You should understand that any story you hear about something this vast will bear the mark of the person
telling it. A visitor, no matter how well-intentioned, will not see it the same way as one who calls the area
home. Someone who lost their house will not see it the same as one whose losses were minimal. One who rode
out the storm in New Orleans will not see it the same as an evacuee, nor will one who endured the belated and
ham-handed evacuation of the Superdome and Convention Center see it the same as one who waited patiently in
the suburbs for the electricity and relatives to return.
One who lost relatives or had to swim for his life in the flood will see it a lot differently from those of us
who watched it on TV.
My Real Life job has taken me to many of the most devastated areas and put me in contact with survivors of all
types, so I can hopefully distill a little of their experience into my own narrative. But don't forget as you
read my account that I rode out the storm in relative safety, and came back to my house and job with minimal
As this anniversary approaches many others are making their own retrospectives. Some are following
individuals to see how they've fared; others are wonking the statistics and plotting the trajectory of the
economy. Some will revisit the timeline and the sequence of events, miracles and betrayals alike, which
passed before and after the storms.
I have decided the best I can do is just to tell you what I have seen and what I have been told by those I've
met. I can't tell you with any authority whether X government agency could have done better or whether Y
election was later stolen, but I can try to tell you one thing you won't generally get from the media
accounts, edited as they ultimately are by people who are Just Visiting. I can at least try to tell you what
it's like to live here.
Outside the Zone of Destruction
The victims of Katrina were scattered in a diaspora that covered the entire continental United States. In
Knoxville, TN when I went to the Sprint store to get my phone renumbered so I could receive phone calls (the
504 area code at that time still being underwater) the clerk looked at me in astonishment and said: "I've
been looking at this on the news and it never occurred to me that I might have to do anything because of it
here in Tennessee." There was a lot of that going around in September 2005. Shelters opened in North
Carolina filled up with refugees.
As far away as Houston, Dallas, Little Rock, Memphis, Atlanta, and Birmingham, real estate prices bumped up
and apartments and vacant hotel rooms became hard to find. This remains a problem in closer places like
Houston, Baton Rouge, Jackson, and Mobile even today. You've probably been affected by Katrina if you had to
do home repairs in the last year, because the sudden demand for sheetrock, paint, and shingles has sent prices
spiking and made availability sketchy. You may have also had a problem finding contractors because they
flocked to Louisiana and Mississippi from all over the country to partake in the rich vein of
price-is-no-object work that suddenly appeared.
Katrina didn't just hit New Orleans. On August 30, 2005, trees were down and almost every power transmission
line shredded as far as two hundred miles inland and across a three hundred mile wide path. There were
exactly four gas stations open in Jackson, MS, a city of over 50,000 people. Thousands of rural communities
were cut off from civilization by downed power and phone lines and rural roads choked with fallen trees. Many
of those people had to rescue themselves with chainsaws and repurposed construction equipment because all of
the available resources were being directed toward New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
Almost a month after the storm, bartcop.com published an email from Washington Parish, well above sea level
and fifty miles inland: "People are starving here." At that time my coworkers in Jackson, MS were driving
100 miles to buy gas to keep service vehicles running. You could not buy a gas can for any price. These
shortages finally began to abate between one and two months after the storm. The rural communities had a low
priority compared to the larger metropolitan areas, and a lot of them didn't see power restored for three or
Trees which fell on houses rested there for months, even in areas not generally considered part of the
"disaster area." Today, most of that damage has been repaired, and the millions of trees felled by Katrina
have been harvested in a tidy little windfall for the logging industry. You can still see the scars, trees
not felled but left leaning and trunks snapped off forty feet up, all along every road. But the most enduring
legacy is a certain bitterness that it took so long for help to arrive.
Tangipahoa and St. Tammany Parishes
This is where I live. The small cities of Hammond and Slidell lie on either side of New Orleans north of Lake
Pontchartrain, with Mandeville and Covington smack in the middle linked to the city by the world's longest
uninterrupted bridge over open water, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. These were the first of the parishes
outright closed to all traffic after the storm to be reopened. Most of the power was back on within a month
to six weeks, except for some areas of Slidell and Mandeville that were flooded by hurricane Rita. Rita hit
much further away than Katrina, but we were in its northeast quadrant and so took the storm surge. It wasn't
very high, but it got into Lake Pontchartrain and caused more damage than we needed.
