In New Orleans, Waiting Out an Unfortunate Anniversary
NEW ORLEANS — It’s an incredibly rare 73-degree August morning here. The stately live oaks stand out against a perfectly clear blue sky. The smell of fried seafood greets me as I pass the neighborhood lunch spot, and I hear a trumpeter in the distance practicing scales.
I am blessed to live here.
It feels as if the city should be getting ready for the next seafood or music festival, or some crazy walking parade with outrageous feathered costumers carrying go cups.
Instead, the city is holding its collective breath until all of this Katrina 10th anniversary madness is behind us. We don’t need wall-to-wall anniversary coverage on the Weather Channel or CNN to remind us of Katrina. We certainly don’t need the judgments — subtle or otherwise —that come with such intense media scrutiny. (Seethe is too gentle a word to describe our reaction when reminded of former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s post-Katrina comments questioning whether the city should be rebuilt.)
We’re reminded every day, if not every minute, of the storm that tore the city apart and caused its rebuilding. Most of the water lines on homes are long gone, but when we look at buildings, we can remember where the water stood, for days and weeks.
We’re reminded by the continued rebuilding and tearing down.
We’re reminded by things as mundane as our own walls and floors — bamboo that replaced hardwood and sheetrock that replaced plaster.
We’re reminded by the deserted Charity Hospital and the boarded-up Lindy Boggs Medical Center.
We’re reminded by the state-of-the art $1 billion University Medical Center on a once rundown portion of Canal Street.
None of this if not for Katrina.
The immediate years after Katrina — when the insults were fresh and the reminders too numerous — broke my spirit and love for the city.
I longed for traffic lights and schools that worked. For smooth roads and a competent health care system.
In 2011, my family moved to Fairfax County, Va., and we got all of those things. But we lost so much more.
We longed for the mix of New Orleans residents who bonded together after the storm and rebuilt the city; and for the New Orleans that, ignoring criticism, held Mardi Gras in 2006.
We missed our former colleagues, who after Katrina — despite having homes marinating in floodwaters — put out a daily newspaper for the throngs of fellow homeless residents warehoused at the Convention Center and Superdome.
We missed our friends, who in 2008, when our then 4-year-old daughter was sick, came out in droves to sit with us at the hospital, bring us food and donate blood.
We discovered — belatedly — that infrastructure doesn’t make a city. People do.
We lasted just two years in Virginia.
We returned to New Orleans with our eyes more wide open to the risks we face living here.
I didn’t believe those who told me reassuringly “this won’t happen again.”
I know that it will.
Yes, $14.6 billion in improvements have been made to protect the city from future storms, but Congress directed the Army Corps of Engineers to build New Orleans a hurricane protection system to make the city eligible for the National Flood Insurance Program — not to protect lives (though that arguably is a nice side benefit).
New Orleans has a 26-foot high, 1.8 mile long, “Game of Thrones”-like surge protection barrier, pump stations and 350 miles of levees and floodwalls built so they won’t fail when overtopped.
The system is designed to protect the city when a 100-year storm — one which has a 1 percent chance of occurring each year — hits the region.
But the next storm will happen, and some experts believe it will happen once every 20 to 50 years, not once in a 100.
More can be done to reduce our risk. The state’s settlement with BP from the 2010 oil spill will help partially fund a $50 billion coastal restoration plan, which includes restoring islands and wetlands and building the protection system around New Orleans even higher.
There is, of course, always the slim chance that Congress will allocate more to protect the region that is home to the Gulf of Mexico’s offshore oil complex, one of the nation’s most important ports and 40 percent of the nation’s wetlands.
But New Orleans’ go cup, as one engineer recently told me, is half full.
While we, as New Orleanians, would prefer to have one filled to the rim, the system we have is better than what Miami, Boston, or even Washington, D.C., has.
Sea level rise and climate change puts those and other coastal cities at risk.
It’s unlikely that anyone is going to build a wall around D.C.
All we can do is know our risks and take precautions.
Yes, I live below sea level, but my home is not. We have flood insurance and a plan to evacuate when the next hurricane — no matter what category — is headed here.
At least, for now, I can live where people call me “my baby” in grocery stores, I can hear music in the streets, and when I run into friends — and even marginal acquaintances — who, although they may be running late, they will stop and greet me with a kiss on the cheek and ask me how I’m doing.
And that is all made so much sweeter by what we’ve been through together, and what we are likely to go through again.
Pam Radtke Russell is editor of the CQ Roll Call Washington Energy Briefing .
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