A disaster revisited: Hurricane Katrina

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a four-part series looking at recent humanitarian crises. Tomorrow’s will look at Sept. 11

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on Aug. 23, 2005, Tulane University was in the process of welcoming its new first-year class as a part of its annual Move-In Day. Students were forced to evacuate before having the luxury of settling in and the school suffered $650 million in damage. The first-year class spent their first semester in college as exchange students, attending various institutions around the country. When Tulane University reopened in January 2006, only 80 percent of the student body returned. For those in New Orleans and the surrounding cities devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the process of rebuilding has been slow, relying on federal money, volunteers and determination. Mike Strecker, Tulane University spokesman, said with the reopening of the university a mere four months after the hurricane, the institution reexamined its history of community service, instituting a public service requirement for graduation. Through the requirement, Strecker said students have assisted with the recovery of their city, whether through building houses or tutoring. One underlying truth that pulsates through every person attempting to live their life after Katrina is that while they may rebuild, things will never be the same. âÄúNew Orleans after Katrina is like a patient who has been very badly burned, covered with scar tissue,âÄù Bruce Nolan, a reporter from New OrleansâÄô Times-Picayune , said. âÄúWeâÄôre alive, but much of our former vitality is sapped out.âÄù Nolan, who rode out Katrina in the newsroom of the Times-Picayune, was fortunate enough for his home to be outside of the flood-zone. While he was still left with $16,000 in damage to his property, he said he feels grateful that he was able to move back into his house before Christmas in 2005, unlike many New Orleans residents who had no other option but to live in trailers supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Now, almost four years after the hurricane hit New Orleans, there is still a permanent imprint of the storm on the town. While the cityâÄôs tourist industry has returned, Nolan said tourists are largely kept in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where the impact of the storm is unnoticeable as it was out of the flood-zone. âÄúHave a friend take you a half-mile from the French Quarter and you slide into the flood-zone,âÄù Nolan said, âÄúThatâÄôs 80 percent of the city. Downtown, you are standing on a sliver of high ground.âÄù Nolan added that remnants of the storm can be found in remaining flood lines on buildings as well as through graffiti marks on roofs indicating the date the house was searched and whether bodies were found inside. âÄúItâÄôs going to take a generation for that to go away and even then we will not be back to the way it used to be,âÄù Nolan said of the destruction. Rachel Piercey, executive director of the New Orleans based Pro Bono Project, which supplies free legal service to the poor, said the need for the groupâÄôs services since Katrina have remained high. Many citizens affected by Katrina were not the recorded owner of the houses they lived in due to the fact they lacked a clear title. Through the Pro Bono Project, lawyers help with successions, thus proving homeownership and allowing people access to insurance proceeds and Road Home funds . Road Home is a program that gives uninsured homeowners $150,000 in order for them to begin rebuilding their lives. The successions are often time consuming, depending on how far back the lawyer needs to dig to establish homeownership. While some can take only 10 to 20 hours, others could take up to 100 hours. Andrea Bean, deputy director of the St. Bernard Project, which works to rebuild houses for displaced families, said even with the amount of time that has passed since Katrina, the toll of the storm can still be seen in the eyes of those who remained in Louisiana every time the threat of another storm looms over them. âÄúWhen homeowners moved in they kind of expected everything to be as it was before,âÄù Bean said. âÄúWeâÄôre giving them back the basic building blocks of the community, but there is still a lot that needs to be rebuilt as far as their community structure and their relationships and the bigger picture of the community.âÄù The St. Bernard Parish, where the project is based, was one of the heaviest hit areas with all of its structures being damaged by the storm. While the unemployment rate in New Orleans is 4.9 percent, lower than the national average, Bean said one problem facing smaller communities is job opportunities. She said many family owned businesses remain closed, as well as a Wal-Mart, which was new before Katrina, but never reopened. Bean said itâÄôs the lack of jobs in the parishes around New Orleans that have contributed to non-returning populations. Nolan said before Katrina, 465,000 people lived in New Orleans, since then he estimated only 330,000 have returned. Despite the hardships, Nolan said the one thing New Orleans has not lost is its identity. âÄúThere are not a lot of cities where if you got dropped into them you would know you are not in a regular place,âÄù Nolan said, stating that New Orleans is completely unique from other southern states due to its European, Caribbean and African heritage. This identity is one of the reasons Nolan has chosen to stay. âÄúI have been writing about Katrina for three years. Katrina is in every story that the newspaper runs. We write it every day,âÄù Nolan said. âÄúEvery story is about what Katrina did to us and how we are coming back from it, or not. It is going to be the only story for the rest of my career.âÄù