When the Levees Broke

Hurricane Katrina unravels the threads of a fragile New Orleans society

"Due to a hurricane in the area you are calling, your call cannot be completed at this time." It is approximately 48 hours into the destruction of my hometown. I have done little the last few days except comb the Internet for storm news and field calls from fellow members of the Gulf South diaspora. No one has sufficient information. There are reports of a rescue here, a woman swept away there, looting at the Wal-Mart on Tchoupitoulas. Because of breaches in the levee, the water is still rising.

As residents of war zones and the Midwest probably know already, the national news is almost useless when you want to find out what's happening to your own city. To take just one example, both The New York Times and CNN at first showed multiple dramatic shots of tall palm trees downed on Canal Street, the downtown hotel strip south of the French Quarter. They obviously didn't realize that those were non-native, promotional trees, planted just a year or so ago. Meanwhile, the first detail that broke me down, out of all I've seen and read, was a casual note about oak trees felled on St. Charles. This wide avenue, the one the streetcar rolls down, is the jewel of the city, and the trees that shade it on both sides are spreading live oaks a hundred years old or more. I don't know how many have fallen, but each one is like losing a tooth.

And all of this is like that crumbling-tooth dream: a haunting, incomprehensible sign that you are powerless in the face of Death and Nature. I am in the dark, splintered forest of my own fears following the crumb trail of the local paper, the Times-Picayune, and local TV, both of which have braved the flood waters and power outages to post what they know on blogs.

Water pours through a break in a levee.
photo: UPI Photo/Vincent Laforet/Pool
Water pours through a break in a levee.

This is what most sources agree on. Power will be out for weeks. Add 90-degree heat to the refugees' other woes. No one who evacuated is allowed back�maybe for months. Prisons and hospitals are being evacuated. There are many deaths but they have not yet been tallied. The Coast Guard, sheriffs, and miscellaneous authorities are still in that "golden 72 hours," meaning enough people are alive to make rescuing them by boat and helicopter priority one. Twelve hundred have been rescued so far, and thank G*d for that, although right now they have nowhere to go. Priority Two, by the Army Corps of Engineers, is fixing the two breaches in the canal levees to the north of the city, which have allowed more water to pour in, meaning lots of things got flooded on Tuesday that didn't get flooded Monday. Plan A, involving cargo containers full of sand, failed late yesterday. Today, more of these horrors will start coming to light.

If you've visited the city as a tourist or a conventioneer, most of the places you probably remember�the balconies of the Quarter, the mansions of the Garden District, and the leafy neighborhoods of Uptown�did not go underwater in the first deluge. They were all built a long time ago by rich people on marginally higher ground, so they were suffering only from downed tree branches and power and water outages until the levee breach started a second water flow. Counterintuitively, it's better to be closer to the river, since that's where the levee and the ground is built up.

On the other hand, New Orleans East and the Ninth Ward, home of Dirty South rappers like Juvenile and the Cash Money Crew, flooded up to the rooftops. As did Treme, just northwest of the Quarter, the home of the Treme Brass Band and Louis Armstrong Park. Jefferson Parish, the suburban land of Barnes and Noble and Old Navy, out to and including the airport, is swamped. Lakeview, a quiet, older northern residential neighborhood where a lot of cops live and people don't lock their doors, is flooded too. And every hour that the levees stay open, the water will rise.

That is the physical damage as of now. Then there will be Katrina's more far-reaching harm, caused by the ways in which the Gulf South is part of the Caribbean Rim. The city of New Orleans has a 34 percent poverty rate, triple the national average. It's about 70 percent black. White flight, first to Jefferson Parish and then across Lake Pontchartrain, to the North Shore, has accomplished the desired aim of de facto segregation in the public schools, which are 93 percent black in Orleans Parish and some of the worst in the country. (My sister and I attended the two good public schools, Lusher and Franklin, which are little multiethnic magnet islands massively resented by the rest of the city.)

Knowing this, and that many of the neighborhoods destroyed were the poorest in the city, provides a little context for such incidents as Tuesday's riot in the Wal-Mart parking lot, where even the cops were spotted lifting some electronics. Elsewhere, a looter shot a police officer in the head today, critically wounding him.

This stuff is bad and it's only going to get worse. To belabor the obvious, a lot of the people who stayed did so because they didn't have the money to leave. An estimated hundred thousand had no cars. Many didn't have jobs in the first place, and now they don't have homes, and there's plenty of stored-up resentment to go around. The city government cleared out Tuesday night, leaving a sinking ship. Irony #1: The Wal-Mart free-for-all began when neighborhood residents were invited to a real giveaway of food and cleaning supplies, then started to help themselves. Irony #2: This particular Wal-Mart was built only a few years ago, over strenuous neighborhood objections, as the commercial hub of a mixed-income public-private housing development for which they tore down the decrepit St. Thomas projects. This renovation was widely credited with sparking a vicious outbreak of violence as displaced gang members searched for new turf. The same civic leaders who cut that deal will now be charged with rebuilding the entire city essentially from scratch.

Meanwhile, the city's middle and upper classes have been forced away for weeks. For now, they are anxiously monitoring the destruction of their homes and wholesale trashing of their property values from Holiday Inns in Houston and Houma. A whole lot of people have roots and will come back and stay if it's possible. But how many educated young people, new transplants, and boomer retirees will grab their insurance settlements and leave?

New Orleans has always exerted an extraordinary psychic pull on the rest of the country. But even if you have no friends or relatives or ex-lovers there, even if you've never tasted the oysters Rockefeller at Antoine's in the French Quarter (its wall blew in yesterday) or caught a Saints game at the Superdome (now a failing emergency shelter and the scene of at least two deaths), there are good reasons right now to be anxious, angry, or prayerful according to your bent.

An MIT meteorologist published an article in Nature last month that the Los Angeles Times said "concluded that the destructive power of hurricanes had increased 50 percent over the last half a century, and that a rise in surface temperatures linked to global warming was at least partly responsible." This is not yet majority scientific opinion. But Katrina got big fast because the water it sucked up from the Gulf on its way over was warmer, not colder, than the rest, adding "high-octane fuel to the fire," says The New York Times .

Two months ago, Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu begged President Bush to come across with billions in federal funding to restore the state's ravaged wetlands and dig a more natural path to the sea. She got half a billion. You've probably read by now how pure hubris, and the Army Corps of Engineers, have hastened this day of reckoning by reining in the river; the state loses 25 square miles of coastline a year.

Finally, thousands of National Guardsmen and women can't be there to help their neighbors. Forty percent of Mississippi's National Guard force and 35 percent of Louisiana's are in Iraq, totaling around 6,000 troops. They took a lot of equipment with them that would be pretty useful right now�high water vehicles, Humvees, refuelers, and generators. A general warned early this month that this might be a problem in event of a natural disaster.

Of the 3500 Louisiana Guard troops who are on duty, many of them have just returned from combat. "Officials maintained," said Reuters, "this had not hurt the relief effort in those states, hardest hit by the hurricane."

But who can say, at this point? So much remains unknowable.

Last night, there was a shadowy, frightening report in the Times-Picayune about looters attempting an assault on Children's Hospital, Uptown, with 100 sick kids inside. The paper said looters stood outside trying to break in the locked hospital, with flood waters rising: Governor Kathleen Blanco �has been told of the situation and has informed the National Guard. However, [spokeswoman Denise] Bottcher said, the National Guard has also been unable to respond."

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