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. razzlea

    I would def move, rebuilding a house behind the levee that broke 5 years ago is dumb because there are no guarantees in life and thats what i know.

    August 27, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Big B

    So, your mad at the Army COE for building something with material available at the time and it not standing up to the power of this storm, well dang, I'm just gonna get all fired up at the government for not regulating my house to where it can stand up to an F-5 tornado, or a 9.0 earthquake. Yea, sounds pretty stupid when you hear it come from someone elses mouth, doesn't it. You live in a bowl below sea level, this area was a SWAMP before the government came in and made it habitable, GET A CLUE, AND GET OVER IT.

    August 27, 2010 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rigel54

      Big B, you illiterate, ignorant putz. The Corps saved money my skipping 3 of 4 core samples testing to build the levies. They drove sheet piling 17 feet instead of the design 60 feet, leaving a clay slip fault just below the foundation. At 80% of capacity the levies slide sideways around 150 feet at 17th Street and London Avenue. Most of the city is above sea level. You are a moron. With properly built levies (not Dutch quality, just a little better than Big B quality) Katrina wouldn't have been a snooze, but would have cost me $604.28, not $250,000.

      August 27, 2010 at 11:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • 0verwrought

      Big B, if you drove your car across a bridge on the interstate that you were told was built to support cars and it collapsed and killed your family, Would you say AH well, I shouldn't have driven that box made of steel a hundred feet into the air and not expected gravity to take over?

      Yes, people live in areas that are below sea level, they assume that they are protected from the natural forces by sound engineering. Just like people who drive cars made of steel up into the air, into areas where if the natural forces of nature (gravity).

      Big B floodwalls that were 12 feet tall and were supposed to hold the water back fell over when the water got to the base of them!!! It wasn't one failure, it was 53 of them, the whole freaking system collapsed when exposed to forces far less than whey were supposed to support. To use YOUR example, would you be upset if the house that you bought simply collapsed not in a tornado, but when you hung a freaking mirror on the wall?: because tht is a better description of what happened in New Orleans than your foolish example of forces greater than designed for.

      August 28, 2010 at 12:32 am | Report abuse |
  3. haley

    I am live in Mississippi and I went through Katrina. I know there that the city of New Orleans and surrounding cities provided transportation for those who counld not afford to be moved out of the city. Those who chose to stay and ride out the storm was there problem and knew how big of a risk that it was to stay. You here so much on New Orleans this and New Orleans that, but did you know that the Mississippi Gulf Coast was hit harder than New Orleans? People from MS got out of the storm's path (well most of them). When your hear of Hurricane Katrina you think of New Orleans. You don't here how a whole city in MS was completely destroyed by a 35ft storm surge! Yes i feel bad for the people that were there in their homes when the leavee broke, but YOU knew before Katrina hit that there was a chance of it breaking. WHEN YOU LIVE BESIDE A LEAVEE THERE IS ALWAYS A CHANCEOF IT BREAKING!! I dont wanna hear about how they have to look at a leavee across the street. MOVE! You were given money and I bet you BLEW IT! Well, TOO BAD! People were relocated to Houston and upper Louisiana because of the storm, but yet you chose to stay. Well, with you having to look at the leavee seems like a personal problem to me. Don't tell me how you lost this and lost that. I have family that lost EVERYTHING also!!! Yes living in the south there is always a chance of a hurricane destroying everything you work for. In the north there are tornados that do the same thing. Katrina was a castrophe that i pray will never happen again. All we can do is pray that it does not. New Orleans and the MS Gulf Coast is rebuilding and looking better and better each day. Just next time when you hear Hurricane Katrina please think of OTHER cities that were affected besides New Orleans!!!

    August 27, 2010 at 1:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Well..

