New Orleans: One year on

On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Over 1,500 people were killed. One year on, amid fierce fighting over the city's regeneration, widespread disillusionment with the state and federal authorities and with hundreds of thousands of residents still displaced, New Orleans is gearing up to commemorate the storm.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

More writing on New Orleans

For more of my articles on New Orleans a year on from Katrina, follow the links below:

Spiked Magazine - "Nothing's simple in the Big Easy"
The Guardian - "There's no place like home"
Hackwriters - "One year on"

Monday, September 11, 2006

Macho man

I’ve met three US marines in New Orleans and each encounter has been as fun and formidable as I always hoped it would. The first was in a little Irish pub just off Bourbon Street, where a crazy bartender called Emily regaled us with the tale of how she once called up Cingular (a big American mobile network) and demanded to know whether they could back up their advertised claim to have the ‘fewest dropped calls’.

There was a motley crew propping up the bar and none of us was remotely interested in the outcome of this story. But Emily’s manic approach of emphasising her points by clattering glasses down in front of us and firing drinks in every direction to head off any potential interruptions had everyone too terrified to move, so we laboured on to the end (which, you will be pleased to know, resulted in her being kept on hold for two hours only to find out the relevant research had been carried out by a company owned by Cingular). Basking in her single-handed triumph on behalf of neurotic consumers everywhere, Emily departed swinging her towel triumphantly in the air. Relieved to have survived the ordeal with relatively few glass-shard related injuries, conversation gently returned to our corner of the bar.

Before long my companion (seated on my right) began speaking in increasingly vociferously and slurred tones, as people generally seem to do over here, on the subject of George Bush. The remarks became steadily more hostile and a few references to the Pope were chucked in for good measure, before the man to my left – a 60+ mountain of pasty flesh who up to now I’d assumed was a scenic prop – suddenly rose up off his stool (no inconsiderable feat), slammed down his quadruple whisky, thrust his arm across me and pointed at my friend. “I,” he thundered, “am a Republican, a Catholic and a former US Marine.” He stood there palpably shaking in fury with his accusatory finger fully outstretched, before darkly concluding: “and I don’t like your tone.”

As introductions go it certainly wasn’t a bad one. The two if them ended up drunkenly swapping gossip about the Green Bay Packers, and all further mentions of Papal fascism and retarded Republicans were studiously avoided. I was still recovering from the experience the next night when, out of the gloom of a Frenchmen Street jazz club, another marine approached me (thankfully this one was young and still serving, so lacked some of the bile the older generation appear to have stored up). With a worryingly passive-aggressive series of twitches, furtive eye movements and delirious grins, he confided in whispers that he was a liberal who played the mandolin, a fact that he could never reveal to his soldier comrades for fear of getting lynched. “I’m the fucking outcast dude!” he exploded into my previously strained ear, causing me to leap back in undisguised panic into an unsuspecting couple behind me. His friend, also a marine, soon joined us and walked me through a step-by-step tutorial on how to procure illicit alcohol if stationed at a US airbase in Afghanistan. “It’s all about the federal mailbags man,” he kept saying whilst pouring us more drinks. The pair eventually started dancing before the liberal passed out. The other one cheerfully dragged him into a taxi, all the while mouthing ‘mailbags’ to me and offering anyone within earshot several varieties of hard drugs.

The national guard patrols much of New Orleans parish down here, as the city police are overstretched as it is by rising violence in the past year. There is also a large army base over the river on the West Bank, the result of which is that military types are not in short supply. For entertainment value alone, based on these three specimens I can’t help but feel such a presence can only be a good thing. After all, who can tell when the vagaries of Afghanistani contraband might come up in a pub quiz?

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The sound of progress

If you’re keen on mood swings, emotional rollercoasters and violent surges from languid cynicism to breathless optimism, then there’s no city quite like New Orleans. A positive outlook can evaporate in seconds when you come across a rotting and abandoned house in the middle of a vibrant neighbourhood, and the weight of depression can be lifted in an instant when you encounter someone quietly rebuilding their life against all the odds. In the upper 9th yesterday, every emotional extremity was up for grabs.

I went over to take a look at Musicians’ Village, an eight-acre site being developed by a Christian non-profit organisation called Habitat for Humanity. After cycling through battered houses and crumbling roads for so long, through once populous neighbourhoods that are now devoid of almost any human presence, it’s hard to describe how amazing it is to turn a corner and be confronted with the whirr of drills, scraping of saws and banging of hammers. There were scores of people milling around, cementing pathways, tiling roofs and barking orders at each other, all clad in white volunteer t-shirts and scurrying between rows of brightly coloured wooden houses in various stages of construction. Once work here is complete there will be 81 new homes and a sparkling new music center in the middle of them. It was a refreshing sight.

