Long After the Storm: The Ongoing Struggle to Rebuild New Orleans

Planting bulrush in Bayou Sauvage. Photo: Joe Spring

It's been seven years since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,800 people and leaving molding shambles in its wake. New Orleans is still recovering, in some places more than others. This past May, more than a dozen employees from the New York City Parks Department used a week of their vacation time to help the city rebuild. —Friday, May 11, 2012, Lower Ninth Ward

“THIS IS WHERE YOU are,” Tom Pepper said to a roomful of roughly 20 volunteers.

Pepper is the director of Common Ground Relief, a non-profit perched near the levee’s edge of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. He held up a book titled The Great Deluge, and pointed at a two-story white house on the cover. The yards around it were flooded with water. A deep olive sea reflected second-story windows and the crowns of trees. A burgundy barge floated amidst the ruins. A few hundred feet away, where the wall of the Industrial Canal should have been, whitewater rushed into the city.

The volunteers stood around Pepper in the living room of the house, which is now purple. Common Ground Relief gutted, rebuilt, and painted the house after the storm. The color helped it fit in, at least a little, with the surrounding 70-plus funky, pastel, acutely-angled homes built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right foundation.

Pepper continued. On August 29, Hurricane Katrina’s eye hovered 25 to 30 miles east of here and sent a 25-foot high tidal surge up the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, whose fixed banks funneled the water toward the city and into the Industrial Canal. Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella described the incident. The water in the canal rose 14 feet above normal levels. Pressure built, and shortly after 7 a.m., two giant sections of the wall collapsed. All that saltwater, and then that barge, poured into a neighborhood that is four feet below sea level in some places.

Cameras focused on the barge, but the water knocked down walls, splintered homes, and drowned people. Some people climbed onto roofs. The water sat, turning into a toxic soup, held still in the bowl of a city. More than a week later, over 60 percent of the city was still flooded. Many of the people who climbed onto roofs were saved, albeit with memories of their neighbors dying.

Still, people wanted to come back. Even though the Lower Ninth Ward had a high crime rate, was below sea level, and was surrounded on three sides by water, it also had a much higher rate of home ownership than the city as a whole. An estimated 20,000 people lived in the neighborhood before the storm. The area has been slow to recover. Pepper said the deluge destroyed more than 4,000 homes. A New York Times Magazine story published this past spring described sections of the neighborhood as a jungle, returning to nature. Roughly 5,500 people live here now.

Common Ground Relief is trying to create a welcoming environment for the people who want to return. Pepper said they have gutted more than 3,000 homes in the city and rebuilt more than 130 in the Lower Ninth Ward. The organization also teaches families to build raised gardens so they can grow vegetables in toxin-free soil, runs a legal clinic that offers free advice to lower income residents, and replants marsh grasses to help build a natural buffer around the city. They've done all this by relying on a rag tag army of roughly 40,000 volunteers. Today’s volunteers include 14 people from the New York City Parks Department, who plan to wade through waist-deep water in a bayou filled with bugs, snakes, and, they’ve heard, alligators—all to plant a few blades of grass.

THE NEW YORKERS CAME because of Brian Aucoin, a 39-year-old New Orleans metro native. He moved to New York City 13 years ago to work for the Parks Department. Three months after Katrina, he traveled home for Thanksgiving and could not believe what he saw in his old neighborhood: no working traffic lights, no running water, no electricity, no garbage collectors. “Debris and trash were scattered everywhere the eye could see,” he said. “Abandoned and wasted cars, entire contents of houses piled higher than the first floor of homes, rotted and mildewed furniture, carpet, drywall, appliances.”

His first day back, he and his wife left their six-month-old son with his parents and helped clean up Mid-City. After six hours of work, he vowed to return in the spring. “I simply could not not do anything,” he said.

He came back that May with a crew of 30 people, and has come back every May since. He recruits by sending a broadcast email to co-workers and then gathering people for an informal slideshow. He is polite and mellow, with thinning black hair and kind eyes. As I would find out later that morning, he works relentlessly hard and leads quietly by example.

He works as the director of environmental service and training programs, recruiting, training, and overseeing volunteers in a wide variety of ecological restoration projects. On vacation in New Orleans, he helped with the same type of work. His crews have rebuilt houses and replanted parks, volunteering over the last six years with Habitat for Humanity, The Phoenix of New Orleans, the St. Bernard Project, Bayou Rebirth, and Common Ground Relief.

Earlier in the week, they spent two days in City Park planting native trees and removing exotic Chinese tallows. Later in the week, they helped restore an 85-year-old double shotgun home in the Gentilly neighborhood that belonged to a retired city pump operator. Like Pepper, Aucoin hopes today's planting at the city’s edge will help protect what's been rebuilt.

