The City is Still Drowning: Gary Rivlin on New Orleans Ten Years After Katrina

August 31, 2015

Ten years ago on August 29, 2005, nearly 80 percent of New Orleans found itself underwater. Over the following months, the New York Times sent its correspondent Gary Rivlin to live in New Orleans and report on the city’s effort to rebuild. To this day, much of New Orleans are still in shambles and few outside of the city understand the nature of the chaos that ensued during and after the storm.

In his new book Katrina: After The Flood, Rivlin reveals how the story of Katrina, and why its impact was so devastating, was much more complicated than the simple narrative much of the media was providing. A decade after the disaster, he joins Josh Zepps on Point of Inquiry this week to discuss how Katrina created a huge racial and class division in New Orleans, and how we might learn from the mistakes that were made in managing the aftermath of the storm.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, August thirty, first 2015. 

I’m Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. We are only able to bring you these conversations with today’s brightest minds week after week, thanks to your support. This show obviously cost money to make if you do enjoy it. We would hugely appreciate your help to promote science and reason and critical thinking. You can do that by going to a point of inquiry dot org slash support. That’s point of inquiry. Dot org slash support. Enjoy the show. Ten years and one week ago, a small tropical depression formed over the southeastern Bahamas less than a week later. It had developed into the costliest natural disaster in American history. Eighty percent of New Orleans was under water and over the subsequent eight months. Gary Rivlin was the New York Times correspondent covering New Orleans in Katrina’s aftermath. His new book is Katrina After the Flood. And to discuss the lessons of that catastrophe for America, for our cities, for disaster preparedness and climate change and everything else. He joins me now. Welcome to Point of inquiry, Gary. Thank you, Josh. So I just I called it the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. Some people would dispute whether it’s a natural disaster since it was the levees that were breached. How much, in your opinion, was it a natural disaster and how much was it a failure of of engineering and of imagination by people who should have been able to think more critically and behave more rationally in preparing for something like that? 

So something that is misunderstood about Katrina, when it was off the Gulf Coast, when I was still over water, it was a Category five storm, which is the highest rate, and its winds up around eight hundred and seventy miles per hour. But right before it was ready to hit New Orleans, it jog to the east and it was actually the Gulf Coast Gulf Port Block, Biloxi, a series of coastal towns in Mississippi that took the full brunt of Katrina. 

And they were clearly hit by a natural disaster. They were hit by a hurricane. And basically there was a twenty seven foot, twenty six foot wall of water, a storm surge. 

And your house survived or did? It was a very in quotes, quick events. New Orleans by the time it hit New Orleans. Katrina was actually a a weak Category three, maybe even a Category two storm. And actually, there was some roof damage, a little bit of water in the streets. But that wasn’t the problem, as you suggest. It was the collapse of the flood protection system, a 350 mile flood protection system. About half of it failed. 

And so that’s why people here in New Orleans call it a manmade disaster, because we wouldn’t be talking about Katrina in New Orleans 10 years later if it wasn’t for the failure of the man made levee system. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the system. It was rated to withstand a Category three, but we could get into it. It did not withstand very, very controversial issue that dominated a lot of the early discussion around Katrina. 

Well, yeah, let’s get into it a little bit. I mean, you you went down there just a few days after Katrina when it was actually week after week after. So what what confronted you and what did you start to learn? Obviously, I mean, as you write that the initial account of what went on, it’s all retrospective. So what were you looking at retrospectively about the causes? 

Well, you know, actually, I was looking forward as a team of people from The New York Times. And, you know, we had our levee guy, John Schwartz, and his full time B was figure out why these things collapse. There were two scientific teams, Team Louisiana team of scientists here from Louisiana, forensic scientists trying to figure out what exactly happened. I mean, they would taste the dirt. They would go into houses and look for any battery operated, operated clock to get a sense of when areas flooded and try to figure out exactly what happened. There was a team headed up by a pair of UC Berkeley professors, and there was a third team that the Corps of Army Engineers put together. All of them looking at it. But what I was looking at is, what do you do when 80 percent of your city is covered by water? A hundred and ten thousand homes were flooded. Twenty thousand businesses, most of the schools, public utilities were decimated. That fire, nine one one. The courthouse, the police headquarters, all were flooded. What do you do? So my fascination was once the water receded, then you left with the wreckage. What do you do? 

