August 27th, 2010
08:55 AM ET

In the shadow of the levees

When Sonya Hill opens the door of her rebuilt shotgun house in the Lower 9th Ward she faces a reminder of the devastation Katrina brought. Directly across from her house is the spot where the levee broke five years ago.

It has since been rebuilt and sits higher than before the storm. It is an impressive wall of gray concrete meant to offer protection from future storms, but for Sonya Hill it is a reminder of everything that can go wrong.

“Looking at that wall, I’m thinking what if it breaks again? What if it breaks right in front of my door and I’m inside with my kids? I don’t feel safe back here if a hurricane comes through,” she says.

When Katrina hit she was living in a different part of the 9th Ward and then moved to Houston, Texas. She says affordable housing is scarce in New Orleans and staying with her aunt is her only option.

“I didn’t think I’d come back,” she says. “Then I got homesick and came home and now I’m back here, in front of the wall.”

Learn more about how the levees work

Across town in the Lakeview neighborhood, Roy Arrigo’s rebuilt home backs up to the floodwall on the 17th Street Canal. A few houses up the block is where that floodwall gave way during the storm. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has patched the breech, but the section behind Arrigo’s house is the same concrete wall that stood as Katrina pounded the city.

“This is a fragile wall,” he says.

He has become a neighborhood advocate pushing for what he calls “accountability” at the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Five years ago we found out that we couldn’t trust what the Corps was saying about their work, we couldn’t trust their work, and since that time, no processes, no procedures have changed,” he says. “Nobody’s been fired, demoted, jailed, held accountable in any way.

“So we see the work and we’re told about all of the progress, but can we trust it? To be honest, I don’t think we can.”

In the Gentilly neighborhood, the house that Callie Brown shares with her sister Willean Brown sits across the street from the levee that holds back the London Avenue Canal. It gave way during Katrina and like the others has been rebuilt.

Callie says she is scared another storm will hit and the levees won’t hold. She hopes the efforts to rebuild the levees will prove effective should another major hurricane hit, but she remains skeptical.

“I have to give the government the benefit of the doubt that the wall’s going to hold. Well I try, but that don’t mean it’s going to work,” she says.

Her sister doesn’t worry about the levee. She puts her faith in a higher power.

“They can build the wall as high as they want to. God has the power. If he wants to tear down a building low or high … he can knock it down.”

“My faith makes me feel safe here,” she says. “You don’t have to be afraid of where you live. You have to be afraid of God.”

soundoff (166 Responses)
  1. junior

    Blah,blah,blah, when the next hurricane comes and the levees break, you will once again expect the American taxpayer to rebuild your city. So either live there and shut up or move.

    August 27, 2010 at 9:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Da Truth

      blah, blah is what the people who lived there heard when they needed the help and support of the country to whom they pay taxes to. If it were you, you would expect the same if not more! Our country was founded on great morals and beliefs that each american deserves equal chances!!!! The same chances that other countries recieve when disaster strikes....but what happens when the home front is effected...home takes its time to react!!! Clearly all that matters to you is that there is a response....AMERICAN MUST LEARN TO TEND TO ITS NEEDS BEFORE THE NEEDS OF OTHERS!

      August 27, 2010 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • imadome

      @ junior- bla bla bla is all your saying. you need to shut up.

      August 27, 2010 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • bailoutsos


      August 28, 2010 at 6:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Doug

      Tend to our own needs I do agree.. But this city is below the level of the water.. It's no if, it's always been WHEN.. I for one do not think we should have rebuilt that city.. It will happen again .. Our country is heading towards bankruptcy and the total take over by china.. What then folks ?

      August 28, 2010 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • DARinKC

      Seriously, you build a house 10 feet below sea level and don't expect a flood every so often? And blame the Corps of Engineers? There is something called "assumption of risk" and personal responsibility for decisions.

      I understand the need for everyone to pitch in when there is a widespread disaster like Katrina but all these other flood situations when the government steps in they usually require people to relocate to high ground and don't permit rebuilding in the flood zone. Yes, I know that NO is low ground. But it is not a question of IF there is another hurricane and flooding, it is WHEN. My problem is that we can't afford TWO bailouts of NO. One was expensive enough. If you love the area/lifestyle, great. But the next one can't be tax payer funded.

