Four years on from Hurricane Katrina, what is happening in New Orleans?
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina wrought devastation along the Gulf Coast of the USA, most catastrophically in New Orleans, bringing devastation to 80% of the city.
Storm winds generated a massive storm surge that overtopped the famous coastal city’s levees. A terrible toll was suffered when nearly 1,600 people lost their lives and damages of $100 billion were recorded.
Four years later, how is the city's hazard risk now being managed? And what social and environmental issues still need resolving as the citizens of New Orleans continue trying to rebuild their lives?
Hurricane risk hazard management in New Orleans
Post-Katrina social and environmental issues
IB / A Level Hazards activity
Risk management has several strands. In the case of hurricanes, mitigation is not possible – storms cannot be prevented. But a range of adaptation measures can still be taken in order to minimise losses of life and property should a repeat event occur.
Adaptive measures range from hard engineering (flood walls) to soft engineering (moving people away from high-risk areas). In the aftermath of Katrina, a number of approaches have been adopted, some of which are proving to be controversial.
(1) Levee building
This type of hard engineering has always been used along the Mississippi flood plain. Levees are banks of material that line the river bank or coastline, allowing greater heights of water to be reached without water spilling onto settled land. Since 2005, major repairs have been made and for the foreseeable future, New Orleans will be protected by levees.
However, these re-constructed levees will still be unable to protect against a storm with Katrina's strength. Although the Army Corps of Engineers is spending $15 billion on post-Katrina levee construction and reconstruction, the works will only offer the city relatively limited 100-year protection. This means that while they can withstand the worst flood typically occurring every 100 years, they are not proof against anything of greater magnitude (by way of comparison, the Thames Flood Barrier offers London 1000-year protection).
As CBS News (23 August 2008) puts it: “This does not mean they'd stand up to storms for a century. Under the 100-year standard, in fact, experts say that every house being rebuilt in New Orleans has a 26 percent chance of being flooded again over a 30-year mortgage; and every child born in New Orleans would have nearly a 60 percent chance of seeing a major flood in his or her life.”
CBS News also reports that critics are worried that city officials are making similar policy mistakes to those after Hurricane Betsy struck New Orleans in 1965. Between Betsy and Katrina, about 22,000 brand new homes were constructed in eastern New Orleans after new defences were erected in the late 1960s - even though they did not offer total protection. As one expert says, “any levee building makes people feel good”.
Perhaps post-Katrina levee construction have a similar effect, encouraging more property to be built – thereby raising the hazard risk again! (As risk studies have often shown, people drive faster when they are wearing a seatbelt!)
Disaster planning has been greatly improved since 2005. When Hurricane Gustav threatened New Orleans in 2008, an impressive 1.9 million people immediately evacuated the city and the wider south Louisiana area. As few as 10,000 people stayed put in New Orleans itself and only 100,000 more along the southern Louisiana coastline.
According to experts, the most important lessons learned from Katrina that were applied in the case of Gustav are "Planning, preparation, and moving 24 to 36 hours earlier than for Katrina” (CBS News, 01 September 2008).
(3) Managed retreat
The strategy of abandoning high-risk land has proved controversial. People often have a strong attachment to neighbourhoods they grew up in. Also, the highest-risk areas for flooding have tended to be places where large numbers of black Americans live, rather than white Americans (a highly controversial finding, for obvious reasons).
Mayor Ray Nagin has proposed a “managed retreat” strategy, which involves converting large parts of the city's most flood-prone areas into permeable green spaces. But according to the Guardian newspaper (29 August 2009), citizens who had lost flooded homes in these same areas recently pitched tents on the sites of their former properties, and protested against bulldozers poised to remove housing rubble in preparation for park building. These people instead want to see their districts rebuilt and not abandoned.
(4) FEMA's hi-tech people locator
One recent hazard management success story in New Orleans is a new hi-tech locator system to help people displaced by hurricanes get in touch with their family. In 2005, an estimated 18,000 people were lost in the system after Hurricane Katrina displaced them. Now America's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has developed a new method of monitoring the movement of evacuated people.
Displaced citizens can now sign up with the National Emergency Family Registry Locator. This computerised system allows up to seven people access their information, including ways to contact them. A special section is set aside specifically for missing children.
The recovery period following a major natural disaster can be lengthy. Victims need time for physical and psychological wounds to heal. Yet there are also new environmental opportunities to be seized. Following widespread destruction, a new chance is presented for society to re-build in ways that are an improvement on the past.
(1) Long-term psychological stress for children
Health officials believe it could take many more years for the children of New Orleans to recover from severe psychological stress. According to a 2007 study, it is estimated that there are 45,000 children in the city that have some kind of mental health problem. In 2009, a child of just 11 years old committed suicide (and who would have been aged 7 when Katrina hit).
CBS News (28 August 2009) reports on the case of Tyronne Smith, who was aged 13 back in 2005. “I lost my house, my dogs,” Smith said. “It has just been horrible.” Tyronne required counselling to help him adjust and it was only in 2009, after a four year wait, that his family finally moved back to their home (which was left submerged under five feet of water by the hurricane).