Did you have an answer to that? 

Took me 10 years and now I’ve got the book. Never did I know. It was interesting. 

I basically lived in New Orleans. I moved to New Orleans for eight months after Katrina. 

And you and you start to become much more like a local. 

And, you know, I thought that it would take two or three years to rebuild that at least within two or three years. You know, things will be looking pretty good and may be well on the way. 

It took a lot, lot longer than anyone thought. Than I thought, than the experts thought. I remember I’ll never forget. I came back. I had left the story for a couple of years and I came back around the five year mark and I was actually coming here just to have fun with a couple of friends. But I came a couple of days early and I checked in with some of the people I had met in those first weeks after Katrina. And one of them, a black man, a banker who lives in the eastern half of the city, which is to say. Predominately black part of town. He takes me for a drive and he’s showing me like this, every single strip mall was empty and boarded up there. There was a hospital boarded up. There are four churches in that part of town. Before Katrina, one hit open. I’d say maybe 40 percent of the houses were back at that. At that point, I just realized that I mean, that’s when I decide I was writing a book that this this was taking a lot long. 

And I want to figure out why. And something else the most interesting is then you went to the white part of town and white communities that were flooded. We’re returning at a faster pace. And that was one of the kind of the mysteries. 

One of the things I really want to explore in this book was that Bangka who showed you around Alton McDonald, correct? Yeah. So there was a you had a great piece in The New York Times magazine a couple of weeks ago about him. Just give us a a portrait of him and what kind of demographic impact of Katrina was? 

Well, it know interesting to me, the early coverage of Katrina was a very simple media narrative, and that’s there are wealthy whites and low-income blacks, you know, people watching. They point out everyone lived in Lower Ninth Ward. What was interesting about all the McDonald was his bank was the bank for the middle class, the black middle class in New Orleans. 

You know, he was part of the professional class. And I met him eleven days after Katrina because my first assignment in New Orleans was to find a single business hit hard by Katrina and chronicle their struggles for The New York Times to rebuild. And I meet him and he’s open to this. But seven out of his eight branches were flooded. His headquarters was flooded, 80 percent of his customers lost a home, which is to say his collateral for, you know, tens of millions of dollars in loans. His home was flooded. His records of his bank were flooded. And I remember calling up my atter and saying, I think I have my my my business, but I don’t think they’re going to make it. Do we really want to do a series that ends with the federal regulators coming in and shutting them down? What was interesting through him, you know, I got to see it’s much more complicated that actually New Orleans had a robust black middle class. I mean, this was a city at the time of Katrina, two thirds black city government was run by blacks. 

And so I don’t it just gave me a much more complex view than the simple media narrative that was being played out. 

And then the exodus out of the city in the subsequent years was disproportionately black as well. Right. I mean, you know, you ended up one of the points that you make is that the New Orleans elected its first white mayor in over 30 years because all of a sudden the voters were much whiter than they had been prior to Katrina. 

Right. So, you know, there was a sense after the storm that it was an equal opportunity storm. Did it make a difference if you’re rich, poor, black, white? You know, the floodwaters don’t discriminate. And it’s true. There are a couple of well-off white communities which were flooded, were destroyed after the levees failed. But the truth is that the high ground was mostly taken in New Orleans. 

By the time homeownership was open to most African-Americans in the 60s and 70s, when the war started change, when banks like all the McDonald’s bank came along and suddenly there was a way for African-Americans to take out loans. And, you know, what was the part of the city? It was left. It was the newest parts and it was the lowest lying area. So what you saw is that blacks were disproportionately in the lowest lying area, which is to say that part of the city that had the worst flooding, about 50 percent of New Orleans, is below sea level. 

If you were a black homeowner in New Orleans, you were more than three times more likely to have been flooded than if you were white homeowner. And so you’re right there. It just the black community was harder hit than the white community. 