NEW ORLEANS AND THE land around it are sinking. The stats are easy to recite, but hard to fathom. Louisiana loses a football field-sized patch of land every 50 minutes. The state accounts for 80 percent of the coastal land loss in the country, more than 1,800 miles of land since 1932. That’s an area the size of Delaware—or an area the size of Manhattan every year.

Campanella points out that the sinking has a lot to do with humans building sharp, hard lines across a soft environment, the Mississippi Delta. Canals made by oil and gas companies for ships allow storm surges to flow further inland. Saltwater invades brackish habitat, killing native plants and animals. The vegetation dies and floats away. The land follows it into the Gulf. The canals grow in size, which leads to more saltwater intrusion, more plant die off, and more erosion. The land subsides further courtesy of the oil and gas sucked out from the ground beneath the wetlands.

The Mississippi River is now one really big fixed line, but John McPhee said that its delta once moved like the hand of a piano player along the coast, depositing sediment as it tracked east to west and back in a fluid motion. It has since been set in place with locks and dams. The government constricted the river to facilitate shipping and to prevent flooding. That mostly worked, but the sediment it once gently laid down along the coast in a meandering tickle it now spits deep into the Gulf of Mexico.

A lot of that sediment passes by Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge. In 1990, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service took control of the 23,000-acre park, which is one of the last remaining marsh areas next to Lake Pontchartrain and the largest urban national wildlife refuge in the country. It’s an important habitat for wildlife. Up to 340 bird species can be found in the refuge, with a peak population during migration season of 30,000. It’s also an important buffer against storm surge. But Bayou Sauvage is sinking—the refuge has lost 10 inches in elevation since 1950—and suffering.

On August 29, 2005, when the eye of Katrina passed roughly 15 miles East of Bayou Sauvage, it sent a storm surge of six to eight feet through the refuge. Winds blew up to 132 miles per hour. Saltwater mixed with the more brackish water and stayed in the bayou long after Katrina. The increased salinity helped kill up to 90 percent of the trees in the bottomland forest and destroyed more than 1,700 acres of marsh grasses, which is why Common Ground brings volunteers here.

“FIRST THINGS FIRST,” A U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist named Drew Wirwa said.

The volunteers should sign the liability waiver. They passed it around. Wirwa pointed at a silver horse trailer with 6,000 bulrush plants—single reeds to be dug firmly into the mud under a couple feet of water. Someone asked if there were alligators in the bayou. "The biggest danger is trees and debris," Wirwa said.

A few hundred feet out from shore a makeshift wall of dessicate evergreens poked out of the water, interrupting a reflection of clouds that looked like stretched cotton filler. National Guard helicopters had dropped Christmas trees in a line in the middle of the water, stacking the evergreens up to build a barricade against storm surge and collect sediment. Wirwa said the volunteers should plant the bulrush in the space between the shore and that tree wall, in bunches of 10 to 30, with each plug pushed elbow deep into the mud. "You're going to be able to come here in years and see this area filled in,” said Wirwa. “Barring another hurricane."

The volunteers formed a line next to the trailer and passed the plants down into a bunch near a path. Everyone grabbed a bundle and trudged to the water over land as firm as a wet sponge. Before they moved too far away, Wirwa yelled out one last piece of advice. "And if you haven't signed that paper, go ahead and do it," he said. "Just in case an alligator does get you."

The volunteers waded off the edge of the sponge and into knee-deep drink the color of sweet tea. The mud beneath the water encouraged, rather than stopped, their sinking. The bottom had the consistency of hot fudge. Those that didn’t move quickly got stuck. Chuckles turned into guffaws and then grimaces. The more people struggled, the more they got stuck. Shoes and sandals were lost, retrieved, and lost again.

Someone yelled—the first introduction to a Christmas tree that didn’t quite make the helicopter drop at the breakwall. The pine’s branches, which had been marinating in swamp water for months, had lost none of their brittle, sharp qualities.

Aucoin dragged two bundles at a time a couple of hundred feet out on each trip. He moved at a faster pace than the others, both through the bayou and as he planted. He was quiet, quick, and somehow avoided getting stuck. As he worked, he thought about improvements. "I quickly realized that with a few canoes or small aluminum boats we could maximize our efforts," he said.

Those logistical improvements would have to wait. A Common Ground Relief employee named Elisha took to swimming the reeds out before digging them into the mud. Others followed suit. The bulrush started popping up in patches, strips, and then, sheets of green. By 11:00 a.m. there were roughly a dozen green swaths breaking up the reflection of the clouds.

Terese Flores, a woman in a blue hat, a yellow shirt, and Carhartt waders, planted bulrush into the mud roughly 100 feet from shore. Carrie Grassi, a volunteer fifteen feet away, plugged nearby as though she was getting paid by the plant. "I was just thinking about this," Flores said to Grassi. She paused to pull up a mud-dipped arm. "My dad would say, 'You went on vacation to do what?'"

