In the early morning of Monday, August 29, 2005, Katrina first made landfall in the United States. The eye hit first in Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana, veered east of New Orleans and through St. Bernard Parish (where I lived at the time). It then curved back into the Gulf briefly before landing a second time near Gulfport, MS. At the time of landfall it was a low category 3 storm, with sustained winds of about 110 mph and gusts up to 150, but it carried a storm surge of close to 30 feet, more consistent with a category 5 storm. Since the levees a few blocks from my house were only 20 feet high, they were easily topped, and my neighborhood got 12 feet of water.
People after the storm sometimes said that the people (me) who lived there got what they deserved for living below sea level, but I didn't live below sea level. My house was at about +4. Much of New Orleans is above sea level, something the media never seem to get right, no matter how many times they revisit this topic. Some of it is lower, but it was not the elevation of New Orleans that was to blame for most of the destruction that Katrina caused. Most people in the New Orleans area can tell you that, but hardly anyone outside of the city can.
In fact, with the height of the levees and the elevation of the land my Chalmette home was built on, my mortgage company did not require flood insurance. Our street had never flooded before in its thirty year history. (I had flood insurance anyway.)
The reason my neighborhood flooded, and many neighborhoods in St. Bernard flooded, was not because of the wind or the storm surge. It was because in the 1960s, the federal government, under the guise of th U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, cut a ship channel called the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR GO) through the pristine wetlands in east St. Bernard. This channel was supposed to be a direct shipping lane from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico, allowing ships a more direct approach to the Port of New Orleans than was available by sailing through the mouth of the Mississippi. It was rarely used.
Instead it served a more sinister purpose, forming a condiut that allowed Katrina's storm surge to come far inland and destroy thousands of homes and kill several hundred people in St. Bernard and the nearby Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
Before MR GO, upper St. Bernard (the higher land where people settled) was protected by thousands of acres of wetlands that had the capability to absorb a hurricane storm surge. After MR GO, the wetlands in east St. Bernard were in tatters, offering no resistance to Katrina's tidal wave.
In the 1950s, while MR GO was still in the planning stages, a group of citizens from St. Bernard and elsewhere protested to the federal government to block its construction. The citizens argued that digging the waterway would damage the wetlands and make the settled areas more vulnerable to hurricanes. A Department of Interior report in 1958 said: “excavation of the (MRGO) could result in major ecological change with widespread and severe ecological consequences.”
Enironmentalists are never listened to. But occasionally they are right, and when they are we pay the price.
A year after Katrina, after I had moved to Mississippi, I encountered a woman at work who had a strange fury about Katrina. She felt that Katrina had caused as much damage in Mississippi as it did in Louisiana, and she was clearly angry that New Orleans, particularly the Lower Ninth Ward, received most of the attention after the storm. "Nobody paid attention to Mississippi," she bellowed. "The people here suffered just as much as they did in Louisiana, and no one cares."
I listened to her vent. I couldn't tell if she personally had been affected by the storm, if she knew people who were, or if she was just one of those people who gets stirred up over other people's problems. I didn't ask, mainly because, as a Louisiana Katrina victim, I had lost too much from that hurricane. My wound was too fresh for me to get into a discussion with an indignant woman about whether my losses were greater than hers, or her friends, or the people she knew through TV. So I kept my mouth shut. I doubt the woman ever realized the person she was talking to was one of the very people she was accusing of being "privileged," although I am certain she sensed my hostility.
Today I live in Mississippi and have heard some of the Mississippi stories. I don't know if they had it better or worse (although I have an opinion about that which I will keep to myself). What I know is my own experiences, and I had a lot of them, and they all occurred in Louisiana.
So I tell my story. Not because it is the worst one ever, but because it is the one I know the best.