The project relies on volunteer labour and the plight of New Orleans has attracted a vast cross-section of American society to the site. “You’re meeting all sorts of people from the United States working here, from all walks of life,” one woman told me. She and her friend had driven from Colorado after being sponsored by friends and family; working with her were two Californian students, an insurance agent from New Jersey who was in Louisiana for a conference and the former publisher of Esquire Magazine. People sign up for as long as they can spare, creating an interesting (and often troublesome) mix of old-timers and those, like the insurance agent, who were doing a single morning shift then heading home. But, almost without exception, they were touchingly vivacious whilst throwing themselves into their tasks; clearly there is something pretty powerful about raising a house quite literally from scratch.

There is some legitimate concern about the way in which voluntary work here can be a convenient way of assuaging guilt; the motivation and practical contribution of technically-challenged accountants and corporate directors who come for a few hours then disappear was questioned by many people I spoke to, and the appearance earlier this year of Nagin, Bush and Blanco donning tool belts at the village in front of the cameras was stomach-churningly hypocritical. But that doesn't take anything away from those who are genuinely putting their all into bringing these houses to life.

The idea behind the village is that the future owners of the new homes have to put in a minimum of 350 hours of ‘sweat equity’ into the project – in other words they have to contribute their own labour to the residences they will eventually move into. Then they get a low-interest mortgage with which to buy the house (the cost of which is a heavily-subsidised $70,000). The principle is that by allowing people to work on their own homes and the immediate community in which they are situated, the new owners will feel they have a real stake in the neighbourhood, generating the kind of civic pride which in many ways was lacking in the pre-Katrina 9th ward. So many people felt excluded and abandoned by the government and society that crime and unemployment were the inevitable byproducts; this way residents will hopefully be better motivated to respect and nurture their community. It’s a scheme for those seeking to become homeowners – the mortgage is too expensive for the very poor – but as a model it could be a long-term solution to the problem of the public housing projects.

At 4007 N Roman St, Linda Nunnery was running her fingers approvingly along the newly-painted porch whilst volunteers finished off the pathway down below. The 51 year old mother of two has been living in a trailer since Katrina flooded her home in Gentilly. She is still shaken by the memories of being trapped in the Convention Center for four days after the hurricane, watching the world around her descend into anarchy. Now though, her job has restarted (she was a patient escort worker at the now defunct Charity Hospital, but the University Hospital needs her services) and she is getting a new home. “Oh good, it feels so good,” she grins. “I got to build my own house, choose what’s going in where, it feels like home. And it makes you feel proud, knowing I built that.” Linda put in 440 hours of sweat equity and will move in later this month – one of the first occupants of Musicians’ Village. “You learn so much. You’re building a house from the ground up, putting in the foundation, then the wiring, and you really find out how a house is built.” The gaudy purple exterior wouldn’t have been my choice, but the fact it was Linda’s means a lot to her. “I picked that colour myself,” gazing above the doorway. “And that’s important.”

It’s not a magic wand, but the idea of getting those that can’t put up a lot of money to put in their labour instead could play an important role in post-Katrina regeneration, doing what mixed-income developments have failed to do, and help preserve a real sense of community in the rebuilt Big Easy.

Photos (from the top): Children from other states welcome the residents of Musicians' Village; some of the newly-built houses; a bumch of volunteers pose for the camera; Linda Nunnery's new home; she poses in her new kitchen

Friday, September 08, 2006

Playing games with disaster

When Manchester United backtracked on sponsorship talks with an offshore gambling company and plumped for the American insurance giant AIG instead, United’s Chief Executive was quick to heap on the platitudes. “I think AIG is the right company for Manchester United,” said David Gill. “[We assessed AIG’s] size and structure, the culture and ethos. We believe we have found a good bedfellow.”

Try talking to New Orleanians about AIG’s ethos and you’re likely to get a pretty violent response. The firm were the underwriters for the Louisiana Citizens Fair Plan (known as FAIR), an insurance deal for the poorest residents who couldn’t afford their own private policies. Already trapped in an income bracket that made them the most vulnerable to natural and economic disasters, these were the citizens who needed financial assistance most when Katrina took aim and destroyed their homes, livelihoods and, in many cases, their families.

