David Helvarg is president of the Blue Frontier Campaign, which originally published this article. He is also author of the forthcoming, revised Blue Frontier: Dispatches from America’s Ocean Wilderness (Sierra Club, 2006) and 50 Simple Ways to Save the Ocean (Inner Ocean, 2006).

Thursday, 29 Sep 2005

NEW ORLEANS, La.

The smell of New Orleans is mostly not of dead bodies, but of a dead city. It’s lost both its color — it looks sepia toned, all mud-brown, russet, and gray — and its people, a million environmental refugees from the city and the coast. The smell you often encounter is like dried cow pies and mildew, with a strong chemical aftertaste. When I spent some time there recently, I tried not to breathe too deeply or get my feet too wet where oily stagnant waters remained.

The banner yet waves.

Photo: David Helvarg.

The first day I passed through the police roadblocks, I found myself in Lakeview, one of the communities that sat under water for two weeks. Young soldiers talked about it being like a sci-fi or zombie movie. Older residents of the gulf compared Katrina to Hurricane Camille in ’69, and agreed this was worse. Driving for hours through the debris-strewn city, I was forced into my own frames of reference. I was reminded of wars I’d covered, scenes of destruction after heavy street battles — trees and power poles down, electric lines hanging, metal sheets, smashed cars, and torn-open houses — only on a far grander scale. Here, there were more regional incongruities, like shrimp boats on roads, barges on highways, houses blown into swamps.

Without its resident population, New Orleans has become a Woodstock for first responders. It’s been occupied by thousands of troops, cops, reporters, rescue workers, and contractors from every part of the country and the world: New York firemen, Detroit cops, AP photographers, Oklahoma National Guard troops (a third of Louisiana’s Guard was deployed in Iraq when the storm struck and the flood walls failed), Salvation Army volunteers, Dutch engineers. Driving around, I’d share the empty streets with big Army HEMTT trucks, Humvees, and SUVs. Aside from my rental, one of the only other compacts I encountered belonged to an animal-rescue group.

Overhead, Blackhawks and Chinooks flew about, while contract helicopters dropped 3,000- and 7,000-pound sandbags on the Industrial Canal break that let Rita reflood the Ninth Ward. In the city, thousands of acres and tens of thousands of homes, malls, schools, banks, and churches may have to be bulldozed. Despite the losses, the spirit of many of the survivors I interviewed was surprisingly hopeful and philosophical.

While I was in the gulf, I also traveled through the geographically varied forms of devastation Hurricane Katrina wrought. I visited Plaquemines Parish on the banks of the Mississippi; Waveland, Ocean Springs, and Biloxi, Miss.; and Dauphin Island, Ala. A few quick observations culled from my nine days in the gulf, and from talking with survivors, relief workers, sheriffs, the military, scientists, fishers, and local activists:

  • Despite the media storyline that recovery is now under way, the reality is that most everything is still a mess. A year from now, recovery may be well under way, but for now there are hundreds of thousands of people who still haven’t gotten to see what’s left of their homes, or are just beginning to dig through the debris.

    Whole Mississippi neighborhoods look like they were flattened by a tornado, but tornado winds don’t come with 35-foot waves. One official estimates the rubble from Katrina could cover 28 football fields as high as the Empire State Building. Miles of beaches and standing trees are festooned with strips of plastic that look like Tibetan prayer flags — if monks prayed over the deaths of seabirds and turtles. There are also oil spills and loose barrels of unknown origin; I encountered some in the bayou while driving with a sheriff’s deputy, who became nervous when I took a picture of a Shell refinery.

  • One piece of good news is that many of the live oak, hackberry, and cypress that look dead are starting to rebud. Some 25-foot trees survived, along with roads and seagrass meadows, because the storm waves were so high above them they weren’t scoured away.
  • Boats on land.
    Like a ship out of water.
    Photo: David Helvarg.

    America’s demographics have changed. Baton Rouge is now the largest city in Louisiana, with roads, arenas, and hotels jammed with evacuees. New Orleans’ service industries are relocating there and elsewhere. Like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the Storm Bowl of today could result in a new wave of homelessness. My friend Bucky, one of the top homeless-housing organizers in America, says there’s a kindly attitude toward the new “deserving” homeless versus the “undeserving” old, but predicts that tolerance may be gone in six months.

    I encountered a group of Cajuns spending their days and nights in a carport under a damaged three-story office building. There were black and white folks camped out in tents, campers, and an RV under a closed bridge in Mississippi; refugees in marine-lab dorms and KOAs and a Mormon tent colony by a lake; and folks at friends’ and families’ homes or yards, or motels, or, as a last resort, evacuee centers. I’m skeptical that the billions of federal recovery dollars heading south will ever reach many of them.

  • Brick buildings and reinforced concrete buildings seemed to fare better than FEMA-compliant stilt homes and wooden buildings with storm shutters, though the storm shutters look pretty intact amid the rubble. But even bunker-like concrete condominiums aren’t going to last long if you build them on barrier islands.
  • It’s too early to talk about the environmental impacts on the coast and ocean with any authority. The oil companies lost at least 46 rigs in the gulf, with more than 90 others damaged. The Coast Guard’s latest estimate is 8.1 million gallons of oil spilled (two-thirds of an Exxon Valdez). Most of the region’s shrimp and commercial fishing fleet was sunk or thrown up onto land. The possibility that federal fisheries managers may use this as a chance to buy out part of the destroyed fleet in order to reduce fishing pressure is the source of much speculation, and little certainty.

    Nancy Rabalais of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium lab told me the roof was lost during Katrina, and then Rita flooded the ground storage area and lab vehicles. On one of the few cruises she’s been able to conduct to see how the storms have impacted the gulf’s nutrient-fed dead zone, she encountered a seven-foot alligator that had washed 15 miles out to sea. I visited the Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs, Miss., which took a big hit, with major buildings lost and flooded; its education center in Biloxi was also totaled. Executive Director Bill Hawkins thinks the pollutants in the New Orleans floodwaters that were pumped back into Lake Pontchartrain will likely impact the gulf some time next year.

    Best guesstimates are that Louisiana lost another 20 to 30 square miles of marshy wetlands to Katrina and Rita. Coast 2050, the plan to restore the state’s wetlands at a cost of $14 billion over 30 years, seems to be back on the table. I talked to Mark Davis of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, who had told me five years ago that if they couldn’t win political support for the plan, “a hurricane will make the case.” He tells me now, “It sure sucks to be right.”

There is opportunity here as vast as the devastation. Things can be done right in terms of building wisely, creating social and environmental equity, and addressing big issues like wetlands protection, federal subsidies for destructive development, and the role of climate change in extreme weather events like Katrina. But right now everyone is anxious to make money and generate jobs, re-creating the same patterns as before.

“The rush to rebuild is understandable. It’s based on human sympathy, but we have to rebuild in a different way,” says George Crozier, executive director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. “What happened here is no longer the exception — it’s the new rule.”