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New Orleans: The city located in a bowl

By By Tray Smith
Driving down Elysian Fields Avenue, which borders New Orleans’s eminently devastated Ninth Ward, the most notable eccentricities motorists observe are the unsightly, spray painted X’s which decorate the front of every home. In each section of each X, a different number is plastered: one for the date the home was searched, one for the number of human casualties found in the home, one for the potentially dangerous scenarios which could result from the uncontained materials in the home and one to identify the National Guard Unit that searched the home. Those signs were painted, of course, in the aftermath of searches conducted in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the 2006 storm that killed more than 1,464 individuals in New Orleans alone.
As residents of an area long the target of powerful storms, individuals from our region of the Gulf Coast ask themselves why Hurricane Katrina’s devastation has attracted media coverage unparalleled by similar previous catastrophes that have struck here. But those residents can console their concerns with this realization: the damage in New Orleans, extensive as it may be, is not the result of a hurricane. Its currently depressed state; therefore, is not comparable to other hurricane ravaged areas.
In the words of one local resident, “The damage in New Orleans was not the result of a natural catastrophe. It was the result of a man made engineering failure.” Indeed, in the immediate hours following Katrina’s landfall, reports flowing out of the Big Easy indicated that the city had avoided a direct hit and survived the worst of the storm. It was only when the levees, already the city’s only barrier from its internal waterways, collapsed under the pressure of an enormous storm surge, that 80 percent of New Orleans was left underwater.
Riding over the end of one canal which famously breached its levees after the storm, a large pumping system, newly installed, thrust into sight from the waterway. Now, after spending billions of dollars on improvements, public officials believe the levees are capable of withstanding storms of similar intensity. But Hurricane Katrina swept over New Orleans as a meager category one storm. Had it hit New Orleans directly, it would have been a category three.
In the historic French Quarter, which, as New Orleans’s oldest neighborhood, was logically built on the highest ground available, most establishments were sufficiently fortunate to survive the worst of both the hurricane and the flooding. There, tourists still visit bars, restaurants, shops and shows in the place President Bush once referred to as the “town where I used to come from Houston, Texas, to enjoy myself — occasionally too much.” Area residents say that in fact, the tourists never really left, noting news reports of Bourbon Street parties thrown as Katrina approached. Today, those tourists provide the city a source of income with which it can hopefully finance its extensive recovery needs and regenerate its tarnished economy.
But the atmosphere the tourists enjoy so thoroughly in New Orleans’s vivacious downtown is notably absent from its desolate neighborhoods. In the lower Ninth Ward, some estimate that fewer than 10 percent of the population has returned. There, former residents face obstacles even in producing the legal documentation necessary to receive government aid and building permits. Many of them are people who, having been the third or fourth generation occupant of their home, do not possess the paperwork necessary to verify property ownership. These individuals are also likely to have been apathetic towards purchasing home insurance, because their dependence on inherited housing left them unaware of the financial consequence of home construction.
Occasionally, it is hard to discern whether a particular house’s dilapidation is the result of Hurricane Katrina’s wrath or its natural state. Such indistinction is a vivid reminder of the poverty rooted in New Orleans before the hurricane landed. It is also a reminder of the welfare state mentality rooted underneath that poverty.
But the impoverished were not the only victim of the flood’s devastation, which flows across New Orleans. From the middle class areas surrounding the University of New Orleans to Metairie, vacant lots and empty foundations remain. In the neighborhood surrounding City Park, although the rebuilding process has moved along more rapidly than in many other areas, signs of destruction are still visible everywhere. And City Park itself sits empty of the many trees that once proliferated its acreage. It is, perhaps, the most visible contrast between the universally vibrant city New Orleans once was, and much of the depressed armageddon still remains.
Tray Smith is a political columnist for the Atmore Advance. He is a student at Escambia County High School and can be reached at tsmith_90@ hotmail.com.