      Yes, thank you. There's one article I've found about a Bay St. Louis author and one article about Waveland, MS (35 foot storm surge!), and then countless ones about New Orleans. The media found a "story" with New Orleans and ran with it. They completely ignored MS (and even Bayou La Batre, Coden, and Grand Bay, Alabama) because I guess the story just wasn't interesting enough for them. Katrina hit Mississippi so hard. I've driven along the coast many time since and scrubbed mud from a school in coastal MS shortly after the storm, and some parts are rebuilt, but some are still decimated. Same with New Orleans, but enough! Also, how come we don't hear anything more about Hurricane Ike and Galveston? I'm not denying it's awful what happened, but if Galveston, MS, and AL (and Florida from past hurricanes) can rebuild and deal with the risks they still face by living on the coast, then these folks should be able to do the same. If you rebuild by the levees in Lakeview, the Lower 9th, Gentilly, wherever, then be prepared. Humans can only control Mother Nature so much.

      August 27, 2010 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • haley

      I agree. My family is from Pascagoula and they have had rebuild many times from hurricanes. I'm very thankful that they lived through the storm. I read these stories and just got well.. mad! I just dont see how we are still showing new orleans and nothing on the devestation in ms. Waveland was completely wiped out. Guess seeing people scrounge for food or killing each other in the lower 9th ward was more of a story. Its sad to know that MS (THE HOSPITALITY STATE) was hardly mentioned. Thank you for your comment!!!

      August 27, 2010 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Soccer Mom

      I think your post spoke volume to the fact that Mississippi and the other coastal states were totally put on the media back burner during Katrina. When I saw the pictures of Waveland after Katrina, my heart sank. A complete town totally wiped off the map. But you are right, that does not make for good press compared to NO. The ONLY reason NO got the press that it did was because those levees broke.

      August 27, 2010 at 10:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rigel54

      1. Mississippi was not hit "harder" than New Orleans, just differently.
      2. Not a city, a town.
      3. Severe damage was catastrophic, but limited to a narrow coastal strip.
      4. Stop playing my disaster was bigger than your disaster. It's just sad.
      5. I have close friends and colleagues who lost homes on the Mississippi coast. It was terrible, the damage is catastrophic. I have stood on the stripped ground that was their houses. The storm was stronger there, and the surge (for a half mile or so) at least as big. And it didn't have federal levies designed (not built) to stop them. It was not a city. It was a residential strip spotted with small towns and business (as well as large casinos).

      August 27, 2010 at 11:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • haley

      So just because Waveland is just a town not a city that doesn't matter? It was COMPLETELY destroyed. PERIOD! The damage NO got was mostly water damage by a leavee breaking. The coast was from the storm surge. I'm glad that you could step on MS soil and understand the devistation that the coast went through (and yes NO). My comment was about when you hear about Hurricane Katrina you think of NO and NOT the MS Gulf Coast. So don't say or comment on what is sad to me when I WENT THROUGH KATRINA! I do have that right!

      August 30, 2010 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mike

    All in the name of oil and lust for money. Oil companies like Shell have spent years destroying the wetlands of Louisiana leaving the path open to devastating hurricanes like Katrina. It's a stark reality when you stand near one of the 'new' levee walls, during a hurricane, and look over to see only water rushing by and have water splashing over the levees. Even placing homes on "stilts" doesn't solve the problem. Where I live in Mississippi quite a few years back one community got together and moved their entire town to higher ground to avoid the near annual flooding they went through. Now this is something a town full of people joined together and did on their own. Can the flood prone areas of New Orleans do the same thing. No, there's no place for the houses to go. The best solution for NO is relocation either out of the city, or to less flood prone areas. It's been a long time and I wonder if the city has a plan to put into play now that can solve problems. Alot of people will not try to help themselves. People there will have to get together and come up with solutions and evacuation plans that are needed to address their own particular areas and work on them.

    August 27, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
  5. WVLady47

    I live in the Deep South close to New Orleans and I know for a fact that the Government poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into New Orleans over the last 25 years to fix and forge up the levies but it was never done do to the corrupt city officials! WHERE did all of the money go for those repairs? WHY doesn't the media delve into this to find out the answers? People should stop blaming the Bush Administration for Katrina. Nagen was warned three days prior to Katrina to get his people out and he did nothing!!! The people in the Superdome robbed, cheated and killed each other NOT the Bush Administration. These people were given at least $2,000.00 per family to go and find adequate housing after they left the Superdome. They bought cars, jewelry, vacations, television sets and a myriad of STUFF instead of doing what they were supposed to do with the money. After they had spent all of this money, they whined to the Government because they had no place to live. THIIS is the mentality of the people who were in the Superdome and I am sick to death of the whining from these people.