And as you point out, within five years, its first white mayor in 32 years, a white super majority on the city council, white police chief white prosecutor, whites ran the school board excuse me, ran the public schools, ran public housing. You know, it’s I’ve got a little bit of grief for that article because what’s it make a difference what race the mayor is, black or white? Well, it’s not just the white mayor. It was the entire political structure that this went from a black run city to a white run city in a red rather short period of time. 

Then five years on, just the staggering number of abandoned homes was also something that struck me reading your work. I mean, New Orleans had a greater concentration of neglected properties than in any city in the US. Detroit included one in four residential properties, was either blighted or vacant. What has been done about that since? 

Yeah, I’ll actually give Mayor Mitch Landrieu the the white mayor. We’ve been talking about credit. He came up with blight. That was a very rigorous way of dealing with blighted properties. So prior to that, people get frustrated, like, hey, listen, I want my block to come back, but it’s five years. These people haven’t even dealt with their property. What should we do? 

There’s actually a law passed that said you had a year to to deal with your property at least. Start to have a plan for rebuilding, and here was five years later. So I decided to like use computers. Inspectors were given little iPod like gadgets. And right there you plug it in. And that way, anyone on a block could just log into the city’s Web site and find out the status of different places. Those who wanted to be advocates to pressure homeowners to deal with their blighted property. They had a vehicle. They had a way of complaining to the city and monitoring progress to make sure something was done. So in the mayor’s. The mayor land use first term. He knocked about ten thousand homes there, about 50000 blighted homes at the 50 year mark. And he knocked about 10000 homes off that list. There’s been progress, but, you know, even worth thirty five thousand homes. That’s such a big number. You can drive around New Orleans now, at least in the eastern half of the city, which is to say the black half of the city. You can see blocks where there are still half the homes on a block of provided. 

It sounds like that that that Web site is almost kind of a social media app in a way. It makes me wonder, actually, whether or not private industry or whether or not Silicon Valley could begin to come up with some tools that cities that are in crises, whether it’s in the wake of a terrorist attack or a storm or anything, could use to better coordinate and not have all of the burden being placed on the lumbering bureaucracies. Do you have any idea whether that’s a possibility? 

Oh, yeah. In fact, New Orleans borrowed the idea from Baltimore. Baltimore’s mayor had implemented. I don’t know exactly when, but, you know, five, ten years before before Katrina, quite crime stat. And, you know, the whole idea that, you know, let’s empower citizens so they can help a city figure out how to deal with a problem in Baltimore. Was crime here the problems? Crime, too. But, you know, this is the main culprit was Blay. 

And what’s so brilliant about this system is it’s interactive. Like if they know you’re interested, you could sign up a you get notices. Oh, by the way, there’s gonna be a court hearing next week. You might want to call if you’re interested and testify, just reminder and stuff. So it’s a brilliant idea. And I’d love to see every city use it for whatever set of problems they know they can handle better if they can engage their citizenry. Is it’s almost like harnessing representatives all around town who care about this issue and help a city deal with crime, with blight, whatever it is. 

Once that data comes in, of course, the local municipality has to be able to do something with it and has to have the resources to do something with it. I read a stunning piece recently about this multi-millionaire in New Orleans who’s set up a private police force like a private not nine one one, because people are just saying you call nine one one. Nothing happens. Nobody shows up. It takes some 45 minutes. I mean, that is that is a crisis level of mismanagement. 

Yeah, exactly. The police department in New Orleans has been legendarily bad. There’s been corruption, the same kind of thing we’re seeing with Black Lives Matter. There’s been brutality. It’s just been a mess for decades. It’s this way predates Katrina. But Katrina made it worse. And one of the uglier parts of that first week when the city was flooded. One out of three officers abandoned post and many of them were fired. 

But you fired the police officers. You have to replace them. 