The north shore communities always were the suburban bedroom communities where the richer pond scum emigrated
to avoid the crime and general nastiness of the city proper, and during the month of September every available
piece of real estate was bought by people who had lost everything but who had the means to re-establish
themselves. To this day property prices are insane. The other main legacy of the storm, if you don't ever
have to cross the lake, is the chronic labor shortage which hits restaurants and small businesses especially
hard. The labor shortage is bad everywhere, but it's worse in the more affluent areas where people simply
can't afford to live on the wages paid to a bartender or burger-flipper. In the months after the storm I saw
a Taco Bell in Slidell offering $12 an hour plus a signing bonus.
The wave of immigration triggered a building boom (paid for at top dollar despite the shortages and
construction price increases) which in turn has caused crazy traffic and infrastructure problems. The
Covington Home Depot was the busiest Home Depot in the country before Katrina, so I'll leave it to your
imagination what it's like to shop there now.
Katrina also knocked out one of the three main arteries by which people get from the North Shore into the
city, the Interstate 10 "Twin Span" linking Slidell to New Orleans East across five miles of open water north
of the Rigolets. While that bridge was out all traffic from the East had to take I-12 far out of its way and
cross the Causeway, a bridge that was already near its usage capacity in normal days before the storm.
Getting the Twin Span re-opened was a priority, and it was done ahead of schedule and on budget.
Many of the damaged and displaced sections of the bridge were re-seated, but quite a few were too heavily
damaged to reuse. (The criteria for this are sketchy, since a lot of the sections of the more heavily damaged
westbound span still lack proper guard rails, those edge bits having been knocked off by the pounding surf.)
The empty spaces that remained when all the original concrete was salvaged were spanned by several steel
prefab sections. Fortunately, none of these narrow shoulderless spans is more than half a mile or so long.
Unfortunately, they have to reduce these spans to one lane once every week or two and send a crew of workers
out to check and re-tighten all the bolts. They keep working loose and nobody seems to know why.
Seeing a bunch of guys crawling around the bridge you're driving over applying torque wrenches to every bolt
they can find is not the sort of thing to give you great confidence, even if you're not bothered by the Jersey
barriers standing in for the missing sections of guard rail.
Once I returned home, about three weeks after the storm, the commute across the Causeway gave me a ringside
seat to the city's recovery. On clear days you can see the entire city from the middle of the lake, from the
Green Bridge in Chalmette all the way to the Norco refinery in the west. When I first returned, it was all
almost completely dark, and I have watched as the months crawl by and the lights slowly return. To this day I
remember the first downtown skyscraper to light its sign, and the day the lights were restored on the downtown
Mississippi River Bridges.
East Jefferson Parish
Of the greater New Orleans metro area's 1.3 million people, about 500,000 actually lived in Orleans Parish
before the storm, about 400,000 in Jefferson, and the rest in the surrounding communities including St.
Bernard, Plaquemines, and the north shore communities.
Jefferson Parish isn't on the whole any higher than Orleans, but it got luckier in the matter of broken
levees. I've seen one suggestion that it was a bit of a race, and that if the 17th Street Canal hadn't broken
on the Orleans side, flooding Lakeview, the other side would have failed flooding Jefferson through Bucktown
instead. There but for the grace of God and all that.
Houses did flood in Jefferson because the pumps famously weren't turned on in time, but they weren't flooded
to the same depth or for nearly the same length of time as houses in Orleans. Most of them have been
repaired. Electricity and other services were restored throughout the parish within a couple of months of the
storm. But there have been fiascoes.
Quite a few people have been told that because their houses were more than "50 percent" damaged that they fall
under new guidelines, often requiring them to be raised three or four feet -- a job almost as expensive as
demolition and rebuilding for a slab-on-grade house. Some homeowners have presented their middle fingers to
the parish and repaired without permits, but those who do will probably never be able to get insurance again.
Some on the edges have hidden their damage and repaired in secret to avoid this.
I entered Jefferson Parish nine days after the storm, before it was officially opened, on a permit my company
was granted to let us salvage our equipment and begin conducting infrastructure repairs. Our building was
dark but mostly intact. All over town humvees patrolled, not pimped-out civilian hummers but the military
ones with no air conditioning painted in camo. Billboards and trees were down all over the place. This was
before the blue tarps arrived and roofs were torn up all over. The wind damage was severe, even knocking down
billboards mounted on those big steel pipes. It took months to clear it all away.
Jefferson officially reopened a few weeks later and life very, very slowly rebounded to something almost
normal. As late as February most restaurants, including fast-food chains like McD's and BK, were selling
limited menus -- one of four value meals, no special orders thankyouverymuch. This was mostly due to the lack
of trained employees. Businesses like Walgreen's and Home Depot were opening at 8 AM and closing at 5 PM,
making life difficult for working people. It was a great relief to locals when those hours expanded first to
7-7, and finally only in the last couple of months to normal.
