Ten years after Katrina, New Orleans is still a ticking time bomb | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 30.08.2015
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Ten years after Katrina, New Orleans is still a ticking time bomb

Some referred to it as a celebration, others rather thought of the day as a commemoration. But the tenth anniversary of Katrina proved to be an opportunity to reflect on the past and look at what dangers lie ahead.

More than 1,800 people lost their lives on account of Hurricane Katrina and in the flooding that followed, which submerged 80 percent of New Orleans. But traces of the tragedy can still be seen all over the city, adding a morbid fascination to what already is one of the most peculiar cities in the United States.

But according to the New York Times, most appeared to feel confident in their city's eventual recovery, which seemed to be an insurmountable task at times. The report also highlighted that ten years after the hurricane there were differences along racial lines in how locals viewed the success of the city's renaissance and whether it would be a lasting achievement. Poor black families, in particular, said they still felt the burden of the disaster ten years on.

Abandoned street after Hurricane Katrina

Many evacuees returned to find nothing but rubble after Hurricane Katrina in 2005

While the city's population numbers have gradually been rising, many of those, who were forced to leave New Orleans, have not been able to come back. Meghan Sullivan, an ultrasound technician, who now lives in Houston, Texas, said her family could not afford to start their lives over again in New Orleans.

"We had to evacuate quite suddenly and leave everything behind that didn't fit in the car. We didn't realize it was going to be this bad, but we lost everything in the storm." Sullivan explained.

"A year later, we decided to move to Houston. We were pretty much priced out of buying a new home in New Orleans at that point already. There simply weren't enough properties around. And now, people, who have never lived in New Orleans before, are spending insane amounts of money to buy tiny condos and miserable plots of land, while no one knows how long it will take until the next natural disaster hits the city."

Gentrified and fortified - to what end?

This gentrified and glorified version of New Orleans has become a relocation magnet in recent years, largely due to new infrastructure opening up the market to outsiders. But the fear of another Katrina being just around the corner remains a preoccupation for many, who - if they can afford it - try to protect their properties with various insurance policies, while adding structural changes to fortify their houses.

New Orleans, Superdome

After initial hurdles, New Orleans has rebuilt much of the city from scratch and is celebrating a come-back, which some critics have called "rampant gentrification"

But Sullivan says that all these efforts almost seem futile when looking at the way New Orleans is surrounded by water:

"There's Lake Pontchartrain to the north, Lake Borgne to the East, there are swamplands in all directions, especially the south, and then you've still got the great Mississippi River – not to mention all the manmade canals that run through the city. If there was any more water surrounding New Orleans it would be an island. With the city also being below sea level you're really looking at a ticking time bomb," she told DW.

This abundance of water is what caused Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in US history, in the first place, and it also appears to be a menace on the minds of many people in New Orleans, especially those who have spent all their lives living in the city. An article published in the Houston Chronicle first highlighted the issue - four years before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

A new direction in government assistance

Eric Iglesias, an urban strategist who specializes in identifying distressed areas in need of economic development, worked closely with the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) to attract investment to New Orleans. He fears that these victories might be short-lived if the government doesn't take the right kind of action going forward.

"We have a lot to celebrate. The government did a really great job in helping to reconstruct a place that now has all the makings of becoming a world-class city in years to come. Our population still isn't back to its old numbers, but maybe in another ten years' time we might get close to that half-a-million mark again," Iglesias told DW.

Flooding during Hurricane Katrina

Eric Iglesias fears that the loss of marshlands and the future hurricanes could lead to more flooding

"However, what I'm most concerned about is what happens after that. In fifty years from now I hope that we're still even here. This city is sinking. We're losing the wetlands around New Orleans at an astonishing rate. We're losing a football field of marshlands every 45 minutes. That's where the money has to be invested now. We rebuilt our city, but we are far from having saved it."

According to Iglesias, the rising water level might lead New Orleans, which is currently located 65 miles (105 kilometers) north of the Gulf of Mexico, to become part of the coastline of the state of Louisiana in a matter of decades.

"No matter how much you throw the word 'gentrification' around, the city still has some serious challenges to address," Iglesias said.

History to repeat itself

Tourism expert Etienne Skrabo focused post-Katrina on attracting economic development in Gentilly, historically a middle-class neighborhood in New Orleans, which was flooded severely in the aftermath of the hurricane. He says that this changing face of the city bore all the hallmarks of a shortsighted vision.

"New Orleans has been rampantly gentrified, and in a bad way. People are moving here from all over the country like there's no tomorrow, but the reality is that there is a tomorrow, and it's actually a pretty scary scenario," Skrabo said.

"Outside speculators and businessmen are buying up houses and flipping them in a matter of weeks now, but all the while no one is doing anything substantial to ensure that this city will still be here in the future. We didn't rebuild a city that can, literally, weather the weather. As far as I'm concerned we're all just living off borrowed time here.

"We have more than 90 miles of levees, but only ten percent of those levees have been repaired. We have the largest pumping station system in the world, but it failed during Katrina. The question is when it's going to happen again."

New Orleans during preparations for Hurricane Isaac in 2012

Etienne Skrabo says that people, who have moved to New Orleans in recent years, are ignoring the probability of future threats and living off "borrowed time"

Skrabo's worries are echoed by Meghan Sullivan, who says that she tries to visit her hometown at least once a year before it's gone.

"Maybe I should be happy for New Orleans for having accomplished the unthinkable. But in actual fact, I just can't help feeling bitter about not being able to afford being able to return to my hometown - while it's still there," Sullivan said.

"People seem to be oblivious to the fact that Katrina was not the first hurricane to hit the city and it certainly won't be the last."

Man-made disasters and unlearned lessons

Etienne Skrabo, meanwhile, highlights another, even greater threat to New Orleans than the next big hurricane:

"Salt water is increasingly intruding into the marshes because of the ever-growing oil exploration and related construction in the bayou. So, in addition to already-rising sea levels around the world we are proactively adding to this problem ourselves by digging for natural resources.

"This is killing all the trees, which actually held our fragile soil together and were the first line of defense against flooding. So what happens now is that there are places now where you cannot rebuild anymore."

Eric Iglesias agrees with that assessment and says that he fully expects parts of the city to be submerged in the future:

New Orleans, Mardi Gras celebrations

New Orleans may have returned to its former glory and eccentricity, but it is unclear whether it will survive another disaster like Hurricane Katrina

"When I bought my house I deliberately chose to not live near a levee wall or an area that flooded during the hurricane. I wouldn't feel secure there despite the repairs to the levee system. There's the very real risk of another hurricane, and that's just a short-term issue. In the long run, no one knows how much of this city will effectively be underwater one day."

"Katrina was a man-made disaster. We simply failed to protect our city. But I don't know if we really ever learn from our man-made disasters. Less than five years after Katrina we had the Deepwater Horizon oil spill not far off in the Gulf of Mexico, like we needed any more damage done to our already fragile ecosystem here. Without this ecosystem, we won't be able to remain here."

The new Venice: sink or swim

Skrabo compared New Orleans to Venice, saying that instead of gondolas people used their SUVs to move around town. "But other than that, this is the new Venice. And no one is reporting on it."

"It sometimes makes me wonder why we would rebuild a lost cause like this. But it's our culture, it's where we live. I love this city and so do many, many other people. So as long as we don't sink we'll have to swim.

"We're pretty resilient. Hell, we even named our cocktails after hurricanes, so what does that say about New Orleans?"

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