The New Orleans Hurricane Anniversary Is Here, and Residents Ask, ‘Katrina Who?’
Every year since 2005, the end of August has marked the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. A category 5 hurricane, Katrina shrieked into New Orleans just after 6:00 a.m. on August 29, battering the city with sustained killer winds and dumping vast sheets of rain. Within two hours, levees protecting the city from the surging waters of Lake Pontratrain had been topped; three hours after landfall, levees had breeched.
By the time Katrina had blown out, 80 percent of the city was flooded. In the storm’s aftermath, emergency response procedures failed and floodwaters lingered for weeks. Hurricane Katrina is remembered as the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, and is ranked among the country’s five deadliest hurricanes. Fatalities are listed, conservatively, at 1,836.
This past spring, I paid a visit to New Orleans—where I lived for five years until 2006, when a dead post-Katrina job market drove me out of town to the greener economic pastures of Los Angeles.
Hanging out with old friends this spring, the topic of the HBO series Treme came up. Like most New Orleanians, everyone in my circle of friends thought Treme—David Simon’s look at life in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina—was realistic in its portrayal of the Katrina aftermath. That said, they were all completely sick of the show.
“We’ve moved so far past that,” my friend Pete told me. “No one wants to talk about Katrina anymore.”
Moving on is an essential part of the healing process. One could see how constantly thinking about Katrina could be painful and psychologically regressive. But that’s not what Pete was talking about. His distaste for the show didn’t stem from pain.
At the time of our conversation, outside a charity concert at the legendary music venue Tipitinas, celebrities surrounded us on all sides (actress Sonja John, from the brilliant TV show The Wire, stood directly behind us, beer in hand, smoking a Capri). Thousands of people crowded the streets.
Nearby, businesses on Magazine Street were thriving. Dozens of new restaurants had opened in the past months. Earlier that week, during Jazzfest, I’d gotten a good look around Mid-City and several other neighborhoods that were decimated during the storm. All were back and livelier than ever.
This year, New Orleans residents will spend Katrina’s anniversary hunkered down under the threat of another storm. Unlike in years past, however, pity and loss are no longer the defining traits of their story.
Hollywood, as Sonja John’s presence helped indicate, has come running to New Orleans, thanks to generous tax subsidies and unique visual properties. In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, the city’s dystopian landscape made the perfect canvas for action flicks and post-apocalyptic nightmares. These days, however, everything from the 21 Jump Street reboot to Quentin Tarantino’s latest, Django Unchained, have been shot in New Orleans.
Not without a personal note of irony, shortly after I moved to Hollywood, New Orleans’ unofficial name became “Hollywood South.”
Digital media—an industry practically unheard of in New Orleans prior to Katrina—is now the fastest-growing job creator in the city, accounting for 10 percent of all new jobs, according to the Times-Picayune. Local schools are retrofitting their educational programs to meet an influx of jobs that locals traditionally haven’t had the chance to access.
Even the housing sector, which remains dead in virtually every other corner of America, is alive and well in New Orleans—as the city continues to replenish the stock that was destroyed in Katrina.
A city that was almost utterly dependent on tourism for decades now has arguably the most diverse economy in its history. Though many neighborhoods throughout the city have yet to fully recover from the storm, it’s certainly been a long, long time since New Orleans residents had access to the kind of economic opportunities they currently enjoy.
Pete’s distaste for Treme didn’t stem from the pain of tragedy, it stemmed from the fact that the show no longer represented the reality of life in the Big Easy. Seven years after the storm, Katrina is in many ways a distant memory.
This week, however, with Hurricane Isaac barreling toward the city, Katrina’s name is once again on everyone’s lips. Though many of Katrina’s scars have been erased from view, the one thing New Orleanians fear most is that the levee system that failed the city in 2005 could collapse again.
Since its catastrophic failure during Katrina, New Orleans’ levee system has been bolstered by $14.5 billion in armaments and upgrades. The Army Corps of Engineers recently told The New York Times that the new system will protect New Orleans from anything under a 500-year storm.
Given how shoddy the system was that Katrina annihilated in 2005, many New Orleans residents are skeptical of the Corps’ claims.
“I don’t buy it,” a New Orleans friend who asked not to be named told me, “but I think this storm is weak enough that it will give them a much needed test. Even if they fail, the city will still be okay.”
Despite widespread skepticism, not a single person I spoke with has any plans to evacuate the city for Isaac.
One friend told me she was looking forward to introducing herself to the nearly 4,000 national guard soldiers who have come to look after the city in advance of Isaac.
This year, New Orleans residents will spend Katrina’s anniversary hunkered down under the threat of another storm. Unlike in years past, however, pity and loss are no longer the defining traits of their story. Katrina has turned from a tale of death and tragedy, to one of resilience in the face of danger and catastrophe.
New Orleans has never been stronger. Isaac will hopefully be only another reminder of that fact.
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