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For my vacation last week, I decided to visit New Orleans. One of the days, I got the opportunity to take a tour bus through the 9th Ward to see how the community has developed since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. My tour guide’s name was Dino. Dino explained to us that the 9th Ward, especially with Brad Pitt’s housing project, has become a large tourist attraction in New Orleans. As my bus entered the Lower 9th Ward, where most of the damage occurred, I saw two other tourist busses within the first five minutes.
The "Float House"
When Pitt visited the Lower 9th Ward after the storm, he was disturbed by the lack of a clear plan to address the disaster and rebuild the community. Pitt met with the community and learned about their challenges, the rising cost of energy, and environmental issues such as the ever-increasing frequency and strength of hurricanes, which erode wetlands and barrier islands that once protected the coast. After these meetings, Pitt developed a project to build eco-friendly houses for people who lived in the area before the storm hit. The houses are affordable, and are energy efficient so that residents save significant amounts of money on bills. The houses are elevated and have emergency escape hatches in the roof, in case of future floods. Dino showed us his favourite house. It was called the Float House (see photo), which is sort of a boat house. The house is built to rise with surging flood waters. The point is to minimize damage during floods. The house will float and eventually settle somewhere when the water recedes.
Still, flood victims still face many adversities. The New Orleans metropolitan area lost 75,000 homes from Katrina and only 10,000 have been rebuilt. Around 38,000 households still have no new place to call home. Many of the houses that Dino showed us still had markings from after the storm (see photo). Teams of people from various locations went through the houses after the hurricane to check for bodies. They then marked a large ‘X’ on the houses. The right side of the X said where the team was from. The top of the X said what date the house was checked on. And the bottom of the X marked how many dead bodies they found. Fortunately, in the picture I took, zero bodies were found. However, we did see a number of houses indicating that bodies had been found.
During my visit, I stayed in a hotel in the French Quarter- the main tourist area in New Orleans-right by the Canal Street and Bourbon Street intersection. During the hurricane, bean bags were piled higher than the ships on the waterfront in order to minimize damage in the French Quarter.
Contrary to the 9th Ward, the French Quarter was completely re-built after the hurricane. I couldn’t even imagine that Canal Street had once been completely flooded. It made me wonder, if the resources were available to protect and rebuild the French Quarter so efficiently, why hasn’t more been done for the Lower 9th Ward?
Furthermore, many wonder, why has Brad Pitt done more for New Orleans than any government agency. Why was the U.S. government so slow to respond to the needs of New Orleans residents after the disaster occurred? One house that my tour bus passed by had put a sign in their front lawn (see photo) questioning why the U.S. government can find the money fund Iraq, but not to better help its own citizens. Dino, who also suffered from the hurricane, told us that although Hurricane Katrina was a Category 5 hurricane, the levee was rebuilt to handle only a Category 3 hurricane. Could the U.S. government not afford to strengthen the levees beyond a Category 3?
After the tour bus dropped us back at our hotel, a question came to my mind that I had forgotten to ask Dino. I already knew the answer, but I wished I had remembered to ask him anyway. How much of the $40 that each of us paid for the tour was actually spent on helping the community?