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New Orleans - Katrina 10 years on, my first impressions, Labor Day

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It’s Labor Day in America, a national holiday in tribute to the workers who have contributed to the strength and prosperity of the country, and a celebration which dates back to 1882. Ten years ago on this day in New Orleans the hard work was just beginning to rebuild the communities and the economy of this great city post Katrina.  

JBA’s Steve Maslen spends time looking at the rebuilding, talking to New Orleanians and considers any lessons for the UK.

The storm and flood contributed to what must be the single largest displacement of people from a modern western city. Flood water inundated 80% of the city and on the day after Labor Day in 2005 the Mayor of the City ordered the forced evacuation of everyone except those involved in rescue and repair. The population at the time was 484,000. The current population is estimated to be still 100,000 less than this.

The reasons why 100,000 people have not returned are as many as those individuals. New Orleanians shared stories of friends and family who left and never returned. Understanding the various decisions of displaced residents whether to return and rebuild or to start afresh is important for those who want to support sustainable communities, particularly those at risk of natural hazards.

The work on understanding what is happening in New Orleans is still in its infancy and appears to be of great concern to individuals, individual communities such as the 9th Ward and also the City Government. Official recent maps and plans illustrate the scale of the exodus from the 9th Ward. Local communities unofficially record similar details.

Current  plan of 9th Ward records houses and plots reoccupied and those vacant

Community building mural records the displacement

In 9th Ward it is easy to see why some families have not returned. Their homes are no more than tombstones for lost relatives and lives.

A derelict home in 9th, the house wall still officially records the death of the occupant in the home

Whilst there are many such marked derelict houses scattered across the 9th Ward, this thankfully doesn’t account for the majority of vacant plots. Understanding this vast majority is perhaps the key to planning for future events.

Mr Landrum (our taxi driver friend and guide) grew up in the 9th; later his family moved ‘up town’. This was an area also badly affected by the floods. He evacuated the City and mercifully his home was spared although it was months before he could officially return. In a trip through the 9th and other affected Wards he recalled conversations with returnees and permanent leavers. 

It became clear that after the events of the storm, the flooding, the trauma of evacuation, the stress of not knowing about relatives – the mobile phone network was down for days – and then living and sharing space for months with others in their homes or hotels, life was never ever going to be the same again.

One of Mr Landrum’s friends who took refuge in the Superdome, a place of shocking conditions, met an emergency rescuer there.  They married 3 months later and left the City for a new start.  Another couple, married and also friends of Mr Llandrum chose the evacuation out of the City to separate and start new lives apart.

Mr Llandrum explained the act of persuading family members and individual friends to return to their homes for the first time to see what remains. The conditions cannot easily be imagined. The first time was always the most distressing.  After this first time some friends never ever returned; for others this was the first psychological step in rebuilding their lives in the place where they once lived.

The response to the human, environmental and economic catastrophy included financial support for those affected from the US Government, insurance industry and other notable individuals and organisations.

Amy is Creole and lives on Lakeside, a wealthier part of the City. Her house was under four feet of water for weeks. She had left the City prior to the storm expecting to return fairly quickly to a damaged home and gardens. She didn’t return for months. She didn’t ever contemplate not returning; it was her home and she loved New Orleans. Amy was also insured for flood damage.

A typical Lakeside property, fully insured with white owner (not Amy's home)

In 9th, Brad Pitt Hollywood star supported the rebuilding with inspirational and aspirational replacement homes.  These are designed to be more resilient and sustainable than the houses they replaced.  Also in 9th the public authorities have built whole new neighbourhoods - ‘project’ homes – in areas cleared after the flood.

One of the new more resilient Brad Pitt "Do it Right" houses

A new project housing area in the 9th

In considering the huge numbers of non returnees Mr Llandrum made the point that in effect the Government paid everyone to leave but they have not paid them to come back. Evacuees have had to make a living for themselves and their family elsewhere and as a result they have become semi-settled.  It will cost them again to return.

The 9th Ward was a substantially black, poor, working class and a relatively recent extension to the City. It seemed to me as Mr Llandrum talked that if you can’t strongly identify with a place as ‘home’ then pursuing a fresh start and the ‘American dream’ elsewhere is at  least  equally as attractive as coming back. In 9th I imagine it is still hard for some to even identify the neighbourhood and house that they once lived in, they are so unrecognisable being either derelict, demolished, cleared or rebuilt.  The new Brad Pitt homes, in their style are alien to the 9th original architecture and have been criticised for as much. These new building forms probably also contribute to a lack of neighbourhood recognition even if they are part of a fresh start.

It is a shame that many of the former housing plots are now getting overrun with tall weeds and even small trees. Vegetation grows quickly in the Mississippi delta and 9th Ward was woodland and scrub just two generations ago before the City extended.  The scrub clearance which is now becoming increasingly necessary just adds to the hard labour still required to rebuild your life and prosper in 9th.

Labor Day is a public holiday and an appropriate day to reflect on the hard work over the last 10 years to rebuild the City of New Orleans.

Author: Steve Maslen

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