      August 28, 2010 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Doc B

      Hurricanes WILL continue to come. Why should others pay for your choices? When did we become a country that believes cradle to grave care is a right? It would be great...if the money existed. It simply doesn't.

      August 28, 2010 at 6:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bensky

      I'm sorry but just because someone pays taxes doesn't mean everyone else has to support lizard brain attractions to costly mistakes in life. Wake up, take responsibility for your actions and move if you can't stand the pressure. It will save millions, if not billions, in taxes for other worthwhile projects - like education and jobs. I have never felt sorry, for one minute, for those who choose to live in flood plains or below sea level. What were their mothers thinking when they were reading them nursery rhymes. Mine told me to stay away from places like that for a fuller and richer life. Duh!

      August 28, 2010 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • william moore

      Hey' let's build a house under a wall of water. Sounds like a grand idea. Move where the water ain't people, we're tired of bailing you out (pun intended).

      August 28, 2010 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • el bochero

      Junior was you born that way or you became like that when you grew up? had she being white will you have the same advise for her?

      August 28, 2010 at 8:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nicole

      Why would anyone want to live in an area where you can obviously see the water is above you. The only thing holding that water back is a wall that is man made and ALWAYS has the potential to fail. I'm sorry...but anyone who wants to still continue to live there, if it happens again it's your own fault.

      August 28, 2010 at 8:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kennneth Hudson

      Have you seen these homes before the storm? Some of them look as if the termites were holding hands was the only thing keeping them together.

      August 28, 2010 at 8:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kennneth Hudson

      OK, Pay your share of taxes instead of sucking the system dry.

      August 28, 2010 at 8:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • johnny orlando

      I hope those of you who are saying these things dont consider yourself christian, or you really suck at reading comprehension.

      August 28, 2010 at 9:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • BlueNC

      Junior If you read back over that does any part make you feel really bad about yourself?

      August 28, 2010 at 9:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Voice of Reason

      Why live below sea level and then complain of the water flooding your city? There is nothing wrong with moving to higher ground... think about it. At least when a hurricane is forming 5 days out don't wait to the last minute to run to a football stadium.. get the hell out of its path!

      August 29, 2010 at 3:08 am | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Wow. People are soulless dinks when given the chance to speak anonymously.

      August 29, 2010 at 9:31 am | Report abuse |
    • Eric

      Well PLEASE Junior, make certain we do the same to all those white folks on the Florida coasts that we bail out every darned hurricane season, over and over and over. They wanted property near the ocean, and were too short-sighted to look at hurricane patterns for their area: several centuries of ten years on, ten years off.
      Yeah but who pays attention to global weather patterns anyhow...

      August 29, 2010 at 9:51 am | Report abuse |
    • CHS

      First of all, this is NOT a topic of race. Whether it was a White person or a black person who lost their family, or house or town the advice is the same. Second, The damage that was done to NO was terrible, no doubt about it. However, while I think the government does need to help, it can only do so much. There have been hurricanes in states like North and South Carolina (where I live by the way) and Florida many, many times and even more recently floods happen in towns like Nashville, TN and the people there got help (much like the people of NO did). Basically YOU need to be the one to take intiative to rebuld, move on and better your life. The people in NO who expect others to not only give money but to come and rebuild and fix everything is just rediculous. Leves break, areas flood, buildings are ruined by mother nature... such as a CAT 5 hurricane!! No matter how much money you make it is eventually up to you to better your life after such distruction. Oh... and if another hurricane comes my advise is to LEAVE this time and not wait it out.

      August 30, 2010 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  2. biff

    One word: Move.

    "Many who live near levees in New Orleans are still skeptical about their safety"

    August 27, 2010 at 10:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Kennneth Hudson

      The reason people are so cynical about N.O. is the fact that its one of the most corrupt cities (along with Detroit) in the U.S. We knew when they started sending funds down there enough would not be enough because of the greed and corruption.

