There is no stronger proof of the resiliency of the people of New Orleans than the ways in which they coped through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—the months after the storm hit and even now, five years and a massive oil spill later.
Aug. 29, 2010 marked the fifth anniversary of the catastrophe, one that sent shockwaves through the country, making us painfully aware of the fallibilities of our government. After 9/11, our country’s leaders began preparing for a war, for another attack from the outside, unaware that just short of four years later, the next national disaster would come from the inside.
How Far We’ve Come
Four months after the levees broke, many of New Orleans’ main roads opened to traffic, but it was evident in the following months that much of the residential areas were still unsafe. A population of 380,000 has now reappeared in New Orleans (compared to the 450,000 pre-Katrina), and the forward-thinking approach being taken towards reconstruction is attracting even more people.
Since 2005, much of the focus in the federal government has been on flood prevention and evacuation. Emergency supplies and evacuation plans were improved, while the Army Corps of Engineers built new levees and floodwalls they say can withstand future Katrina-strength storms.
A significant portion of the direction New Orleans is taking towards reconstruction can be attributed to Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who took office in May. The first item on his agenda was reducing the extent of the city’s corruption by lowering government salaries, rewriting the system for hiring outside contracting, and replacing the police chief. His plans for increasing public services and knowledge-based industries are paving the way for the New Orleans of the future, which Landrieu imagines as a clean energy technology center. Such positivity is reflected in many of the city’s local leaders, who have stated that all their county facilities have been repaired and over 80 percent of the Federal Emergency Management Agency large projects are complete.
But perhaps the greatest indication of this “new New Orleans” is the emphasis on community. The number of small businesses is multiplying. A large network of community clinics was established after the reorganization of the city’s healthcare system. Redevelopment projects are creating affordable, sustainable housing. Louisiana’s Recovery School District increased the number of charter schools, and testing shows that public school students are doing better than before Katrina hit.
How Far We Need to GO
Five years after the storm, Washington has largely moved on, passing much of the burden of reconstruction to churches and non-profit organizations. New Orleans still has $5.4 billion left of the $20 billion federal aid, but legal issues sometimes delay projects for months. Money set aside for environmental restoration has yet to be approved by Congress, and FEMA has delayed water and sewage system repairs. Much of the emergency relief set aside for hurricane season preparation has been drawn away by the effects of the oil spill. Meanwhile, many civil engineers argue the levees still aren’t strong enough and won’t be able to withstand another Category 5 hurricane.
Though organizations have been working to rebuild New Orleans’ residential areas, many civilians are still displaced. Less than 10 percent reside in federally funded trailers and hotels, but 28,000 are still on the waiting list for low-income housing. Parts of the city have been overtaken by nature; the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans’ hardest hit part, has not been cleared of destroyed homes but has instead been overrun by wild grasses. Invasive species have destroyed native wildlife, and Louisiana’s barrier islands, which had acted as natural flood barriers, remain torn up.
Today, the precarious situation of New Orleans’ locals is most evident in their children, who have been emotionally compromised by the horror of the past and the instability of their future. Many still go to unsafe schools, and residents have criticized the school system for not providing equal educational opportunities for all students.
Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina engulfed a city in water and a nation in conflict. Some might say our country has greater issues at hand now, but the ways in which New Orleans resisted and rebounded through such tragedy serves as a powerful and haunting reminder—of our strengths, our weaknesses, and the indomitable will of the human spirit.