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ROBB AUSTIN'S TURN

Katrina Five Years Later and Beyond

September 10, 2010

It was impossible to miss the fifth-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina which devastated Gulf Coast communities in August of 2005, particularly the areas of New Orleans and Mississippi.

The cable networks and other national media re-converged on the Gulf Coast to bring us reports on how the area is now faring, and provided reports onwhat  reconstruction progress has been made.

New Orleans continues to be the ‘poster child’ of the Katrina disaster – both in terms of the Hurricane itself (which came inland as a Category 3 storm), and the subsequent cleanup and reconstruction of homes, businesses, and infrastructure.

A major part of the story continues to be the inept response on the part of the local, state, and federal government. Most of the focus remains on the federal government, and reasons why it didn’t move in faster immediately after the storm to bring relief to people who lost everything.

Much of what was initially reported was fair and accurate; however there has been scant analysis of the behavior of the local residents themselves, the many who choose to ‘ride the storm’ out, and failed to heed warnings to evacuate.

The fact is it wasn’t the hurricane itself that caused the ensuing death (over 1,800 people died as a result of the storm) and destruction in New Orleans, but the mass breaching of the city’s patchwork federal levee system.

In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, many in New Orleans thought they had ‘dodged a bullet’ as the eye of the storm entered the Gulf Coast region of Mississippi several hundred miles away. Slowly however, word spread that the levees were breached and mass flooding was under way.

Over 80% of the city flooded, as well as neighboring parishes, and the flood waters lingered for weeks. The immediate problem was rescuing the tens of thousands of people who were stranded in those flood waters. There were an estimated 60,000 people stranded in the dangerous waters, and over 50,000 National Guard Troops and the Coast Guard personnel were deployed to rescue them.

Over 35,000 people of New Orleans were pulled to safety by Coast Guard service men and women, who risked their own lives in the process.

President George W. Bush told Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco (D) to order a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans days before the hurricane came ashore after he received reports that the levee system could be compromised from hurricane storm surge.

Governor Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin did order an evacuation of the city – the first ever in the area’s long and storied hurricane history. Still thousands did not heed the order, and flocked to the city’s convention center, and the New Orleans Superdome, (named as shelter’s of last resort) once dangerous flood waters were apparent.

Chaos ensued and people were clearly in a life and death situation as over 200,000 homes were destroyed, and 800,000 people were displaced by the storm. The result was widespread looting and the reality of every man for himself. There were reports of shootings, robberies, and gang fights taking place throughout the city’s shelter facilities.

There were not enough beds, food, or water available, and no sense of security or law and order, and panic permeated the city.

The chaos did not go away in the reconstruction phase, except in the state of Mississippi, under the direction of Governor Haley Barbour, who has received high marks for his handling of the Katrina devastation, and rebuilding in the aftermath.

There remains a shortage of temporary housing, and in some cases, trailers sat ideally by for years after the storm, never being deployed to help people who had lost their homes. President Bush signed $180 billion in aid to the Gulf Coast during his presidency, but still, complaints are abound that the money has not been properly funneled to those who need it the most.

Misstatements by some didn’t help. Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill) theorized after the storm that “rebuilding a city that is seven-feet below seas level made no sense. It looks like a lot of the place could be bulldozed.” He later amended his statement, but the damage was done.

Former First Lady Barbara Bush also made a misstatement about New Orleans evacuees who were sent to the state of Texas for lodging, help and assistance. “What I’m hearing which is sort of scary is that they all want to stay in Texas,” she said.

Clearly, the New Orleans debacle lingers five years later. Lives were lost, the demographics of the city has changed forever, blame and fingering pointing have not gone away, and the city continues to cry for more and more federal aid and assistance from taxpayers.

The good news is a new two-mile stretch of levee system is nearing completion. It’s called “the great wall of New Orleans,” and is designed to keep flood waters such as the one that occurred during Katrina, and those that might be potentially worse, out of the city of New Orleans.

As money continues to flood into the Gulf Coast, and private initiatives continue as well, let’s hope city residents heed the call next time, to evacuate, when they are asked to do so.