      August 28, 2010 at 8:15 pm | Report abuse |
  3. gary

    Many years ago I lived near New Orleans and was shocked when I was walking on a leavee and saw water on one side well above street level on the other side. I thought somebody would have to be crazy to live there. Unfortunately no leavee system will be perfect and a breach most likely will happen again sometime. It's like expecting earthquake work on a house to survive any earthquake. It's just not going to happen.

    August 27, 2010 at 10:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Rigel54

      Quite right! Abandon the West Coast. And the Midwest, And the East Coast. And the Southwest will probably run out of water before the volcanoes erupt again. Don't forget the Yellowstone caldera. It will lay waste to everything from Seattle to Indianapolis. Best to abandon them now, it's due soon.

      August 27, 2010 at 11:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • kiddingmeright?

      People need to learn to accept risk. I am tired of all these losers who are unable to quantify all engineering and environmental problems in our world and forcing tax payers like me to pay for them. Problems exist anywhere but if you are the dumb sh!t who builds a house in a 100 year flood plane, then you have no one to blame for your problems than yourself. Please NOLA, burn in hell for steeling my money to pay for your FEMA trailers.

      August 28, 2010 at 7:42 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Buck

    I agree, if you are that worried about living there, MOVE! Just don't whine about it if the levy does break and you get wet again. Oh, and, don't worry about that ugly gray concrete wall. I would bet that in no time at all, it'll be all nice and prettied up with graphitti and assorted art-work to make us all proud.

    August 27, 2010 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
    • Kennneth Hudson


      August 28, 2010 at 8:16 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Loren

    If you're in your home across from the levee ad worrying if it will hold, then you've stayed too long. What man has built, God can render. So use yor God-given brain and get the hell out when before the levee breaks.

    August 27, 2010 at 10:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Penny

      Well said Loren. Also, if you're going to choose live BELOW sea level, then make sure to get flood insurance for your home. That goes for the white people who live in Florida also......get flood/hurricane insurance so the taxpayers don't have to pay to bail you out for your choice to live by the water. It's pretty simple.

      August 29, 2010 at 12:19 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Loren

    If you're in your home across from the levee ad worrying if it will hold, then you've stayed too long. What man has built, God can render. So use yor God-given brain and get the hell out before the levee breaks.

    August 27, 2010 at 10:25 am | Report abuse |
  7. FetusEater

    When you live in a toilet, you have to expect it to be flushed from time to time.

    August 27, 2010 at 10:51 am | Report abuse |
    • Da Truth


      August 27, 2010 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rigel54

      Amen, Da Truth. Smart money say this one is a parasite on humanity (or at least on his family). He has no job, no family, and no particular education. He just eats pizza and spouts filth.

      August 27, 2010 at 11:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kennneth Hudson


      August 28, 2010 at 8:22 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Afro Jones

    I swear, I hope you all NEVER have to experience anything like the citizens of N.O. had to endure. Just pick up and go huh? People in New Orleans are very community and family oriented. No one should feel like they HAVE to leave the only home they've known because the GOV'T won't do their job. Why should they have to leave? Why can't the GOV'T protect its people? I don't hear people telling folks in Florida to move because of hurricanes. I don't hear people telling fokls in CA to leave because of earthquakes and forest fires.

    August 27, 2010 at 11:03 am | Report abuse |
    • KidKreole

      That's because you don't hear people in Ca. and Fla. complaining the government is not protecting them. If those people don't feel safe...they pick up and move just like people in La. should do.

      August 27, 2010 at 11:55 am | Report abuse |
    • Corrie

      It's time for them to grow up and stop expecting the government to hold their hands and tell them what to do now.

      August 27, 2010 at 12:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Blitz

      The lack of compassion and concern for our fellow human beings and American citizens is staggering. I would bet that many of you are good "Christians" who will go to church this Sunday.

      Regardless, the government (federal, state and local) has a responsibility to maintain the infrastructure of this country. If the state of Florida or California just told citizens to up and move if they are tired of disasters, we would be up in arms. I wonder why some people are so callous towards the human toll and suffering. Perhaps we don't see them as fully human. I wonder why?

