A Decade After Katrina, Scars Remain on New Orleans

by | August 14, 2015

By Kevin Spear

A decade ago, the nation reeled in horror as if Hurricane Katrina were the end of times, unleashing modern vampires in a city of debauchery.

My take, from reporting in New Orleans then and now, is that the city has so much history, exuberance and sense of place that it has swallowed one of the nation's deadliest and most destructive storms as no more disagreeable than crawfish late in season.

Obviously that's not entirely so. Many died in places such as the Lower Ninth Ward, and most of the living haven't returned.

Katrina hit Aug. 29, 2005, breaching canals in dozens of places and leaving 80 percent of the city flooded, survivors riding rooftops, and the dead in attics or tangled in tree branches.

A few days afterward, four of us _ two reporters, a photographer and a homeowner _ set up in a shotgun duplex near devastating floodwaters in a city that was mostly evacuated.

Helicopters thumped and whined through nights blackened by total outage. Cops slashed through the neighborhood, spraying headlights everywhere but stopping nowhere.

My stories described a haunted city, alleged rapes and bold looting. Today, with its population rebounding, murders down and tourism up, the city is surfing the nation's love of urban cool. The Jazz & Heritage Festival every spring is crushed with crowds.

The flirtatious NOLA is steamy, Southern and Cajun, with looks and manners so lush it makes Florida cities seem thirsty. But a tourist with some patience can tease out Katrina despair.

"If you talk to somebody for 15 minutes, it will come up," said Brian Alexander, 33, a professional canvasser working Magazine Street. "There's definitely before-Katrina and after-Katrina narrative."

A visual reminder of Katrina is a post-storm phalanx of monster pumps at the edge of Lakeview, a white, middle-class enclave. Now, the station of more than 40 diesel guardians is standing by to blow floodwaters back into Lake Pontchartrain.

It's peace of mind for those returning to Lakeview, which is below sea level and, in its demolished state in the wake of the hurricane, had been proposed to be a park.

"With its very existence in peril after Katrina, this neighborhood thrives 10 years later," proclaimed a headline of The Advocate, Baton Rouge's paper.

The Lower Ninth is something else. The city within a city suggests a wrecked car in a junkyard, faded and rusty but evident somebody or more perished badly. Of 1,500 killed by Katrina in Louisiana, hundreds were in the Ninth.

___ On a recent muggy Sunday morning, I drove past some of more than 100 homes by the Make It Right foundation, a group founded by actor Brad Pitt to help rebuild the Lower Ninth.

The homes were designed by "renowned architects" as climate-adapted, eco-friendly and compact. They are striking with swooping roofs, Euro-styling and contrasting but complementary materials. They cost $150,000 each to build.

More than 4,000 homes were destroyed in the Ninth. A lot of the mess has been hauled off, and effort continues to beat back jungle that wants to erupt. A small fraction of nearly 15,000 residents have returned.

I pulled over to a memorial, a pair of homes erased but for foundations of concrete block rising from mowed grass under trellis.

A solidly built man hollered in solid voice: "Could you move your car down the street? My kids are racing here."

It didn't sound like a request.

He was a good guy. His name was K. Gates, a musician also known as The Wave and as Kwame Nantambu, with three kids and a fourth coming. They live in a Make It Right home.

"It's a good place, no violence, no nothing, no trouble," the 32-year-old New Orleans rapper said. "Everybody here knows each other. It's good stuff."

K. Gates hopes to move to Miami, the setting for part of his video tour of Florida. He handed me the DVD, and I handed him $5.

"Watch it," he said.

I listened to his music on the Web and heard him say in a promo that "I'd just like my piece of the American pie."

Can't blame him. The Crescent City skyline is a glance away, but the Ninth feels forgotten.

___ You want to root for the Rev. Charles Duplessis.

He and his extended family got out of the city to escape the hurricane and weren't allowed to return for months. His home and church had been given Katrina's iconic treatment: structurally mauled and marinated in nasty water.

"It was unbelievable, devastating. It took our breaths away," he said. Mennonite Disaster Service rebuilt the pastor's home but unknowingly with contaminated drywall from China. It was ripped out.

I stopped by his home as he readied for service in the temporary Mount Nebo Bible Baptist Church. There were two dozen folding chairs and two whirling fans.

At 64, he's a Vietnam vet, welcoming but unflappable. You can see him as a neighborhood anchor.

There is so much the Ninth hasn't gotten back, he said.

"But there is hope."

(c)2015 The Orlando Sentinel