One of my coworkers who came back the day the parish reopened reports that he drove all over looking for an
open restaurant, and found none -- but every single bar was open and the parking lots were full.
Life has gradually resumed its normal tenor with weird exceptions. Professionals like dentists and lawyers
are working in construction or driving trucks because their regular customers aren't to be found, and that's
where the money is. You can't find an apartment or vacant hotel room. And traffic remains unpredictable and
hectic, the roads clogged not only with displaced Orleanians but with construction vehicles.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast
What happened to New Orleans with the levee breaches was bad, but what happened to the smaller population of
the Gulf Coast was infinitely worse. From Bay St. Louis to Biloxi Katrina's storm surge came on as a 10 to 30
foot high wall of water, which swept away everything in its path. Near the pretty beach there were no houses
left to save. My boss lost a house in Waveland, a town which effectively no longer exists. He spoke of a
neighbor who had built himself a hurricane-proof house, raised on steel pilings and well buttressed. When
they were finally allowed in to see the damage, my boss couldn't even find a pile of debris he could reliably
identify as having once been his. The neighbor's hurricane-proof house was there in spirit; its foundation
had survived, elevated on its steel pilings. Instead of the house a boat was sitting on it though.
Houses further back suffered the same fate as houses in Jefferson, a brief flood that tossed the contents.
Some of those that weren't knocked off their foundations are being rebuilt. Up and down the coastline
historic houses were destroyed, including Jefferson Davis' Beauvoir home.
Even worse, the Gulf Coast casinos, a jewel of Mississippi's new economy, were nearly all wiped out. At one
time the Gulf Coast was considered, after Las Vegas and the Tunica, MS area, the third largest integrated
gambling destination in the world. Of eleven properties open last August 28, only one survived nearly intact,
the Imperial Palace on the lee side of Biloxi in the shadow of I-110. The Boomtown gambling boat also
survived, but its land-based facility was more tightly integrated with the barge and very heavily damaged.
All the other boats were either tossed across the highway or had their contents blown out into the parking
Today the Isle of Capri and Palace have reopened by relocating their casinos in their surviving land-based
facilities, as legislation hastily passed after Katrina allowed, and the IP finally reopened after it was no
longer needed as an relief staging area. Last I heard the Boomtown was planning to open Real Soon Now. The
Grand Casinos, recently acquired by Harrah's, won't reopen; the Copa, a locally owned property always trapped
a bit by its location in the Port of Gulfport, has purchased the Grand Gulfport hotel and is rebuilding there.
The Beau Rivage is planned to reopen despite very heavy damage; it was poorly designed from the standpoint of
storm surges. Neither Casino Magic is expected to reopen and I'm
not sure what will be done with the Hard Rock, which never saw a single customer since it was planned to open
the September following the storm that destroyed it.
I visited the Isle of Capri (to eat lunch -- really!) on a Tuesday morning in April on my way back from a
service call in Moss Point. It was packed with customers. I'll let the reader speculate on the
significance of that.
You could make a case that the city founded by Bienville completely survived. At least, the parts of it
settled before 1900 or so did, back when only the high land was inhabited. Contrary to popular belief New
Orleans is neither hanging off into the Gulf of Mexico nor was it originally built below sea level. The older
areas, the "sliver by the river" or "aisle of denial" had minor flooding or none at all. There was a lot of
roof damage, people weren't allowed in to fix it until months had passed, and there was looting and a lot of
other grief, but nothing like the Divine Eraser of Wrath that hit Biloxi.
The parts of Orleans that flooded were settled as part of a suburban push that began in the early 20th
century. People often wonder why the pumps that keep New Orleans dry are so far from Lake Pontchartrain; the
reason is simple. When they were built they were at the edge of town. When the town grew past them the pumps
had to pump into canals to take their effluent into the lake, and those are the canals that breached after
The residents of Orleans Parish have spent much of the last year waiting for FEMA to issue maps telling them
how high they must raise their houses in order to be eligible for insurance coverage. After much toe-tapping
and fuming those guidelines were finally issued a few months ago, to the incredulity of those who received
them; my coworker whose Lakeview house had 10 feet of water was told he must raise his next house three feet.
"What the fuck good is that gonna do?" were his exact words, closely followed by "and why did it take six
fucking months to tell us?"
A year after the storm most of the city still doesn't have electricity, and so many water mains are damaged
that the city pumps three times as much water into the system as comes out of taps. In places where services
are restored water pressure is low and power is unreliable. Even where there was no flooding many structures
remain heavily damaged from wind and rain and unrepaired.
