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New Orleans, Six Years After Hurricane Katrina

The aftermath of a major storm on the East Coast seems like a good time to revisit the since of the most destructive natural disaster of recent years. As it turns out, today is the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina touching down in the Gulf Coast, kicking off the man-made disaster from the failure of the levees that killed thousands in New Orleans. Returning to New Orleans today, it would be easy to have a visit untainted by the effects of the hurricane and flood. You’d just have to avoid the Lower Ninth Ward and other communities that haven’t recovered hardly at all.

In New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, the grasses grow taller than people and street after street is scarred by empty decaying houses, the lives that once played out inside their walls hardly imaginable now.

St. Claude Avenue, the once moderately busy commercial thoroughfare, looks like the main street of a railroad town bypassed long ago by the interstate. Most buildings are shuttered, “For Sale” signs stuck on their sides. There aren’t many buyers. And the businesses that are open are mostly corner stores where folks buy pricey cigarettes, liquor and packaged food.

Six years after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, the New Orleans neighborhood that was hardest hit still looks like a ghost town. Redevelopment has been slow in coming, and the neighborhood has just 5,500 residents — one-third its pre-Katrina population.

Outside of some charity building from the likes of people like Brad Pitt and Treme’s Wendell Pierce, there’s just not a lot of activity in the Lower Ninth. Other parts of New Orleans have passed it by. The smaller footprint that city leaders swore would never happen is coming to pass through inertia.

But the failure of the Lower Ninth could be matched by the failure of the rest of the city in the event of another big storm. Because the levees that put New Orleans into catastrophe in 2005 have not been upgraded in any significant way today.

A new Army Corps of Engineers rating system for the nation’s levees is about to deliver a near-failing grade to New Orleans area dikes, despite the internationally acclaimed $10 billion effort to rebuild the system in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, corps officials have confirmed.

Preliminary rankings obtained by The Times-Picayune show that the corps believes there’s still a significant risk of flooding from major hurricanes or river floods that are greater than the design heights of Mississippi River levees and hurricane levees on both the east and west banks. In both cases, the levees were rated Class II or “urgent (unsafe or potentially unsafe),” on a scale of I to V, with V representing normal or “adequately safe.”

Getting back to our discussion of infrastructure. Think back to how much money has been spent on New Orleans since Katrina, and how a fraction of that could have gone into making sure the levees would hold back a storm of that ferocity. The same dynamic holds today. Without getting the levees up to the proper code, a rebuilding effort from another flood event would cost $47.7 billion. Wouldn’t it make sense to spend just a small portion of that money now?

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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