And what was the response of AIG (the world’s fourth largest company, net profits annually exceeding $9 billion)? There wasn’t one. Emails, calls and letters from desperate policyholders went ignored and unanswered, even as floodwaters slowly rotted the city. “This is the worst case that we have seen of a complete failure of an insurance company to respond to the immediate and dire situation of Katrina policyholders,” said Joanne Doroshow, co-founder of an insurance reform group, at the time. “Many FAIR policyholders were struggling economically before the storm hit, and some are now reaching the point of severe impoverishment due to AIG's failure to help them.”

AIG wasn’t the only culprit; other big companies played a role in what amounted to a morally despicable (and potentially criminal) neglect of duty to their customers. “Many policyholders who were exhausted, traumatized, and without food, water or a roof over their heads, looked to their insurance carriers to come to their aid as they struggled to survive – but what many found was not help at all, but rather resistance by insurance companies to pay them anything, leaving victims frustrated and angry, not to mention destitute,” explains Doroshow. But with their name plastered over every United shirt, and flashing up in the extensive media coverage of the Premiership, AIG have become a particularly recognisable brand in Britain, where few people are aware of their transatlantic behaviour.

What’s even more galling is that many people are still being cold-shouldered a year later, including some who remain unable to get through to AIG to ask about their claim, and others who have been informed that the insurer will simply not pay out. A class action against the firm has been filed on behalf of the 400,000 FAIR policyholders, and others are pursuing private cases. One New Orleans resident who has joined legal action against AIG (but who does not wish to be identified while the case is still pending) is planning to construct a giant banner on his roof denouncing the company – a statement that will be visible to every single visitor arriving by plane to the city’s airport.

Whether Manchester United’s sponsors will take any notice is another matter – they are no stranger to corporate scandal and negative publicity. They claim to have made a huge loss from Katrina (though the impact on them and other insurance companies has been overstated), yet the real losers are those trying to rebuild in New Orleans today. Insurance premiums have soared and in some cases an upscale but unremarkable house can now cost over $17,000 to insure annually, depressing the property market and making it harder for scattered New Orleanians to return.

All of which would make David Gill’s comments (made seven months after the hurricane) amusingly silly, if they weren’t so tragically wrong.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

A preservation conundrum

When the levees broke, New Orleans filled up like a bowl. After the toxic soup of oil, chemicals and sewage eventually drained away and the extent of Katrina’s damage became clear, a debate immediately started about what should be preserved and what should be surrendered to the bulldozers. It’s a debate which is still being played out today.

When talking to New Orleanians, what always strikes me is how devoted they are to this city and enthused by its culture. Every town generates some feelings of loyalty within its populace but here it’s a passionate, almost irrationally charged attachment. And it helps explain why so many are willing to risk everything financially and psychologically and come back to the devastation.

When it comes to planning the future of the area, the challenge is to preserve that spirit; retaining the unique nature of New Orleans (the clash of Creole, French, Spanish, African and American culture here is electrifying – and almost impossible to find elsewhere in the States) is the key to getting its people back home. Today I had two interesting conversations with people seeking, in different ways, to do exactly that.

Patty Gay is the director of the city’s Preservation Resource Center, an admirable organisation that fights to defend New Orleans’ historic neighbourhoods. They have published a book that pictorially depicts the soul of the city and it covers a lot more than architecturally significant homes. Patty believes that historic architecture is a fundamental building block of what makes the Big Easy special; if that is maintained successfully then the vibrancy of local, distinct neighbourhoods is far more likely to survive the creeping process of homogenisation that has corrupted many cities in America (and worldwide). “This is what is going to save our city, our culture,” she says. “The architecture of a neighbourhood is a very important part of that – it’s why people want to come back, and why you hear so many people regretting the fact that they can’t come back.”

That is not to say the city has surfaced unscathed from large-scale development. Construction of the interstate highway decimated a bustling black neighbourhood including the legendary Basin Street, the notorious Superdome was plonked slap bang in the middle of a colourful residential area that included a nineteenth century cemetery, and some believe that it was only the city’s bankruptcy in the 1980s that saved it from modernist transformation into a soulless concrete jungle. But the fact is that in many parts of the city, softly painted Creole cottages and shotgun houses remain standing, not as historical monuments but as living, breathing centrepieces of their neighbourhoods.