Carrie Grassi plants another bulrush. Photo: Joe Spring

MOST PEOPLE WHO VISIT New Orleans come for a vacation of a different sort. Often, they head to the French Quarter, where they stumble over cobblestone and pot-holed streets and whiff an olfactory spectrum that ranges from the subtle accents of five-star kitchens to the not-so-subtle smells wafting up from between the cobblestones. They gawk at colors ranging from gold to iridescent purple to any tone of flesh. They barter for beads, gorge on seafood, and gulp down a sugary palette of pastel drinks: pink Hurricanes from Pat O’Brien's, lime Hand Grenades from Tropical Isle, blue daiquiris or purple jelly shots from so many stops on so many streets.

The number of people visiting since Katrina has increased. The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau announced that the city hosted 4.9 million visitors in the first half of 2012. For the first time since the hurricane, the city is approaching 2004 numbers—10.1 million tourists. Tourism spending has also increased, trumping pre-Katrina numbers with $5.5 billion spent in 2011.

Tourism jobs are not at pre-Katrina levels. Jobs in the tourism industry rose to 70,000, about 14,000 jobs below 2004 numbers, according to the bureau. The bureau says the discrepancy is a result of not enough people looking for work. Others have different numbers that show an even bigger gap. They say the discrepancy has to do with a situation familiar to people all over the country. "Although tourism in terms of visitors has rebounded, they have come to some new level of efficiency," said Allison Plyer of the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. "That’s how you might put it in economic terms, of doing more with fewer employees."

The city is rebuilding in some places better than others. About half of New Orleans' 72 neighborhoods now have 90 percent of the population they had prior to the storm, but the Lower Ninth Ward is one of four communities where less than 50 percent of the residents have returned. "Overall, the recovery is underfunded. We have about $150 billion worth in damages because of those 2005 hurricanes and only about $45 billion dollars from public and private sources," said Plyer. "So every neighborhood has struggled with recovery, and, of course, the poorer neighborhoods have struggled because they don’t have the private resources to bring to things."

Charity giving and volunteering, like the work done by Common Ground Relief, helps. Katrina led to the greatest outpouring of aid in U.S. history—$6 billion—but compared to government funding, the total given has been like, well, a few thousand blades of grass planted in a sinking marsh on the edge of a rising ocean.

IT HAS BEEN SEVEN months since the team from New York City volunteered in Bayou Sauvage. Since then, Hurricane Isaac hit the city. Campanella wrote that one of the main lessons of Hurricane Katrina was the failure to engineer protection of New Orleans. He said the big lesson of Hurricane Isaac was something more natural. The city’s new levees and walls held Isaac back, but its wetlands continued to disappear. Engineers should figure out how to allow the land to fill back in, and fast.

When I called Pepper in October, he said the marsh grasses planted by the volunteers in Bayou Sauvage held. Other plants didn't. In his last day as the outdoors editor of the New Orleans Times Picayune, Bob Marshall found a disturbing sight at the city’s floodwalls after Isaac—workers removing piles of marsh grasses with their mud plugs attached.

"The nearest marsh from their final resting places was probably five miles away. So Isaac had ripped them from the skeletal remains of our once vibrant, growing delta, and dropped them when the Mississippi River levees blocked further transport," Marshall wrote. "The line of death reached halfway up the tall mud walls along the river and were stacked four to six feet deep on the highway before the mechanical undertakers arrived to sanitize the scene."

A city that built walls around its waterways to protect against flooding from a river is increasingly facing the threat of flooding from the Gulf of Mexico in the form of rising sea levels. Volunteers alone can’t undo that coming damage.

Not that such a message would stop Aucoin. I emailed him late in the summer and asked if he would return. He responded quickly. "We’ll be back for our eighth annual trip. It will likely be another combination of City Park, Common Ground, and either the St. Bernard Project or the Phoenix of New Orleans," he said. "You should join us."

A few months later, on October 29, Hurricane Sandy barreled into New Jersey and shellacked New York City with violent winds and a sustained and powerful storm surge. Houses were knocked off their foundations, homes burned down, trees fell into buildings, and people drowned.

In the aftermath, Aucoin knew what to do. This time, though, he was not volunteering. As part of his job, he helped organize the clearing of downed trees from city streets, responded to 311 calls, supervised contractors in park restoration, and helped staff park centers so that storm victims had a safe place to stay.

When I contacted him in November to see how he was doing and whether he would return to New Orleans in May, he had an understandable response. "I would love to keep the tradition going, but seeing the destruction here recently from super Frankenstorm Sandy, not sure I can or would want to try to pull people away from New York City to New Orleans when there will ultimately be plenty to do right here in Queens and Staten Island," he said. "This may be a swap from the swamp year—we’ll see how things progress."

If you’d like to join Aucoin and the New York City Parks Department, you can sign up for a Natural Areas Volunteers project led by Aucoin, or sign up for one of the city’s other park clean-up or volunteer opportunities.

—Joe Spring

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