And, you know, over the years, a different you know, there is this chief and that chief, the chief prior to the one who is in office now, the one that Mayor Landrieu appointed in 2010. He wasn’t very popular. And so the city went from he’s going to be rough numbers. The city went from about fifteen hundred police officers down to eleven hundred police officers that they have a monumental crime problem here. It’s one of the most violent cities in the country. And here they’re down about 400 police officers, so. Exactly right. You can call and report a crime. It’s just no one’s going to come unless, of course, you’re in the French Quarter where this very wealthy individual is paying for a private police force. 

Pardon my ignorance as an American, but a police force is funded by the state government or local governments, local city, city governments. Right. So, I mean, that could be part of the problem, right? I mean, because in Australia, police forces are funded by the state government. So presumably there’s greater flexibility and you can potentially put more resources in and you’ve just got a much larger budget to be able to slosh money around. Is that part of it? 

Well, you know, Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, is running for president right now. And one of the big controversies is the state budget is in horrific shape. You know, he’s wanted to prove to his conservative base or his potential conservative base that he’s a tax cutter. And so, you know, the state of Louisiana doesn’t have any extra money either. 

So, you know what happens? You know, there’s a lack of policing, but in the French Quarter know relatively prosperous community, they have a special police force. And, you know, there’s resentment in other parts of the city where they have a terrible violence problem. But they are. A wealthy community, they’re not central to the New Orleans tourism business like the French Quarter is. And so they’re suffering this. They’re still having to deal with the 40 minute delay on the nine one one call. It’s only in the French Quarter where they have this, you know, as a special group being funded, at least temporarily. But it’s a wealthy individual. And by the way, the state is paying for police to there and the state is paid for. I can remember the number. Fifty one hundred state troopers to help New Orleans protected streets. 

So coming from a country that just broadly works, where things function very well in industry and in Western Europe and living in a city where things function really well. New York City, as it is a is a great city that operates effectively and at a scale that puts Australia to shame. Of course, it strikes me that if there are things that are not operating optimally in a city or a state, that you could continue to ignore them. But when a huge catastrophe or a calamity or a crisis hits, that gives you an opportunity to suddenly kind of take stock and say, all right, well, now as we rebuild, let’s put in place as little bits of the jigsaw puzzle that are going to make this function. Again, it seems to me from your work and others that 10 years on, that is still not the case. Why did Katrina not provide that kind of incentive? 

Well, I mean, there’s certainly people who are thinking like that that, you know, this was a disaster, but it’s also an opportunity. The schools were taken over by the state. Most of the public schools in Orleans Parish were taken over by the state. Public housing was reconfigured. The public housing. All the big units were knocked down, even if they weren’t flooded and replaced by a mixed income unit. So some of the traditional public housing residents are in those. But two thirds of them are either middle income or market rate people. So that it was that big sky thinking and things were reinvented as a much better health clinic system now than there was prior to Katrina. Again, because they could reinvent it. On the other hand, New Orleans was the city in this country with the oldest public hospital in the United States, and it no longer has a public hospital. So there was moving pieces on the jigsaw, to use your phrase. 

But, you know, there was this hope after Katrina. I was I was here and hearing it a lot that wow, it wait wipes the slate clean. We had bad racial problems. We had bad schools. It was corrupt government that this is our chance to have a do over and it doesn’t work like that. The problems you had before Katrina, you still have them, but now you have a lot more problems and everything is worse. So the same racial problems that were hurting the city prior to Katrina got worse after Katrina. Some of the dysfunction in government got worse because the problems were that much bigger. I think things are going in the right direction, but a long way from being an efficient like New York City. 

Did you have any sense was there any period in the aftermath of Katrina when you felt like it was sort of a post apocalyptic scenario in some sense, that you you felt unsafe in a way that there was that there was a total breakdown of the structures of civil society? Or was there enough focus on Katrina and enough support from the rest of the country that it never hit that right? 