Rebuilding has begun on a small scale in the most affluent of the ruined neighborhoods, particularly Lakeview.
In fact, flooded houses in Lakeview have been selling for as much as 50% of their pre-flood price, as social
climbers take advantage to get into a neighborhood that was out of their price range before. At one point a
pile of garbage three stories high and two miles long occupied the
neutral ground median of
West End Boulevard in the heart of Lakeview. Those houses are being gutted or bulldozed as appropriate, and
the neighborhood is expected to recover, perhaps in as little as five or ten years.
Elsewhere, the news is less encouraging. In Gentilly and New Orleans East there is less willpower and less
money, and while some gutting is being done many structures still look just as they did when the water finally
receded. Many of these were rental properties whose landlords can't afford to rehabilitate them in the
absence of tenants. In classic catch-22 fashion their old tenants can't return because there are no rental
properties to be had. Others were owned by retirees on fixed incomes, uninsured or underinsured, and their
owners simply do not have the means to rebuild.
Many of the businesses along the Industrial Canal and Almonaster corridors have yet to clean up or reopen;
most of them couldn't even start until April or so. That late I was at one place less than a mile from the
house where I grew up (7.5 feet of water) when I needed to go online to get a driver for their computer.
"Phones and internet aren't coming until next month," I was told. "The lumberyard down the street has a
satellite feed and open wireless point, they've said it's OK to go park outside of their office and use
At the same time, the really big industries that are somehow "critical" manage to find the money to
send us "price is no object" contracts to get them back online ASAP, as they're staffed by workers living in
FEMA trailer cities that materialized when nobody else could get a FEMA trailer for any price. One of the
most heartbreaking things for me has been working with people who have lost everything, who are working their
asses off to return a flooded plant to operation even as their own homes lie flooded and unsalvaged.
You have no doubt heard the phrase "Lower Ninth Ward." This neighborhood was hit with fast running water from
a wide break in the Industrial Canal levee, and many houses actually ended up in the middle of the street.
Today, most of the streets have been cleared but otherwise the collapsed houses mostly remain exactly where
they landed a year ago. You can drive around and see that a small percentage of houses have been properly
gutted to keep them from deteriorating further, and the demolition and removal of unsalvageable homes has
finally begun in the neighborhoods where the damage was heaviest.
This is a mostly black neighborhood, but you have to remember that in New Orleans "mostly black" means there
are still a lot of white people. (The reverse has also been true since roughly the 1970's.) It is in the
Ninth Ward where you will hear the most fervent assertions that the levees were bombed and that it's all a
plot to gentrify the city. A lot of these houses had never flooded before and were occupied by the same
people for 50 years or more, and those are the very sort of people who wouldn't have evacuated even if they
could, because the evacuation would have seemed more dangerous than the threat of any storm.
It is also from the Ninth Ward that you hear some of the most harrowing tales of survival in the aftermath of
the storm, as the fast-moving water came up in minutes at a point when the storm had passed and people thought
they were safe. You can imagine the level of disillusion at work. The way that survivors were treated
afterward with the delayed rescue through the infamous Causeway staging area did not improve their
At this point Orleans Parish has theoretically welcomed as many as 200,000 of its original 500,000 residents
back. I find this figure hard to believe but maybe the Aisle of Denial really is that wide. In any case it
is Orleans that used to dominate the local political landscape, having the lion's share of the population and
tax base. That is no longer true; now it's Jefferson. The result has been a seismic shift in local politics.
Nobody seems to have a credible model for how that's going to shake out.
Chalmette and St. Bernard Parish
Much of the water that ended up in the Ninth Ward got there by flowing over the 40 Arpent Canal levee and
through Chalmette. Katrina basically left no undamaged structures in St. Bernard Parish. Recovery has been
extremely slow and it's been hampered by the nasty spill from the Murphy Oil refinery which contaminated a lot
of the surrounding property.
I haven't been to Chalmette since March, so I don't know how it's doing now, but back then it was mostly
deserted except for a few brave pioneers and the workers trying to restore Murphy Oil. I hear it's doing
better but a lot of their population is never coming back because they've already bought houses in St.
Tammany. The commute from Covington to Chalmette is a brutal 1.5 hours each way in the best of times but when
your house has been swept away by a flood it might seem worth enduring.
Houma, Lake Charles, and Cameron
Much of coastal Louisiana was spared by Katrina, since the eye passed to the east of us and hit Mississippi.
We weren't in the northeast quadrant where the worst storm surge is found.
