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Katrina survivors brace for oil wave

By Willie Drye

New Orleans–When some friends and I arrived in New Orleans recently, we stopped for a late dinner at a chain restaurant just off Interstate 10. The restaurant was miles from downtown and the levees that famously failed five years ago this summer during Hurricane Katrina. We’d been wondering whether damage from the catastrophic storm was still visible after so long.

We asked our waitress–a tall, poised, bespectacled young woman–if the flooding caused by the hurricane had reached this far away from the levees.

We thought it was an innocent question, but recalling the awful events of August 29, 2005 for even a moment clearly affected her. She looked away, and her pleasant expression melted for a moment. A look of pain flashed across her face, and her voice faltered for an instant. Yes, she said, the area where we were sitting had been flooded.

Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,500 people and inflicted a staggering amount of damage and suffering on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We wondered, but dared not ask, whether the waitress had lost a close friend or family member.

But our encounter with the waitress made us realize that while many outward signs of Katrina’s destruction on the Gulf Coast have faded, millions of residents have still-painful memories of an awful ordeal. And as the 2010 hurricane season approaches, they have another reason for edginess as they look toward the horizon of the Gulf of Mexico. Not far offshore a swath of crude oil that leaked from the drilling rig that blew up and sank last month could reverse the economic recoveries that have emerged since Katrina.


Rev. David Knight, Rector of Saint Patrick’s, holds the Episcopal Church flag in front of the ruins of the church, a few days after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the church.

Photo provided by Rev. David Knight

“There’s this sense of what’s going to happen if it really gets bad, what could happen to every aspect of our way of life,” said Reverend David Knight, Rector of Saint Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Long Beach, Mississippi, about 70 miles east of New Orleans. Before Katrina, Saint Patrick’s was only about 600 feet from the Gulf of Mexico. Today there’s only a foundation and a cross marking the spot where the building stood. A new church has been built a couple of miles inland.


The foundation of Saint Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Long Beach, Mississippi. The church, which stood about 600 feet from the Gulf of Mexico, was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005.

Photo by Willie Drye

The oil spill has created new anxieties. “These people are really having a hard time economically,” Knight said. “On top of that–I don’t know how to put this–there’s so much that’s unknown. It’s like watching a hurricane come, only you can’t do anything. You can’t board up your windows, you can’t prepare for evacuation. In some ways it’s more difficult mentally for people. Nobody knows how bad it will be.”

Driving through New Orleans, you see reminders of how severely the city was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Abandoned houses still have the spray-painted signs left behind by rescue teams searching for survivors–and corpses–in the days after the storm. A typical sign includes a date, such as “9-12,” and “TFW,” meaning that the house was searched by members of a National Guard unit from Fort Worth, Texas. Some houses have a zero painted on them, meaning that no victims were found inside. Others have a number indicating how many bodies were found.


An abandoned house in New Orleans with spray painted sign. The sign indicates that a National Guard unit from Fort Worth, Texas searched the house on September 12, 2005 and found no victims.

Photo by Willie Drye

The famous French Quarter was only slightly damaged compared with the rest of the city, but the people who live and work there are constantly reminded of the storm in other ways. A map showing the area that was flooded is posted in Beckham’s Bookshop on Decatur Street. Alton Cook, a co-owner of the bookstore, said posting the map was a response to nearly constant queries from out-of-town customers about Katrina.

“For a long time in the bookshop, every day we had to tell people about the storm,” Cook said. “They asked kindly, they wanted to know. They meant well, but we had to recite the same thing over and over.”

In the Lower Ninth Ward, which received some of the worst flooding from Hurricane Katrina, signs of the storm are much more evident. Many small, modest houses are battered, empty and deteriorating. The neighborhood’s most famous resident, jazz legend Fats Domino, still hasn’t moved back into his house where rescuers in a boat plucked him from the roof of a porch.


The house belonging to jazz legend Fats Domino in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Domino was rescued from the roof above the porch after Hurricane Katrina.

Photo by Willie Drye

Knight, the Episcopal priest in Mississippi, said about three years passed before residents of his community stopped feeling that everything they did wasn’t somehow related to recovering from Hurricane Katrina. That experience could help them in dealing with the effects of the oil spill.

“We have the physical facilities in place, and some experience in organizing folks to come help,” Knight said. “So we’re not reinventing that wheel. But I don’t want to overplay the hurricane analogy. The impact on the economic scale (of the oil spill) could be worse, depending on how long it lasts.”


Willie Drye is the author of “Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935,” published by National Geographic, and a regular contributor to National Geographic News. He has also written for the Toronto Globe and Mail, the Washington Post, the Tampa Tribune and the Orlando Sentinel.

Drye is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Visit his blog: “Drye Goods.”

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