The most historic of these neighbourhoods were largely spared by the floodwaters, although the PRC still faces a battle with the city authorities to prevent the demolition of some important houses. But the spirit they are fighting to preserve – the sense of community that keeps New Orleans’ heart beating, is also under threat elsewhere. The shuttered-up public housing developments look set to be replaced by ‘mixed-income’ developments accommodating both poorer, working class residents who are subsidised by the state and wealthier residents who can pay the market rate. It’s a bold and contentious move, and its being pioneered here by Pres Kabacoff, an influential local property developer whose River Gardens complex is being used as a model for New Orleans regeneration.

The charge against Kabacoff and his vision is that by levelling the public housing projects, the city is making it impossible for those that lived there and who are now scattered around the country to return. There are dark rumours of developers eyeing up the prime real estate that some of the projects sit on, and the numbers of affordable housing units available in mixed-income developments simply don’t stack up. There is a fear that some of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents are being culturally cleansed out of the future Crescent City.

It’s a charge Kabacoff vigorously denies. “What the international community knows of the city (the French Quarter, the business district, etc.) is still intact, it wasn’t damaged by the storm,” he says. “But what we’re missing are the characters that give the city its life, and as a city we need to make sure we bring that culture back. And what’s more we need to recognise that the city’s workforce is of course comprised of poorer residents as well, and we need them back for economic reasons.” So why stop people returning to the projects? “We cannot recreate the ghettos of the past. Previously we segregated poor housing away from wealthy and gated communities but we’re now working with the federal government and the Louisiana Recovery Authority to change the rules of that game.”

The ideals sound laudable – integrating New Orleanians into communities that aren’t defined by the spending power of their residents. On the face of it, such a plan certainly seems preferable to replicating the projects as they were before Katrina, with disproportionately high crime rates and abject poverty. Yet one only has to look at the much-vaunted (and in many quarters, maligned) River Gardens to see what can go wrong with mixed-income developments. The complex replaced the 1,500 units of public housing at St Thomas yet only 400 of the new units will be 'affordable', displacing many families who have lived in St Thomas for generations. A Wal-Mart was thrown into the equation for good measure, making a mockery of the idea that the new development would foster an independent, socially vibrant community full of small enterprises. What’s more, as part of the deal, the revenue from Wal-Mart’s sales tax goes directly back into the coffers of Kabacoff’s company, giving nothing back to the city.

From Patty Gay’s perspective, River Gardens is an example of the dangers large scale planning caries with it. “It’s really a worst case scenario, to have to demolish completely and start building all the way up again. What we think really makes a neighbourhood and a city is incremental development, with people buying their own house and fixing it up themselves or working with smaller developers. There’s certainly a role after a disaster like this for big developers but for me it should be a last resort.”

It’s easy to knock Kabacoff or cloak him in conspiracy theories. Certainly his company, like others, stand to make a lot of money from the rebuilding of New Orleans. But it is a local company and there is no doubt that the previous divide between disadvantaged black neighbourhoods and privileged white ones (with a black middle-class lying somewhere in between) was unhealthy and made social cohesion more difficult. Mixed-income developments are an attempt to find a way forward. The problem is that in practice, they have been used to displace poor residents and destroy the fabric of their own communities without providing an alternative. In the long-term they could be a solution (although, one hopes, without the addition of Wal-Marts), but in the short-term they should not prevent what are essentially entire neighbourhoods from returning home to New Orleans. The right to return – something which Kabacoff supports – has to be a practical reality rather than empty rhetoric, and that means reopening the projects.

“This is a tough time to look at the crystal ball and feel very positive,” says Kabacoff, who is at least doing something to find a way out of the malaise. I genuinely believe that he has the best interests of the city at heart. But if the spirit of New Orleans is going to be preserved, and the culture of local neighbourhoods is to thrive, then large-scale, brand new mixed income developments need to be reconsidered. It makes more sense to try and identify why many poorer public housing residents feel as if they have no stake in their community and work on tackling the root causes of those feelings – promoting the public school system instead of allowing corruption to decay it, keeping public medical facilities like Charity Hospital open instead of abandoning them, give those who have to rely on subsidised housing the impression that city cares about their community rather than neglecting or attacking it. Only then, when people are allowed back into their homes and can start building their neighbourhoods up again, can the character of the city that both Patty and Kabacoff hold so dearly flourish again.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Portraits of a city: Michael D. Williams

When Michael Williams – or ‘Voice’, as he likes to be known – first started his bike rental business back in 2001, everybody laughed. “When I got to the city I bought a bunch of cleaning supplies and started cleaning all the high-end businesses in the French Quarter,” he tells me, sucking languidly on a cigar. “Then I got myself together enough money to buy me one bicycle and I set it over there on that corner and started renting it out.” The corner in question is at the intersection of Barracks and Decatur, and this evening it exuded classic French Quarter charm, with horse-dawn traps trotting past local artists and coffee drinkers sitting out on the steps, all catching the last of the yellowing daylight. “Soon I had enough money to rent out three bikes, and I kept on working and kept on saving and eventually I got this store.”

