median strip to an exit where I stop to take a picture of a small office complex with its second-story front and roof gone. Rain-soaked cardboard boxes fill the exposed floor above a CPA’s office. I talk to a carpet-store owner removing samples. I get a call from a contact at the New Orleans Aquarium. They lost most of their fish when the pumps failed but managed to evacuate the penguins and sea otters to Monterey.
I drive into Lakeview, one of the large sections of the city that sat underwater for two weeks and will likely have to be bulldozed. It reminds me of war zones I’ve been in after heavy street fighting. There are trees and power poles down, electric lines hanging, metal sheets and street signs on mud-caked pavement, smashed cars, boats on sidewalks and torn-open houses, all colored in sepia tones of gray and brown. Unable to drive far in the debris-choked streets, I get out of my car, half expecting the sweet, rotting smell of death. Instead, I’m confronted with an equally noxious odor. It’s what I”ll come to think of as the smell of a dead city, like dried cow pies and mold with a stinging chemical aftertaste. Fine yellow dust starts rising up from under my boots and infiltrating the car. I retreat.
The rusted, ruined roof of the Superdome inspires me to choose an exit, and I’m soon in the deserted streets of the central business district, checking out the rubble piles and empty high rises. A big wind-damaged “Doubletree” hotel sign reads D UL EE. The French Quarter is still intact with even a few bars open for soldiers, FBI agents and fire fighters. On Canal Street, it looks like a Woodstock for first responders with Red Cross and media satellite trucks, tents and RVs pulled up on the central streetcar median by the Sheraton. Red-bereted troops from the 82nd Airborne cruise by in open-sided trucks, M-4s at the ready in case the undead should appear at sunset.
Uptown, some boats lie in the middle of the street, along with cars crushed by a falling wall and a pharmacy trashed by looters. Further on are the smashed homes and muddied boulevards and still-flooded underpasses and cemeteries, abandoned cars and broken levees of an eerily hollow city.
In the coming days, I”ll travel across this new urban landscape, tracing the brown floodwater line that marks tens of thousands of homes, schools, offices, banks, churches, grocery stores and other ruined structures, including the main sewage plant. I”ll cross paths with animal rescue crews, military patrols, utility crews from New York and Pennsylvania, and body recovery search teams with K-9 dogs using orange spray paint to mark the doors of still unexamined buildings, writing the date and adding a zero for no bodies or numbers where bodies have been found.
A Predicted Disaster
“I don’t think anyone anticipated the breech of the levees,” President Bush told Diane Sawyer shortly after this below sea-level city went aquatic, perhaps his most memorable quote since declaring “Mission Accomplished” after the invasion of Iraq. Of course, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy that Bush appointed had highlighted the risk of the levees failing in its final report in the fall of 2004. Mark Schleifstein of the New Orleans Times-Picayune had been writing about the risk of a category 4 or 5 hurricane devastating the city for so many years that his editor started calling the stories “disaster porn.” After Katrina struck, he and his workmates got out of their office in the back of big-wheeled newspaper delivery trucks with the flood waters up to their grills.
It wasn’t that Katrina was an unprecedented storm. There have been a number of storms—Hurricane Camille in 1969, for one—that blew with an almost equal force. The difference is that 36 years ago the Gulf of Mexico had far more protective wetlands and less-risky development along the coast. Also, until recent decades, it was not in the footprint of fossil-fuel-fired climate disruption.
Flying over the bayou, I’ve seen shredded islands of brown spartina, or salt grass, crosshatched with canals built by oil companies and flood control channels and levees built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Historically, the Mississippi River’s flooding deposited sediment that built up the delta. Now these hydrologic speedways flush that sediment out into the deep Gulf. Oil drilling has caused land subsidence, and the burning of coal and oil has raised the sea level by more than a foot. All this has shrunk the wetlands by up to 30 square miles a year in recent decades. (Katrina and Rita may have eliminated an additional 20 to 30 square miles.)
“The Army Corps has given us a levee system that’s traded periodic Mississippi River flooding for permanent coastal flooding, and that to me is a bad deal,” Mark Davis, director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, told me five years ago.
Did he believe that he could mobilize enough popular will to turn around the forces of sprawl and development, not to mention the Army Corps? “If our advocacy is inadequate to the task,” he said, “then a hurricane will make the case for us.”
“Being right sure sucks,” he says now.
Life After Katrina
I stay with an AP colleague in the less-damaged Algiers Point section of the city just across the Mississippi from where the helicopter assault ship Iwo Jima and Carnival Cruise Line ship Ecstasy are being used to house city employees and relief workers. Blackhawk helicopters fly overhead at sunset while a Red Cross truck down the street offers hot food to the handful of residents still here.
Back in Lakeview, I encounter Bob Chick. Bob snuck past the checkpoints to see if he can salvage anything from his green Cajun Cottage near where the 17th Street floodwall breached.
He hasn’t had much luck, “just some tools that might be OK,” he says. “I left all my photos on top of a chest of drawers thinking the water wouldn’t get that high. They say if you have more than five inches of water in your house for five days, it’s a loss. We had eight feet for two weeks.” He invites me to look inside. From the door it’s a jumble of furniture, including a sofa, table, twisted carpet, lamps and wooden pieces all covered in black and gray gunk, reeking of mold and rotted cat food.