So I was here. I arrived the week after Katrina. I might have a different answer if I was here during those first few days. But by the time I arrived, the National Guard had taken control of New Orleans. It felt like the safest city on Earth because you had those police officers who had an abandoned post, but then you had soldiers with rifles walking around. You had private security, Blackwater security, protecting the hotels and stuff. So it felt very safe. But there really was this post apocalyptic feeling. You had no idea if this city was going to survive, 80 percent of it covered in water. In Washington, there were very powerful voices saying we are we should not spend precious resources rebuilding this city. Right. Is so low lying. Why we’re going to waste our money. It’s just going to happen again. So there really was this period. It lasted months where you really had no idea was nor is this going to turn into kind of a Disneyland version of itself. Yes, it had had the French Quarter in some hotels, but it would be half or less the size of that it was prior to Katrina or would they rebuild the whole city? It was it was a long, drawn out fight. I wouldn’t say I would say it wasn’t until January, February, which is to say five or six months after Katrina when you thought, like, OK. Much, if not most of the city is going to come back. So the post of apocalyptic feel was like everything felt precarious. I mean, think about it. People are thinking, can I rebuild? Should I rebuild? Will anyone help me rebuild? Will it be a school for my kids to go to? Will I have any neighbors? What are my neighbors thinking? I don’t wanna live someplace where I’m back. But, you know, I’m one in four houses that’s back. Will there be businesses? Will it be a. Dry cleaner will only be gas stations, are they going to come back? So there’s this this time when everything depends on everything, you’re waiting on FEMA. You’re waiting on your insurance company. You’re waiting on city hall. You’re waiting on the federal government. It just wasn’t clear what was going to happen. 

As as climate change gets gets worse, we can probably expect to see more frequent and more intense storms and disruption of climate patterns. I just wonder whether or not the experience of New Orleans for you gives you any kind of insight into how we should think and plan now for inevitable things like Hurricane Sandy’s or worse or a typhoon wiping out Mumbai or whatever else, or a prolonged drought in Los Angeles that actually has a serious a serious impact. Is there is there a sort of post crisis road map that you could to help me think about? 

Yes. So, you know, it’s it’s sort of a mixed verdict on this front. If we want to look at the efficiency of FEMA to help. Nothing’s changed. I mean, I live in New York City, too. You know, Hurricane Sandy, Superstorm Sandy, Sandy was three years ago, almost three years ago. It’s the same story waiting on FEMA. FEMA Ballou’s is the file. You have to send it back in. You know, there’s contradictory information. You’re dealing with one person, but they leave dealing with the insurance company. It feels just the same. On the other hand, there’s now much more talk of resiliency, to use the phrase of the moment that you need to prepare you. You can’t prevent these from happening, as you point out, with climate change. All the data suggesting that these these catastrophes are going to happen with more frequency. You can’t fight that in the short term. So you have to anticipate that something bad could happen. And so you look at it, New Orleans, part of the problem in New Orleans was the mayor had a mandatory evacuation order after Katrina. But one in four people didn’t have a car and there was no plan in place to help people at a town. 

Here’s the busses, trains in this famously in Orleans, the fantham trains. Amtrak says on Amtrak’s fall, there was just no one putting people on trains. Amtrak sent five full trains, empty trains out of New Orleans on Sunday that they could’ve been filled with people. So, you know, a mandatory evacuation if you don’t have the money to get out of town, if you not the car the means to get in town. You might as well tell people take a free vacation for a week. I mean, it was absurd. And what’s happened since then is you now have spots around the city. 

I think there’s 16, 18 spots around the city, which are known as evacuation zones. If there’s a mandatory evacuation or there’s a suggested evacuation, you could queue up there and know that there are going to be busses coming to take you out of harm’s way. There were 50000 people trapped in New Orleans, right. Right after the levees failed. And, you know, I do think that if a Katrina hit New Orleans, at least where people have been traumatized, they’ve learned the lesson the hard way that a far greater number of people would get out of town than today. 

I’d have to think that there are other cities that are in harm’s way, whether, as you suggest, a earthquake or flooding along the river, that they have to have have learned from the Katrina experience that you need an evacuation plan. You can’t say people you should leave unless, you know, you can help the elderly, infirm, those who don’t have the economic means to get themselves out of town. 

I mean, that’s staggering that Amtrak pulled five of its trains out, presumably so that they wouldn’t get destroyed and that nobody thought, well, maybe we should just let people on these trains for free and let them get out of Dodge. 