(2) Long-term psychological stress for adults
Many people displaced by Hurricane Katrina still do not have homes to return to due to the scale of the rebuilding that is necessary. Those who do return to rebuilt homes may find their neighbourhoods greatly altered, devoid of their old friends, neighbours and points of reference. ‘He had decided to return to New Orleans - the city where he had always lived - but most of his friends and family were no longer there. It is estimated that almost half of those who left St Bernard Parish after Hurricane Katrina have simply not returned. "I have to laugh, to keep from crying," he said, through watery eyes’. (BBC 16 June 2009). For many the thought of returning to New Orleans is too much and hundreds of the original inhabitants have now left the area for good.
For those who are still there, the stress of living in temporary accommodation, often trailers, without any local amenities, is great. "It's important to understand how relentless the stress is from the storm. It never stops. The length of the stress these people have had is unusual." (BBC 16 June 2009). Whilst non-profit organisations and local authorities are busy rebuilding neighbourhoods, the recovery process is fragile, made all the more so with the current economic climate.
Some areas of New Orleans are struggling to recover more than others due to the widespread devastation that Hurricane Katrina created. The lower Ninth Ward is one area struggling to recover. Many homes have not been rebuilt, the only evidence of their existence are the concrete steps and foundations where they once stood. Empty properties still stand in the damaged state they were left in after the hurricane struck; roofs are covered in temporary tarpaulin which is now damaged and torn, the outside walls have flood water stains and the ruined house contents are still inside, all an indication to the people who are living there that life will never quite be the same. For those people the daily reminder of how life was, compared to the reality of how life, is can be too much.
‘The mental rebuilding of New Orleans has proven to be harder than the physical reconstruction’, Zack Rosenburg told the BBC (16 June 2009). A former Washington DC lawyer, he co-founded the St Bernard Project in 2006. A non-profit organisation, the St Bernard Project, relies on young volunteers from across the United States who still flock to New Orleans, especially during the summer months, to help rebuild and decorate homes. Once Rosenburg realised that many people had difficulty returning to the houses the volunteers had rebuilt for them because their communities had changed beyond recognition and now lacked everything they used to be familiar with, he decided to establish a mental health centre which is constantly busy as he feels people find it easier to talk to an outside organisation they have come to trust. Dr Chuck Coleman of Louisiana State University is one of the doctors working at the centre.
"It's important to understand how relentless the stress is from the storm. It never stops," he told me as he waited for his next patient to arrive. "The length of the stress these people have had is unusual." (BBC 16 June 2009).
(3) Unsolved murders
Due to exaggerated reports of looting, the National Guard, New Orleans Police Department and some vigilantes are all reported to have acted heavy-handedly in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In some cases people were shot at as suspected looters - when they were in reality refugees seeking help.
The fact that the victims were black – including two family groups attempting to cross the Danziger Bridge – has left an uneasy feeling in parts of the city community (Guardian, 26 August 2009). “The majority in Katrina took care of each other, went to great lengths to rescue each other – a minority did not,” observes the newspaper.
(4) The ‘build back green’ campaign
The Guardian newspaper reports that the organisation Global Green, supported by actor Brad Pitt, is piloting a carbon-neutral “green community” in the Holy Cross area of the Lower Ninth Ward, where some of the city's poorest inhabitants used to live. “They say that if 50,000 homes destroyed by Katrina were rebuilt to their standards, over half a million tonnes of CO2 would be eliminated from the atmosphere – the equivalent, they claim, of taking 100,000 cars off the road” (Guardian, 29 August 2009).
Pitt also established the Make It Right Foundation to build 150 green, affordable, high-quality design homes in the Lower 9th Ward. However, critics say the technologically sophisticated green homes are expensive and slow to build. Global Green has been developing plans since 2005 but their first model green home was only completed in 2008. While some residents still do not have homes to return to and remain living with friends or family elsewhere. As a result, so far just 2,600 of the 14,000 residents who lived in the lower Ninth Ward before Katrina have returned (CBS News, 28 August 2009). - although not all these people are waiting for their homes to be built by either of these organisations
(5) What's in a name?
Since Hurricane Katrina, most Americans have avoided “the K word” when naming a baby girl! During the 1980s, Katrina regularly ranked among the 100 most popular names for a new daughter. Now it has reached an all-time low in term of popularity. Just 850 babies born in the United States were named Katrina last year. CBS News (12 May 2007) reports that the name is ranked in 382nd place, “just below Brenna”.
However, two states show up as anomalies in recent data, and they are those that suffered the worst losses of life from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In Louisiana, the number of babies named Katrina jumped from eight to 15 in 2006 while in Mississippi, the number rose from seven to 24. What reasons can you suggest for this? Survivors making a statement about their own resilience perhaps?
(a) Analyse the global spatial distribution pattern for hurricanes. (5)
[Tips - Discuss the way hurricane tracks are found either side of the equator but not actually on it; also mention the lack of southern hemisphere activity. Key factors whose role may be briefly explored include the Coriolis effect and ocean temperatures.]
(b) “Hurricane disaster risk can never be eliminated.” Discuss. (10)
[Tips – Make sure you argue both for and against the statement. Risk of disaster can be reduced through adaptive measures such as managed retreat, land use planning or levee building. However, mitigation of the threat is not possible (we cannot stop the earth spinning!). A discussion of return periods for high magnitude events might draw attention to the fact that no matter how good our defences are, there is always a small statistical probability of an extremely severe event still besting our defences.]
Written by Dr Simon Oakes, a senior A-level and International Baccalaureate examiner, who teaches at Bancroft’s School, Essex
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