New Orleans - Katrina 10 years on, my first impressions

Ten years and five days after Katrina struck New Orleans, JBA’s Steve Maslen spends time looking at the aftermath, talking to a New Orleanian and considers what lessons can be learned.

The ‘decade on’ commemorations in New Orleans celebrate the resilience of the city’s communities, acknowledge that there is still much to do, and put squarely on record the failures in design and emergency management, and the indolence of authorities, that contributed to the disaster which left over 1,000 dead.

Acknowledgement of these failures is a recurring motif in public exhibitions and street installations and is refreshing to see. It may account to some degree for the apparent lack of widespread anger with those organisations found responsible.

Breach location on the Industrial Canal 

Breach location on the Industrial Canal 

Fifty breaches in the levees designed to protect the city resulted in flood waters inundating 80% of the city, mostly in residential neighbourhoods. Taxi driver Willard Landrum was among more than a million Gulf Coast residents displaced by the hurricane, evacuating his family to a relative’s home in Lafayette a day before Katrina hit. It was two months before they returned to their home, which was built above the floodline and escaped damage.

Mr Landrum gave me a tour of the worst affected area, 9th Ward to the east of New Orleans, and gave an interesting insight into the impact Katrina has had at grassroots level.

He described how his niece in one of the areas trapped by the encroaching waters took refuge with hundreds of others on the road bridge we were driving across.

It took four days for them to be rescued. Each day she would learn of the death of somebody she had known or passed by on the bridge. The official inquiries into the disaster record that many who died did so as a result of heart conditions, overheating and lack of clean water after the hurricane had passed. Nearly half were aged over 74.

The levees had been designed by the US Army Corps of Engineers (COE), and it was clear from all the post Katrina investigations that the designs were inadequate for their intended purpose. The design engineers do not come out of the investigations well, although it is acknowledged that they played an important and valuable role in removing the flood water and repairing the breaches.

The city has changed, according to Mr Landrum, and in many places this is clearly evident in the empty plots and derelict houses in Lower 9th Ward and in the new High Schools only recently completed to replace schools trashed by the storm and floods.

10 years on derelict homes remain

Derelict Home stands amongst cleared plots and restored homes in Lower 9th

Less obvious to outsiders are cultural changes such as a greater integration of black and white people in communities once entirely segregated before Katrina. Mr Landrum also pointed out that the vibrantly painted weatherboarded houses which have sprung up to replace those destroyed by the hurricane and flooding are an entirely new feature of New Orleans, whose traditional house colours are muted tones of grey, green, brown and white.

These bright new colours deliberately bring a touch of California and the Caribbean to homes and streets and serve as a powerful illustration of the determination of the home owners to rise above the disaster with a clear sense of a city reborn.

There is much for designers, environmental scientists, planners and asset managers to learn from this great city and its communities and I intend to post more on specific aspects over the next few weeks.

Author: Steve Maslen