I would. I just wanna make sure that anyone listening. It’s not Amtrak’s fault. Amtrak contacted the authorities and, you know, hey, what do you want to do? Amazing. 

You know, I mean, actually, if you if you want to play place blame, I always say I live in New York and I’ve been coming down to New Orleans. I’ve been working on this book for three and a half years. I’ve been coming down every other month for a week, 10 days at a time. I use Delta. I love Delta. But Delta on Saturday night, the storm the storm hit Monday morning, hit Louisiana, 6:00 a.m. The mandatory evacuation order was Sunday morning at nine thirty. The storm is starting to really feel scared. 

Sunday night, Delta canceled their flights starting Saturday night. Continental kept flying until sometime mid-afternoon on Sunday. Delta, it just met hundreds and hundreds and tourists were trapped at the hotels. The hotels, they tried. But, you know, they don’t have the means to feed hundreds of people. Food and water for days at a time. It took five full days for the federal government to send busses and mass to save people to cart people away from the Superdome, where twenty five thousand people were took six days to send the busses to the convention center where there were another 20000 people. So all these people were stuck because people made bad decisions. I mean, that’s the lesson from here. You can’t be figuring this out as you go. Mayor Nagin, Ray Nagin at the time. It’s Saturday night. Sunday morning is when he put the mandatory evacuation. But he made the decision to do a mandatory evacuation order on Saturday night. But that’s when he first decide, oh, I guess I need to ask the city lawyer, how do I do this? And that’s what needs to happen. Why do you think that stuff through before it’s an emergency that I’ve now made the decision and the moment I made the decision, here’s the paperwork. Here’s what I have to sign. Done deal. Announce it to everyone instead of wasting 12 hours, 12 precious hours. Yeah. 

You would hope that the legal logistics, you’d hope that that letter might just be in a drawer somewhere so we could just pull it out and sign it instead of having to draft it up right there now. 

Yeah, sure it is now. But this is precisely my next question, which is, you know, you mentioned. Well, Hurricane New Orleans gets flooded, and so now there are evacuations zones in New Orleans. The tsunami hit Southeast Asia. So now when I go to Thailand, I see tsunami evacuation signs everywhere. You know something? My concern is you said you said that surely there must be plans in other cities that haven’t been hit yet. I don’t know. I wouldn’t underestimate the ability of other cities to to not worry about things until they happen. So my concern is, is it just a game of whack a mole where whatever happens, we then react to it, but we don’t actually put together a cogent or coherent strategy in advance. 

Now, I know. I know. I think you need a psychologist on the other end of the conversation. You’re not a journalist. I know what you’re saying. I mean, the other thing, too, is like people think, oh, I’m in a flood zone. So I would imagine so. The the delta in California, it’s a flood zone. I would bet I don’t know this for a fact. I had blinders on. I was looking at New Orleans, but I would bet that they have a much better flood plan today than they did prior to Katrina. The real issue is like, what about the city that hasn’t anticipated something other than a flood? Because that’s the way we think. Like, oh, we better think about a flood. Well, there are other things that can happen and you might want to anticipate. So that that be my worry. Like, you know, every city should have emergency operations, should have the plans on the shelf, should have that letter in the drawer just in case you’re out to make this stuff up on the fly in the middle of a disaster. 

And hopefully several disasters can also have similar responses. Right. I mean, it’s possible that some of the planning that New York did in the wake of 9/11 came in handy during Hurricane Sandy or something. I mean, if you need to get people out of certain areas for whatever reason and you’ve had to think about the need to do that, then it doesn’t necessarily matter. Hopefully, I’m sort of contradicting what I previously said, but this is my hope. Maybe it doesn’t matter specifically what the disaster is. 

Right. Right. Yeah, it’s it’s a wonderful book. Where can people get Katrina after the flood? Amazon bookstores everywhere. Yeah. 

Well, it just came out so Amazon could go to my Web site. Gary Riband dot com, buy it through there. I think I get an extra 15 cents from Amazon by me. 

OK. Excellent. Great to talk to you, Gary. Thanks so much for being a point of inquiry. Thanks, Josh. My pleasure. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.