Six months after Hurricane Katrina's storm surge caused the levees separating Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans to breach and flood 80% of the city, life is anything but normal in the Crescent City: nearly two-thirds of the structures are still without electricity, piles of rubble dominate the landscape, and many neighborhoods resemble ghost towns.
The flood destroyed some 215,000 homes in Louisiana. Only an estimated 189,000 of the 1.2 million residents who lived in the greater New Orleans metro area before Katrina hit have returned. Even the most optimistic projections are that the rebuilding will take five to seven years.
Managing Editor Sibley Fleming, who authored this month's cover story on Joe Canizaro, chairman of the Urban Planning Committee of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, trudged through the mud and the rubble for two days to get a firsthand account of the recovery efforts.
The magnitude of the devastation is what struck Sibley. “You can't imagine how much destruction there was until you go and see the first block of houses that have been flooded,” says the veteran reporter. “Then you see the second block, and then you start looking at acres and miles of damage.”
In most cases, the personal contents of abandoned homes are strewn everywhere. “You see the family photographs, the dishes from the kitchen, towels, children's books, videos, all the stuff that goes into daily life.”
One common thread among New Orleans residents is a sense of anger and frustration directed toward FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “They survived the hurricanes,” says Sibley, “but they didn't survive the breaks in the levees and the subsequent flooding.”
Sibley's site inspection led her to Beulah Land Baptist Church in the Lower Ninth Ward, just blocks from where a barge broke through the levee. Amazingly, the red-brick church remains standing today despite the fact that floodwaters reached as high as the roof line at one point. Outside the church, piles of debris are visible for blocks in all directions.
The congregation of 400 to 500 parishioners is now spread throughout the U.S. and Canada. It's unclear how many will return, but Pastor Michael Zacharie notes that many have started their lives anew. “The people from his congregation who will come back are the ones who can't see any other place as home,” says Sibley. “They've been there 20, 30 or 40 years.”
In all likelihood, the rebuilding of New Orleans will take much longer than five to seven years, making the efforts of Canizaro and other business and civic leaders nothing short of extraordinary.