Hurricane Katrina: The Unforgettable Storm.
Residents bewailed the Bush government's tardiness.
With a nod to James Lee Burke
These are two dates in the last ten years burned into the minds of Americans and many throughout the world. The first is September, 11, 2001, marking the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon; the second, Aug 28-30, 2005, the first days after Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana and devastated New Orleans and many surrounding boroughs and coastal areas.
When I read accounts of this awful disaster, it is hard to believe the extremes of bravery and community spirit on the one hand, and the official blundering and criminal activity of many of the residents on the other.
The problem was you had to be there to really appreciate the scale of the flooding and how quickly it all happened. The storm surge pushed along in front of Katrina drove ocean water up the "Mr Go" (the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet), into New Orleans and the Intercoastal Canal. A total of 63 inadequate levies burst like bombs around Lake Pontchartrain, (Bush had cut funding to update them just months previously).
While people slept in their bedrooms, some two stories above the street, the flood water entered like some hellish, stinking River Styx, and rose to their ceilings, even into attics and covering roof-tops, pelted with heavy rain and buffeted by heavy winds as Katrina passed over to the east of the area.
The eastern areas of the city became like Venice with boats feverishly trying to rescue people swimming in the muck, clinging to trees, or what remained of their houses above water.
Some of the outstanding heroes of the hour were the coastguards whirling in, time after time, with helicopters in frightful conditions, including, say many observers, being shot-at with automatic rifles, reminding some older pilots of when they served in Vietnam.
Many police agency personnel showed outstanding courage as well. But roughly one third of the New Orleans police had left the area before the hurricane struck and there were also reports of some rogue cops being involved in looting, along with thousands of the poor and amoral who saw the Hurricane as a sort of Cargo Cult reward.
Coincidentally, the loss of life was almost the same as that of the World Trade Centre attack - over 1800- with a further two hundred still missing. People were still living in temporary housing in 2010, principally from badly hit areas along the Mississippi coast.
At this point, let me tell you of a book many will have no doubt read. It is a work of fiction by local author, James Lee Burke, except where details of the Hurricane and flooding are concerned, which are factual and some of the most harrowing and graphic I have read. I think Burke is the best living author in this genre (crime/detective) in the world by a country mile. And the book, "The Tin Roof Blowdown," is his best which will join the annals of great American classic literature.
Even if this genre doesn't normally appeal to you, you should not miss this great novel for its factual treatment of the disaster; far more lucid and spellbinding than were any press reports I have read. I absolutely guarantee you will not be able to put the 444- page paperback down until the finale: not just for the details of the Flood, but for the exciting adventures of Burke's regular protagonists, detective Dave Robicheaux and PI Clete Purcell.
I will not attempt to recreate the horror of this disaster in this simple Hub article. It has been done many times; whole books have been written about Katrina's work and the aftermath. As I have said, if you want to read the best account I have found, buy Burke's book, which has been around for 4 years now and there are many good used copies on Amazon; in charity shops, flea-markets and used book shops.
I have not been to New Orleans since the disaster and have no intention of doing so, in case it destroys my first perceptions and great time I had there in the 1980's. Cities may be rebuilt after wars and natural disasters, but something is often missing. It was in Berlin and also - to a great degree - in London. In the case of New Orleans, I think it may be a loss in the spirit of the people engendered by all the antisocial crime; lack of urgent official help and the lingering effects of the damage. And the feeling now that they are in a helpless position should the heavens single them out again for a repeat of Katrina, and one that may be much worse, (after all, Katrina was downgraded from a category 5 to a 3 just before it struck, and its effects were caused by the rain and storm surge, as the main body of the Hurricane missed New Orleans proper).
People still speculate and shudder today about how much worse the disaster could have been if a Cat. 5 - or worse - storm blew straight in from the Gulf.
All this makes New Orleans not quite the fun place to be it once was...too many creaks and bangs in the night have residents on guard expecting the worst again.