Seven years to the day after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf coasts, a significantly weaker, but still unnerving Hurricane Isaac has lashed the New Orleans metro area with 10 inches of rain and over 18 hours of tropical storm force winds. While the damage from Isaac may be repaired relatively quickly, the storm has been a sobering reminder of the wounds from Katrina that have yet to heal.
Katrina struck August 29, 2005, as a strong Category 3 storm with winds of over 120mph and a storm surge approaching nearly 30 feet. The storm was the costliest disaster in national history, with over $80 billion in damage and at least 1,800 deaths directly related to the storm. Nearly 80% of the city of New Orleans was flooded after flood protection levees failed and many towns on the Mississippi coastline were scoured to bare earth.
Many are quick to point out that New Orleans has rebounded with gusto since Katrina’s floodwaters were finally pumped out of the city. The population has climbed to 75% of the pre-storm total, giving the city the perhaps dubious distinction of being the fastest growing region in the country, and the Army Corps of Engineers has spent over $10 billion on new and improved levees, pumps, and floodgates. Urban revitalization has continued, with new housing, retail, and restaurants giving a much-needed boost to the local economy.
Others, however, are concerned that the economic recovery has disproportionately favored wealthier, white citizens and served to gentrify the city more than to rebuild the last vestiges of multiethnic neighborhoods. The public school system has been divided into three competing districts that remain controversial, and crime continues to plague parts of the city. It is also increasingly apparent that Katrina still affects New Orleanians’ health, as studies have described enduring storm-related medical and psychological conditions. And each summer, the threat looms that another disastrous storm could easily disrupt this tenuous balance and push the city back into decline.
The greater New Orleans region has weathered several lesser storms in the years since Katrina, but this week the August 29 anniversary seemed to magnify this concern. Anxiety rose last weekend when forecasts first suggested Isaac would head west from Florida and affect the Gulf Coast, peaking after Mayor Mitch Landrieu declared a state of emergency in the city on Sunday morning. Careful to avoid a panic, officials hesitated to call for evacuations and ordered residents to stock up on emergency supplies and helter-in-place. Within hours, the Tchoupitoulas Street Wal-Mart — site of severe looting during Katrina — was sold out of storm supplies such as batteries, flashlights, and bottled water, and gas stations across the city reported long lines and short supplies.
As the city hunkered down for the storm, cable news reporters quickly fell into the habit of comparing Isaac to Katrina, with some seemingly begging the National Hurricane Center to upgrade the storm to hurricane status on Tuesday afternoon. The storm’s slow progress led to many filler reports that relived both the horrors of Katrina and the botched government response to the disaster. The heightened emotions surrounding the storm and media coverage crossed the line for some on Wednesday, when a Yahoo! News bureau chief was dismissed for a coarse remark about the image of the Republican National Convention continuing as the storm loomed in Louisiana.
With heavy rain and wind continuing, damage from Isaac will take several days to assess. Automated calls from local electricity supplier Entergy stated that as of 11:00 a.m. Wednesday over 160,000 customers were without power in Orleans Parish, with a total of almost 500,000 outages across the state. Elsewhere, local governments reported that a state-owned levee south of New Orleans had failed, sending water into parts of Plaquemennes Parish. Whatever the final physical and financial damage from Isaac, the storm has made it clear that each time a hurricane takes aim at New Orleans, survivors and observers alike will relive the darkest days of August 2005 and remind the country that Hurricane Katrina’s disturbing legacy endures in the nation’s Gulf Coast.