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