      August 27, 2010 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Da Truth


      August 27, 2010 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rigel54

      @KidKreole. That's because the government is protecting them. It didn't build catastrophically defective levies and then fail to answer the alarm. What happened to New Orleans was not a natural disaster, it was an engineering failure of monumental proportions. It turned a pretty bad storm ($604.28 for me) into a catastrophe ($250,000 for me).

      August 27, 2010 at 11:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brad

      I'm sick of my tax dollars and Insurance rates being wasted on people who insist on living in high risk areas and expect the Government and Insurance companies to jump and run when the schidt hits the fan. Stand there and look at that levy lady cause one day you won't be so lucky. GTFO of there. I can't believe you would rebuild a house next to a failed levy. SOOOOOOOOOOOO Stupid.

      August 28, 2010 at 12:05 am | Report abuse |
    • Stupid is as stupid does

      Protect from what? forces of nature? Get serious- you live in an area below sea level, expect water in your yard. Most of the people were displaced after Katrina, so the arguement "people that live here" is BS. They were out, and cose to move back knowing full well what could happen.

      August 28, 2010 at 7:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      Yeah, just pick up and move, Mr. Jones. That IS an option. This isn't about any of us being callous, cold hearted, or whether or not the government does it's job, or whether or not the Army Corps of Engineers did it's job.

      The residents of New Orleans need to understand this concept: The city sits inside of a freaking bowl, surrounded by freaking WATER being held up by a massive wall system. This is like parting the red sea, erecting walls, and living on the sea floor. There will always be hurricanes, tornadoes, torrential rain, all sorts of natural phenomena. The laws of nature and physics apply here. There is no amount of money or effort to keep the water out forever. While you cannot do anything about those things, you CAN choose where to live. If the condition of the city depends on a set of walls to keep water out, it's probably not a good idea to live there.

      August 28, 2010 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • MissingMD

      Amen. I was thinking the same thing. People are so uppity and think stuff can't happen to them. I hope and pray nothing does. They better be careful what they say, the'll be in some kind of situation one day calling on the Government to help them out.

      August 28, 2010 at 8:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kennneth Hudson

      Whenever we had hurricane Fran here in N.C. we did not get half the help they got down there. What makes Black folks more deserving?

      August 28, 2010 at 8:20 pm | Report abuse |
  9. larry wi

    If they are so worried whay are they still there! Stupid people.

    August 27, 2010 at 11:23 am | Report abuse |
  10. Huh

    Where exactly do you propose that they relocate to! It is very arrogant and insensitive to think that everybody is able to just up and LEAVE all they know. IDK if anybody remembers that story from Elementary School: they came for the blacks and no one said anything, they came for the italians and no one said anything and then they came for me...we need to take better care of each other....but by the grace of GOD, there go I! Katrina can happen to anyone. And in a time of such devastation the one thing that can restore hope is your BROTHER showing you compassion and offering you help. . What happened in New Orleans should never happen anywhere! And the people of New Orleans don't deserve to be reduced to being called lazy and dumb bc they love thier city and the homes that they have worked so hard for....God bless America!

    August 27, 2010 at 11:41 am | Report abuse |
    • Corrie

      Other people work hard and save their money and are able to relocate. I don't doubt their ability. Do you?

      August 27, 2010 at 12:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Southern Fried Redneck

      I am sure wherever they move the crime rate will go up and Social Services will be tapped out.

      August 28, 2010 at 8:24 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Odell

    First storm film by New Orleanians.

    August 27, 2010 at 11:56 am | Report abuse |
  12. Well..

