From the January 2006 Idaho Observer:

Flooding the lower 9th:What are the odds?

For most Americans, Hurricane Katrina has come and gone and all that remains is the memory of a horrible storm and the scandalous manner in which the Bush administration responded to the emergency. But to those who continue to live there, or lost everything in the storm, Katrina has never left.

By Don Harkins

On the morning of January 7, Joe Tittiger called The IO to inform us that he was in the lower 9th Ward within view of the infamous Industrial Canal levee. This is the levee that failed after Katrina had passed, causing massive flooding in one of New Orleans’ poorest neighborhoods.

The real stories about post-Katrina New Orleans are not getting out. While the nation is forever re-preoccupied with the next occurring natural or political disaster, few people carry an impression of what it’s like to be in New Orleans since Katrina.

"You would have to see it to believe it," Tittiger said, and began describing how houses, cars and appliances were strewn everywhere within view of the completely destroyed and still uninhabitable area.

Tittiger then handed his cell phone to Ryan Washington, 38, a New Orleans mass transit driver who was born and raised in the lower 9th. Following is a recounting of that conversation.

Was there an explosion?

The first question I asked Washington was whether or not he thought the levee had been blown. It was a logical question as many people, myself included, suspect "foul play"—it was even reported, once, in the mainstream news soon after parts of New Orleans were suddenly [and unexpectedly] under water. I figured Washington, being there, would have a good read on this critical piece of the puzzle.

"Now, I can’t say for certain that the levee was blown but, what are the odds that a levee would fail in the same place twice? Most people don’t know this and they never talk about it, but this neighborhood experienced the same kind of damage in 1965," Washington explained.

The Industrial Canal levee is about two-and-one-half miles long and the breach is "about three football fields long," Washington said. The levee, like all the miles of levees on either side of the area’s extensive canal system, is made of earthen materials and sheet metal pylons with a poured concrete barrier on top.

"What are the odds," Washington repeated.


When asked about cleanup in the neighborhood, Washington said that some cleanup had begun but the neighborhood has been abandoned. The city came in and started bulldozing houses without the knowledge or consent of the homeowners but "outsiders" filed for and were granted a federal injunction that put a stop to the bulldozing—at least temporarily.

Official explanation does not hold water, either

Getting back to the levee, I asked Washington if there has been any investigation into the cause of the breach which caused the flooding of this neighborhood of about 25,000 mostly impoverished black residents. "No," he said. "They put up a fence so fast that no one has been able to get in and take a look around."

The official story is that a barge crashed into it and caused the damage. Washington said, "Boats float, right?" and then stated that the laws of natural science do not explain how the barge could have caused so much damage to the levee. And again, he added, "What are the odds" that this levee would fail in the same place twice in 40 years?

Of the three canals in the area, the 17th Avenue Canal levee protects a wealthy neighborhood from flooding; the London Avenue Canal levee (a 50-foot section of which also failed after Katrina had passed) protects a middle class neighborhood.

Washington, who of course has biases (as we all do) struck me as a fair-minded man in search of the truth. He believes it is not a coincidence that the lower 9th Ward was flooded twice in 40 years any more than it was a coincidence that the levee breached in the same place twice in 40 years. The term he used was, "land control."

State of the neighborhood

Though time will tell, it appears that Katrina did not do enough to destroy the lower 9th so the levee was breached to finish the job.

I asked Washington if there were any groups organized to make sure condemnation proceedings are not commenced against absent property owners. He said that since so many people have left the area, the only people watching are "foreigners" (groups and individuals from outside New Orleans) coming in to keep an eye on things.

In an effort to determine if the area was toxic, I asked Washington if plants were beginning to grow and whether or not large numbers of people were chronically coughing and itching as was reported a couple months ago. Washington said that the coughing and itching has subsided and that volunteer garden plants were popping up everywhere. It’s as if the flood waters destroyed everyone’s gardens and dispersed the seeds so that mustard greens, collard greens and watermelons are now growing wild.

Locals believe levee was blown

"What is the general feeling in the area about what caused the levee to fail," I asked.

"The general feeling is there is a conspiracy," Washington reported.

After the hurricane had passed, Washington recalled, people came out of their homes and began assessing the damage. Because the power was out, he continued, people were out barbecuing and socializing. Then, under the cover of darkness, at about 8 p.m., there was a huge explosion. Hundreds of people heard it and, within seconds, water started rushing in and within minutes the entire neighborhood was flooded.

"Has anyone investigating the flood talked to any of the hundreds of witnesses who heard the explosion?" I asked.

"No," Washington said. They aren’t even trying to talk to these people."

I asked several questions attempting to get a feel for how life in the greater-New Orleans area has changed since Katrina. Washington said that only one-third of the town is livable so about two-thirds of it has the feeling of being a ghost town. As a transit driver, he used to pick up about 400 people a day; now he picks up about 100 each day.

Lost without a voice

Before hanging up and thanking him for taking the time to enlighten me on what’s going on in post-Katrina New Orleans, I asked Washington, "If you had the opportunity to tell the world anything about the plight of people in your area, what would it be?"

The answer, as soon as it began coming out of his mouth and now, a couple hours later as I am writing this story up from my notes, makes my eyes sting from the salty tears that begin forming: "Don’t forget us fight. Most of the poor people down here are disenfranchised because our politics, over the generations, have left them without a voice. They feel left alone, forgotten—lost."

Over the course of time we will see exactly what happens to the real property in the lower 9th. Those developments, as they occur, will likely reveal why the levee failed and who, or what, caused it to fail.

End notes

It is true that you can’t fully understand people unless you walk at least a mile in their shoes. It is also true that Katrina’s perverse aftermath was defined by the people’s child-like dependence on a government that only pretends to help them for the cameras.

But what conditions created a class of citizens so dependent that all they were capable of doing after the hurricane was being herded around awaiting handouts?

The contemporary culture of poor, predominantly black people of southern Louisiana has evolved under some of the most phenomenally corrupt and ruthless political crime machines in America going back over 200 years.

When I asked Ryan what he could tell America if he could, he said, "Help us fight." And then he said that the politics of the area had left people "disenfranchised, without a voice...lost."

Aren’t those people at a stage of devolution just slightly ahead of the rest of us? What would a natural disaster of Katrina proportions do to you and your community? Even if you were better prepared, how long could you and your neighbors hold out on your own?

If and when this nation experiences a border-to-border national emergency and we are all knocked back to dirt level, what then?

People are people. We all have our prejudgments, our prejudices. But prejudices evaporate when you meet people face-to-face and you have the ability to assess their characters on their own merits. As my friend, the poet-warrior Dr. Robert Hickson, so eloquently explained last year, it is meeting a man and discovering what he values, what he believes and how he lives his life that reveals who he really is.

The lesson is good for all of us and it transcends religions, races, ethnicities and nations of origin: We should assume that all men and all women are essentially good until they, as individuals, prove themselves otherwise.

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