The Storm This Time Natural and Unnatural Disaster in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina

New Orleans environmental. © David Helvarg

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.

New Orleans environmental. © David Helvarg

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.

New Orleans environmental © David Helvarg

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.

New Orleans environmental. © David Helvarg

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.

New Orleans environmental
Bob Chick wasn’t able to salvage much from his Cajun Cottage, inundated when the 17th Street floodwall breached. © David Helvarg

“I had a collection of Jazz Fest T-shirts going back to “79 but they’re gone,” Chick says. He’s wearing a mask, rubber boots and gloves, but still manages to give an expressive shrug of resignation when I take his picture. “I lived in this house 16 years.

We’d have been fine if the levee hadn’t broken. We’d be moving back right now.”

The Bush administration cut funding for the Army Corps” work on the levees last year, but that was only a tiny part of a larger pattern of neglect and denial going back generations.

I meet a group of a dozen Cajuns spending their days and nights in a carport under a damaged three-story office building in Belle Chase, Louisiana. There are black and white folks camped out in tents, campers, and an RV under the closed Ocean Springs-Biloxi bridge in Mississippi; there are victims in marine-lab dorms and KOAs and a Mormon tent colony by a lake; and folks at friends” and families” homes, barns and yards, or, as a last resort, evacuation centers. I go to a meeting in Austin, Texas and find my motel is full of New Orleans evacuees more than a month after Katrina.

A Disappeared Town

I catch a ride along the west bank of the Mississippi in Plaquemines Parish south of New Orleans with Deputy Sheriff Ken Harvey. This is where towns of several thousand, like Empire and Buras, got washed away and some oil tank farms ruptured. Where the road’s cut by water, we drive up on the eroded levee and keep going. There are boats on the land, and houses in the water or washed onto the road or turned into woodpiles.

I take a picture of an antebellum white mansion in the water along with a floating pickup, a larger truck hanging off a tree, a semi-trailer cab under the bottom of an uplifted house, a speedboat through a picture window, the Buras water tower collapsed next to a wrecked store, shrimp boats on the levee, on the road and in the bushes with military patrols passing by. We stop and stare in awe at a 200-foot barge tossed atop the levee like a bath toy on a tub rim.

Approaching the Empire Bridge, I note the white church facing north towards us is still intact and suggest that’s a hopeful sign. “It used to face the road,” Ken points out. We listen to his boss, the sheriff, on Unity Radio threatening to lay off his people and make the state troopers take over the Parish if he can’t meet payroll by midnight. Late that evening, the governor agrees to hand him $10 million. In what’s left of Port Sulphur, the sheriff’s deputies are living in converted shipping containers (the same kind used on offshore oil rigs). Most of their homes have been washed away.

We stop and examine oil that’s spread across the road and into the wetlands where a 20-inch Shell pipeline burst. I take a picture of some collapsed oil storage tanks.

Environmental Trouble

It’s too early to talk about the hurricanes” environmental impacts on the coast and ocean with any authority. The oil companies lost at least 52 rigs in the Gulf, with more than 110 others damaged. The Coast Guard’s latest estimate is nine million gallons of oil were spilled (more than two-thirds of an Exxon Valdez).

I visit the Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, which took a big hit, with major buildings lost and flooded (even though it sits on a 20-foot bluff above the water); its 35,000 square-foot education center in Biloxi was totaled. Lab Director Bill Hawkins thinks the pollutants in the New Orleans flood waters that were pumped back into Lake Pontchartrain will likely impact the Gulf of Mexico some time next year.

© David Helvarg

Nancy Rabalais at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (which lost its roof to Katrina and its ground storage and lab vehicles to Rita) still managed to get out on a research cruise between storms. She encountered a seven-foot swamp alligator 15 miles out at sea.

Most of the region’s shrimp and commercial fishing fleet was sunk or thrown up onto the land. The possibility that federal fisheries managers might use this as a chance to buy out part of the destroyed fleet in order to reduce fishing pressure has been the source of much speculation.

The 30-mile-long crescent of the Chandeleur Islands, east of Louisiana, are mostly gone. Whether these important barrier islands and bird colonies will re-emerge from the sea in coming decades is unclear.

The good news is that many of the live oak, hackberry and cypress that look dead are starting to rebud. Some 25-foot trees survived, along with roads and seagrass meadows, because the storm waves were so high above them that they weren’t scoured.

Unfortunately, as I drive east through Mississippi and Alabama I find most of these coastal trees and wetlands festooned with plastic like Tibetan prayer flags (as if monks were praying over dead turtles and seabirds). In Biloxi, along with smashed casinos, historic homes and neighborhoods, I find miles of beachfront covered in plastic buckets and insulation, mattresses, furniture, chunks of drywall and Styrofoam pellets that the seabirds are eyeing as potential food. I wave down a truck marked “Department of Natural Resources,” but the guys inside are from Indiana.

I feel like an eco-geek being more concerned about the gulls and wetlands than the lost revenue from the casinos that everyone else seems to be obsessing over. In Waveland, I drive over twisted railroad tracks where the eye of Katrina passed into neighborhoods. A middle-aged couple is trying to clear the drive to the lot where their home once stood. A surfboard leans up against one of the live oaks that seem to have fared better then the houses in between them.

“Are you an adjuster?” the woman asks.”No, a reporter.””Good, because we don’t like adjusters.” Apparently they’ve been offered $1,700 on their $422,000 home.

“At least you’ve got your surfboard,” I tell John, her husband. “Oh, that’s not my surfboard,” he grins, pointing around. “And that’s not my boat, and that’s not my Corvette (buried to its hood in the rubble), and that’s not our roof. We think it might belong to the house at the end of the street.”

Some 50 million tons of rubble and waste along the Gulf is yet another environmental challenge. The initial plan is to go after the “woody debris” (downed trees) first, then white debris (refrigerators, stoves), cars, boats, construction materials, hazardous waste and plastics. Authorities can’t burn it without risking a huge spike in asthma and other lung diseases. That’s what happened in Dade County, Florida after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. But they also can’t move much wood out of New Orleans without risking the spread of invasive Formosa termites.

Starting Again

I”m back in New Orleans on Canal Street, where the Salvation Army offers me cold water, a baloney sandwich (I decline) and a fruit cocktail. The Gulf region is now very much like a war zone, only with fewer deaths (about 1,200 bodies recovered at the time of my visit), far more extensive damage and many of the same ironies and bizarre moments. Unity Radio announces that if you’re going to tonight’s Louisiana State University football game in Baton Rouge you can return after curfew provided you show your game stubs at the roadblocks.

Three years ago I made a decision. I’d lost a key person in my life and was trying to decide what to do next. I was considering either going back to war reporting, or turning from journalism to ocean advocacy as Ralph Nader and others who’d read my ocean book were encouraging me to do. Finally, I decided that while we”ll probably always have wars, we may not always have living reefs, wild fish or protective coastal wetlands.

What we know we are going to have are more environmental disasters like the Hurricane Season of 2005 linked to fossil-fuel-fired climate change, and bad coastal policies driven by saltwater special interests.

Still, destruction on a biblical scale also offers Noah-like opportunities for restoration. There are practical solutions to the dangers we confront, along with models of how to live safely by the sea. Things can be done right in terms of building wisely along the coasts, and advancing social and environmental equity. But it will take a new wave of citizen activism to avoid repetition of old mistakes, with even more dire consequences.

DAVID HELVARG is president of the Washington-based Blue Frontier Campaign and a contributor to E‘s climate change book Feeling the Heat. A version of this story originally appeared in Multinational Monitor.