    New Orleans is a beautiful city and is significant to the US economy. I live on the Gulf Coast, though not in Nola. With that said, however, there's a reason that the oldest part of the city (French Quarter) didn't flood whereas the neighborhoods that were built on drained swamps DID. The levees failed, but the hurricane caused the large amounts of water to surge into the canals and to ultimately break the levees that were, again, built on not-so solid ground. Certain neighborhoods should not be rebuilt because human engineering is not perfect and they continue to sink due to subsidence. Even if they build levees that really do have the strength to protect against a Cat 5 storm, anything can happen depending on where the storm makes landfall. New Orleans is not entirely under sealevel, but it's shaped like a bowl. Every place in this country is subject to natural disaster, but if your streets flood from a regular rain storm, then you're in trouble. The canal water lines are ABOVE street level! I'm passionate about my own hometown and understand how some families feel they could never relocate, and that's fine. Relocate to the parts of the city that didn't flood and don't rebuild your home (unless it's raised very high and is "weather-proofed") right next to the flood wall that was breached before! New Orleans cannot blame the COE entirely, either. Maybe the levees were federalized, but years of chopping canals into the river and lake can't be good. Also, the Mississippi needs to be allowed to flood naturally like it did years ago, or else the protective wetlands will continue to erode. I have no suggestion because I honestly don't know if all of New Orleans CAN be protected. Maybe too much damage has been done by its residents, local and state leaders, and the feds. I do think that A LOT has been done for their recovery; the majority of the city is doing quite well and the money keeps coming in.

    August 27, 2010 at 12:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wow

      AMEN! What happened to these follks is horrible. Flooding is a devastaing thief! So, if someone else built a house in a swamp and you bought it since nothing adverse had ever happened to it, then it floods, you have to wonder if it's real wisdom to rebuild in the same place? Don't want to leave your family, friends, etc... Of course you don't BUT at some point, we each have to be responsible for ourselves and not expect the government to defy gravity. Many places in New Orleans are UNDER SEA LEVEL!!!! If you choose to live there, be ready to accept the inevitable. It may not be this year... it may not be next year... it may not be for another 100 years! BUT, it WILL happen.

      August 28, 2010 at 6:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Southern Fried Redneck

      I wish somebody had given me $2000 to leave when Fran came to NC we didnt get squat.

      August 28, 2010 at 9:29 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Corrie

    Fine, fine, they want to move back. But if the levees break again, they were warned. I don't want to see hysterical lower class people throwing themselves on the ground wanting to know where their money, free housing, etc. is. I also don't want to see them looting from small businesses where the owner is gone and his inventory unguarded.

    August 27, 2010 at 12:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Blitz

      Say that to people when a hurricane hits in Florida or an earthquake hits California. We should do nothing since they were warned about the disasters that happen there. In fact, we all know that living on earth brings several types of disasters (e.g. tornadoes in the midwest). Therefore, no one should get upset when a disaster does significant damage – especially in FL, CA, or NOLA. Plus, governments should do nothing to help and just watch people fend for themselves.

      The lack of logic would be astounding if it weren't explained by the seething contempt held for people who have suffered from this storm. I bet "class" in your post is a euphemism for something else. Any guesses!?

      August 27, 2010 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rigel54

      Thank you Blitz (and others). Shame on you, Corrie.

      August 27, 2010 at 11:30 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Tom Collins

    It is just stupid to build, buy or live in a house that is below sea level. Period.

    August 27, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Hope

    If you want to live below sea level then DON'T COMPLAIN when your house gets washed away. They told you to opted not to and somehow it's Bush's or the government's fault? And then you come back to the same spot?! Are you nuts?! Come on people!! Don't live in a wash basin. I don't care how much I "love my home city"....I'd rather be ALIVE and SAFE! I love N.O. but I sure as hell wouldn't live next to the levee. It's amazing how little common sense people use. Good Lord!

    August 27, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Soccer Mom

      I could not agree with you more. How many times do you have to be flooded out before the light bulb goes off and you consider moving? If you live in a flood zone, there is a possibility that your house could be flooded out one day. Its just a chance that you take. I understand the love for one's city, but at some point common sense and rationality has to come into play.

      August 27, 2010 at 10:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rigel54

      Most of it is not below sea level. And it is the government's fault, the levies were catastrophically defective, failing at 80% of capacity. The West Coast has been warned of inevitable earthquakes, we all have been warned of the inevitable eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera, the repeat of the New Madrid quake, and countless other "inevitable" disasters. Shame, shame, shame on you pathetic human beings.

      August 27, 2010 at 11:34 pm | Report abuse |
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