The store may not look like much at the moment, but its gloomy interior (from which amputated bike parts loom out from the darkness) represents a sort of American dream, a defiant monument to what someone shunned by mainstream society can achieve through hard work and perseverance. Back in 1977, Michael, originally from Alabama, was sentenced to five years in jail (although he probably would have been out in one or two). He doesn’t mention what his crime was, although in the grand scheme of things it ended up being quite irrelevant, That’s because on his way to spend his first night in the cells he was discovered to have three marijuana joints in his pocket. At a stroke his period of incarceration quadrupled. He was nineteen. A full twenty years later, on Christmas Eve 1997, Michael emerged into a lonely outside world.

“I spent twenty years with people who killed their mommas and raped their kids, and one thing I learnt, after everything has calmed down, is that everybody still has a dream,” he says, nodding his head sagely. “And as long as you still have a dream you still have a chance.” So down he came to Louisiana, attracted by a gumbo culture and a city where anything seemed possible – crazy New Orleans, built on a raft of flood plains and smack bang in the middle of a hurricane belt. Nowhere else better embodied Michael’s life philosophy of rebounding from adversity, constructing a world out of nothing. After serving two more years in a federal prison for unresolved charges relating to his first conviction, Michael began building his own business.

The laid-back manner in which Michael tells his story, leaning up against a pillar and gesturing casually with his flamboyant gold-topped cane as he talks, doesn’t reflect the way his mind works. Ambitious, energetic and hard-wired into a million different ideas at once (some more realistic than others), this is a man who expects a lot more of himself than society expects of him. Hanging with beads and resplendent in jewellery and shades, he cuts a fantastically eccentric figure on the sidewalk – and his store is a fantastically eccentric presence within the local business community. Ostensibly a bike rental and repair outfit, it offers a plethora of services and schemes, the details of which are plastered in permanent marker over boards leaning up against the front of the shop. They include free bike rides for anyone who has visited the nearby St Louis Cathedral, special bike rentals for anyone from Texas, and of course the biggest pride of Michael’s endeavours – his fledgling law library.

“I’ve always enjoyed law ‘cos like I said, I was in prison for twenty years, and while I was in prison I studied law,” he explains. “And I thought to myself, you know every time you do business you gotta deal with law. So I opened up a law library.” Like his ‘Jobs for Guns’ programme, which aims to get disaffected and violent youngsters off the streets and into stable employment (starting with mechanical work at the bike shop), the motivation for the law library isn’t profit. In fact, if it ever gets completed, the library will be ‘donated’ for the use of everybody in the French Quarter.

The problem is that it doesn’t look like the library will ever be completed. That’s because tomorrow Michael will go to court, representing himself, to try and fight an eviction order that his landlord has brought against him. Katrina’s floodwaters didn’t reach the French Quarter but they managed to gut Michael’s store nonetheless. Devastation in other parts of the city caused a shortage of available residential and commercial property, sending rents everywhere soaring. And that means Michael’s corner store – or rather the building in which it sits – is worth a lot more today than it was a year ago.

“What’s going on here is that he wants me out the building so he can give the building to someone else at a higher price.” ‘He’, according to Michael, is the French Quarter’s biggest landowner and a month ago he announced he was ejecting Michael for alleged non-payment of rent, a charge that Michael denies and says he will prove wrong in front of a judge. “When I first rented this place it was dead round here, but now it’s coming back. So what he wants me to do is get out so he can push the rent right up.” The rent currently stands at around $2800 a month, but Michael – who has a valid lease for the property until 2008 – believes that the landowner wants to charge new occupants over $4000.

Michael suggested the landowner could buy out the remainder of the lease if he really wanted the property back, but the offer was turned down. “He’s trying to kill my whole project, my law library, everything. And he lives next door! He passes here every day. He just wants me to move out and lose everything, period. That’s morally wrong.”

