It looks like I’ve gotten out of the gulf coast region just in time. At the time of writing the media here is awash with reports of the unexpected strengthening of Tropical Storm Harvey into a hurricane and the fact that it will now make landfall in Texas and Louisiana tomorrow, bringing with it winds of over 120mph and 25 inches of rain. The surprise arrival of the strongest hurricane to make landfall in the US since 2005 is perhaps pertinent to the subject of this post.
Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans back in 2005 with catastrophic results. I’m sure you all remember the pictures of almost the entire city underwater after the levees failed and the stories of the negligent handling of the aftermath by both local and federal authorities. The lack of coordinated response, and general blasé attitude of Washington, is generally credited has being the thing that had the single greatest impact on the presidency of George W Bush. You may remember the pictures of him ‘viewing’ the disaster from 30,000ft on Air Force One while, on the ground below, hundreds of thousands of US citizens were homeless and without food or clean drinking water.
On Wednesday morning I travelled through New Orleans on my way to Alabama and Florida. I made a decision not to drive through the city centre but instead to go on a route through the suburbs. New Orleans is a popular tourist destination and the city centre will no-doubt reflect this. What I wanted to see was how the rest of the area was faring some twelve years on from the events of Hurricane Katrina.
The first thing of note as you head into the city proper is that it’s clear that there has been significant recent work carried out on the areas flood defences. The roads in and out cut through large concrete walls which have equally large closable flood gates in them should the need arise. These certainly look impressive but it was obvious that there was still some work to be done as orange construction signs and equipment littered some of the flood gates and concrete structures.
Driving through the suburbs themselves I was genuinely shocked by what I saw. I think it’s difficult for us in the UK to appreciate the immensity of scale of natural disasters that can befall other parts of the world. The thing that was immediately clear in the New Orleans suburbs is that the impact of Katrina was such that many residents decided to leave the area and never come back. On the roads I drove down around fifty-percent of the houses and business were long-abandoned. Many of them showed the obvious effects of the hurricane with roofs and walls collapsed or heavily damaged. Trees had grown up around and in these ruins and, in some cases, it was as if the area hadn’t been touched since the moment the hurricane struck. Destroyed cars were parked on drives and roofs and walls had been left where they fell. On some buildings, especially the ones made of brick or stone, it was clear that they had been stripped of useful materials after the hurricane had struck. Brick walls had been carefully dismantled and stone blocks removed – presumably to shore up other structures. In areas where an entire street had been abandoned the sidewalk slabs had been lifted and trees were freely growing in the middle of the street.
When I wrote about Mississippi the other day I remarked on the number of abandoned buildings – but these tended to be old structures that had simply failed the test of time. In the suburbs of New Orleans entire city blocks have been abandoned to nature, frozen in time having been destroyed by the hurricane with no effort made to rebuild or replace them. Occasionally there were blocks and areas where new structures were in evidence, and it was clear that some regeneration work had gone on, but these were in the minority.
I think the thing that got me was that, as I drove through the suburbs, this picture was repeated. Street after street exhibited the same pattern of destruction and abandonment. Something in your mind expects this kind of thing to be localised, like if there’s a gas explosion or ‘mini tornado’ at home which impacts maybe one end of a street of houses. In New Orleans the whole city took the blow – nothing escaped the impact of the hurricane and subsequent floods. For the second time in this trip I was faced with something that I was struggling to comprehend.
As I continued to drive through the city and then along the connecting towns on the gulf coast the emotion that came over was one of frustration, and them anger.
Stop and think about it for a second: Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. That is twelve years ago. Twelve. A long time. But yet large portions of New Orleans look as if it hit last week. While you might be able to understand why this would be the case when a developing country is hit by a natural disaster we are talking about the United States of America here – the richest and most powerful country on the planet. There is no doubt in my mind, absolutely no doubt, that if Katrina had struck a city such as Chicago, Los Angeles or New York then there would be little or no evidence of that disaster left twelve years on. It’s almost as if New Orleans has been forgotten by the rest of the country, or simply isn’t worth the time of day. Yes, the flood defences have been rebuilt and improved, but what exactly are they now defending?
Imagine how you would feel if you lived in New Orleans. You stayed in the city after the disaster because it was, and always had been, your home. Every day since then however you’ve driven to work past the same ruined buildings and infrastructure watching them decay into nothing. Your neighbours have all moved out, businesses have moved away and you’re now essentially living in a ghost town. No effort is made to rebuild the area in which you live and even some basic services have yet to be restored. In short: Nobody seems to care.
I think New Orleans is an example of a wider divide that exists, and is growing, in the United States at the moment. If your only experience of the country was a week in New York, or one of the other big northern cities, you would leave with the view cemented that the US is a rich, modern, technologically-advanced and growing beast of a country. If, however, you only visited the gulf coast, or other areas of the ‘Deep South’, you would leave with the view that the US is a country in decline, a country stricken by significant poverty and inequality, where whole towns and cities are now just echoes of what they used to be. You would not for a moment think that the US was anything other than a developing country with not much in the way of resources to spread around.
About three hours after leaving the area around New Orleans I drove through some of the costal resorts of Alabama and Florida. Here the seafront was covered in expensive new hotels, apartments and attractions. Piers jutted out into the sea which offered fishing expeditions and jet ski rental. The beach was covered in people enjoying the sun and the parking lots were filled with RVs and trucks with boats attached. It all seemed a bit surreal watching all these people burning money on the finer things in life when, only a few hours earlier, I’d observed a woman walking down her ruined street carrying two large bottles filled with drinking water from a local stand-pipe because, presumably, the water supply to her house had yet to be restored – twelve years after the hurricane.
If nothing else, the US is a country of contradictions.