Three weeks later, evil twin sister Rita fixed that bug. Hitting near Lake Charles it sent a Katrina-sized
storm surge across all of coastal Louisiana, hitting the oilfield supply towns on the west side of the state
with particular ferocity. I have been told of million pound capacity tanks left half-full to ballast them
which were swept into the sea. Further away, two hundred miles away back in the New Orleans area, Rita
managed to do what Katrina didn't and flooded the low-lying areas of the North Shore.
The oilfield town of Cameron isn't there any more. I have asked several people to clarify that
statement and as far as I can tell they mean that the landscape is so altered that without a GPS you couldn't
even figure out where the town used to be. It seems improbable but I've gotten the same story from several
Further east the damage wasn't quite that bad, and Rita didn't hit any major metropolitan centers (unless you
consider its mostly wind-based direct hit on Lake Charles). Houma saw little flooding but the town of Dulac,
to the south, was inundated. Shrimp processing plants were hit particularly hard. You don't see many blue
roof tarps in these areas, but you see a lot of new construction being built on 10 foot tall concrete
The residents of these fishing communities have always known that storms were a possibility, and they are much
less pissed off about it than the New Orleanians who felt their trust was betrayed by the failure of their
protection system. The shrimpers know that the occasional hard hit is the price for living where the money is
to be made. They are apt to laugh as they tell you what happened to the shipping container where the system
they want you to fix was retrieved. ("We're pretty sure it stayed dry because we found it on top of some
cars," e.g. it must have floated.)
I already covered Plaquemines in the preamble. Past Empire, it's all gone. There are a few FEMA trailer
cities along Highway 23, no doubt mostly inhabited by the people who are servicing the oil industry. Much of
the ruined oilfield infrastructure in Venice hasn't been replaced, and insiders have told me there is a real
danger Venice will lose its place in the economy as the more quickly recovering places, particularly Port
Fourchon on the road to Grand Isle, step in and take their business.
In Buras, just south of the big Empire bridge, the local Ace hardware franchise was washed off its foundation into the adjacent canal. It is still there to this day, the peak of the roof and sign sticking up out of the water. No effort has been made to clear it, and most of lower Plaquemines Parish is like that.
Power has been restored down the length of Highway 23. Instead of repairing the shredded lines the power
company simply built new ones, leaving the old poles leaning as the storm left them with the old wires lying
on the ground.
The Diaspora, Continued
I spent the afternoon of the 26th helping an old friend to move. J was planning on pursuing her graduate
degree at Tulane until Katrina came through; now she's migrating to Seattle instead. After getting her
bachelor's degree in her early 50's, packing to take not just her but her nine dogs to Washington seemed like
a ridiculous task. But people are doing that sort of thing a lot lately.
I have yet to make good on my earlier promises to get the hell out, and like most NOLA area residents I'm
casting a wary eye at the Carribbean. But the things that have been blocking me are flimsy and the risk
remains. I do plan to move eventually, although it may take "a few" years instead of being by X year
hurricane season. Responsibilities are such a pain.
The most striking thing about the post-Katrina landscape is not really the destruction; we remember earlier
storms like Camille and Andrew, and we've always known this kind of thing was possible. We always expected
that if it happened, we would respond in typical can-do American fashion and fix it. And that very simply
hasn't happened. Over and over when we needed heroes we got bureaucrats instead, bureaucrats who demanded
that would-be rescuers get training and "federalization" before they could be allowed to save lives,
bureaucrats who put paperwork before the mammoth task of moving in desperately needed supplies, bureaucrats
who put ass-covering before the critical task of setting new flood level standards so that people could begin
We invited the Dutch to look over the situation, with their vast and successful experience holding back an
angry sea from their low-lying nation, and they said unequivocally that the problem can be fixed, the danger
abated, the city saved. All it will require is money and willpower. And the leaders of the richest country
in human history leaned back and scratched their chins, bureaucrats to the last man, and complained that it
would be an uncalled-for handout to salvage the lives of a few hundred thousand mere middle-class families, or
to protect one of the oldest cities in North America from annihilation. Nobody wants to give people the hard
news that they need to raise their houses ten feet or that their neighborhood needs to be cleared, so nothing
is done at all and the ruined houses sit in the hot Louisiana sun and breed mold.
Growing up in New Orleans I always knew the hurricane was a possibility, but it never occurred to me, being as
I was constantly told a citizen of the wealthiest country with the best standard of living and highest
technology and the most noble ideals in all of human history, that when the hurricane came my country would
sit back and let one of its great cities fall into ruin.
And as I write this, a full year after Katrina, for the most part that is exactly what is happening.