With the number of different services he offers, Michael considers his business to be a company, rather than a store. That would make him the only black company-owner in the historic French Quarter, an observation he thinks is significant. “I’m the only one going through this,” he says, staring down the street. “I ain’t going to say there’s a racist thing going on, but I’m the only one this is happening to.” To try and raise awareness of what’s happening, Michael has been taking his bike and loading it up with photos and posters of the store, parking his one-man protest outside posh hotels in the Central Business District. “I produce programs like jobs for guns, I feed the homeless, I donate a law library to the French quarter,” he says angrily. “Those are the kinda things I do, and this is the richest man in the Quarter and he don’t do nothing. He don’t understand emotions or people, he only knows numbers. And when numbers don’t look right… that’s who I’m dealing with.”

Despite his insistence that he is being singled out for unfair treatment, Michael thinks that the attack on his livelihood is part of a wider, creeping process of gentrification in the city. “They’re commercialising here – that’s why they’re not putting up those neighbourhoods,” he says, referring to the shuttered-up public housing projects where residents are being refused entry into their own homes. He tried to raise the issue with Ray Nagin when the Mayor did a ‘walkabout’ down Decatur Street. “He walked right by me, anyone’ll tell you. I’m the only person on the whole strip here that had a Nagin poster up for the election – everyone else had Mitch Landrieu [Nagin’s white opponent in the mayoral contest] – and I said to him as he walked past, ‘Sir, I’m the only one here who supported you’, but he kept on walking,” Michael grimaces. “Then he got on TV and started talking about how he was gonna help people like me. But he walked right past.”

Michael’s personal story is hard to verify – more will become obvious after the court case tomorrow. But the trends he describes are very real. With rebuilding dominated by big developers, large reconstruction projects and higher rents are serving to squeeze out smaller, independent businesses for whom the costs and risks associated with returning are harder to bear. Whatever happens, Michael isn’t going quietly. One of his posters requests that passers-by invest $50,000 in Foot-Steppers, promising that it will become a multi-million dollar company within five years. Considering what he has accomplished so far, he might just be right…

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Eye of the storm

Criminally flawed levees weren’t the only man-made accessory to Katrina’s carnage. The wetlands of America’s Gulf Coast – a natural barrier to the storm surges produced by hurricanes – have been steadily eroded for over a hundred years, leaving the region’s towns and cities vulnerable to all manner of tropical storms.

As Michael Eric Dyson points out in his excellent book, the federal authorities were well aware of the impact the destruction of wetlands was having, with one conservation taskforce warning that the disappearance of 25 to 35 miles of land each year to the canals and shipping channels criss-crossing through the marshland was a loss of “catastrophic proportions”. In 2004 Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco wrote a letter to George Bush congratulating him for supporting the restoration of wetlands in Iraq but pointing out that, ironically, Senate Republicans were blocking spending proposals designed to address exactly the same problem on the Gulf Coast.

Today, a local paper reported that residents of eastern New Orleans are stepping up pressure on the notorious Army Corps of Engineers (responsible for the levee system) to shut one of the biggest canals, the 66-mile MR-GO, and allow surrounding wetlands to recover. It is estimated that each mile of wetlands reduces a storm surge by about three inches; with the marshland east of the city sliced and diced and offering no resistance, last year’s hurricane sent waters surging towards New Orleans virtually unchecked.

And of course it wasn’t only New Orleans that suffered as a consequence. Driving over the Industrial Canal that fringes the Lower 9th Ward and sweeping out of the city towards Mississippi on the interstate, the terrible toll exacted by Katrina beyond the Big Easy is revealed.

Travelling east, the way in which last summer’s destruction manifests itself subtly changes; shattered houses and piles of wreckage begin to diminish and are increasingly replaced by wide stretches of nothingness, with grass, sand and weeds now coating a landscape once dotted with fishing shacks, condos and communities. By the time you reach the strip of beach towns past Bay St Louis on Highway 90, there is little to remind you that this was once home to scores of glitzy restaurants and tacky beach shops, sumptuous homes and seafront holiday shacks. The parade of ‘floating’ casino barges that lined the area have gone too; one of them was found beached up on a nearby motorway.

Yet, as they did after previous hurricanes like Camille, some residents are gambling high and throwing everything into rebuilding. The houses and condos that are slowly springing up in places like Biloxi, Gulfport and Long Beach are bordered (for now) by nothing beyond empty gas stations, and driveways leading to nowhere. It takes a lot of bravery to invest so much back into a place which, at the moment, feels so derilict and isolated. But no doubt the people who are doing so are confident that others will follow in their footsteps. Witnessing their efforts is a useful reminder that Katrina's winds blew away neighbourhoods far beyond New Orleans itself.

Photos of the Louisiana/Mississippi coast

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