    August 27, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Salawah49

      YESSSSSSSS, I agree 100%....YESSSSSSSSSSSSS.......

      August 27, 2010 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rigel54

      You know nothing, you illiterate, ignorant fool. The levies didn't fail because of maintenance issues. Hundreds of thousands of dollars? You must be joking! That doesn't buy a survey! Where are you from, you're pretty ignorant. How did you learn how people spent their housing grants? How much housing do you think $2000 buys (3 months?). NO was warned at 11 PM on Friday. By Sunday morning it was nearly too late to leave. The "robbing, cheating, and killing" in the Superdome has been revealed to have been little but sensationalistic rumors, it just didn't happen. I am "sick to death" of Rush LImbaugh fantasies.

      August 27, 2010 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Southern Fried Redneck

      Now that sucks.

      August 28, 2010 at 9:23 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Salawah49

    OMG....30 days , 60 days 120 days...NOPE...5 YEARS later and their still complaining, Get a JOB, MOVE ON, and forget about it, Sh– Happens...The taxpayer doesn't owe you crap!! Help YES, Adopt you and the next generation NO.

    August 27, 2010 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
  7. NoMoreBULL

    Don't forget, the Democrates were the ones to vote against the Civil Rights Act. And as far as Wealth, there are plenty of wealthy individuals on bothsides. Make no mistake about it, they are all looking out for themselves and not the people of this citizens of this country.

    August 27, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Tee

    @ NMore Bull, the Democrats of 50 years ago BECAME the Republican party of today.

    August 27, 2010 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Big B

      THAT is the biggest bunch of crap i have ever heard, Robert Byrd never changed from Republican to Democrate, he was always a Democrate, and he was a Klan Member, you liberals like to forget that don't you.

      August 27, 2010 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Katie

    Will you listen to yourselves? No one deserves to have his/her home, let alone entire community, leveled. Yes, the person who originally thought that it was a good idea to build homes below sea level should be flogged. But, that person is likely dead and gone by now. It's nature that's to blame. Not the government or the levee engineers or the residents of New Orleans. MOTHER nature and HUMAN nature. Mother nature caused the hurricane, and it's human nature to try to master our environment. It always has been and probably always will be. We move the earth to build cities, and then put up roads inbetween. We even build bridges to cross over bodies of water, when we could just go around. Every manipulation of our physical environment has a ramification. The consequences just aren't always as severe as the devastation caused by the broken levees. Lastly, if you want to perpetuate hate for people based on income or education levels, try walking in someone else's shoes. I guarantee that you'll find you can't. You can't even begin to empathize with another human being because you think that everyone either thinks exactly like you, or worse, that they should! Now THAT would be a true disaster.

    August 27, 2010 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      Question for you Katie: Would you choose to live inside of a bowl?

      August 28, 2010 at 8:20 pm | Report abuse |
  10. tuffcookie

    Living in an area protected by a levee is much like driving across a bridge, or driving under an overpass, or like working or shopping in a commercial building. While you are there you put your trust, hope, and faith in the skill, ability and honesty of the engineers who designed and built that structure that it doesn't collapse on you. Those that feel that these folks living levee protected areas should expect this to happen should also not expect those hundreds of thousands of tons of concrete to 'stay up there' defying gravity 100% of the time.

    August 27, 2010 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
  11. H Daddy

    Look....It is what it's common freakin sense, for God's sake. Most of these folks have lived there all their life and a lot of them have no means to relocate, BUT! if you're going to stay and live there, have a reality check with yourselves and realize that you're going to have to leave town the next time a hurricane is're living below sea level for cryin out loud. When you come back after the storm and you're house is gone....don't expect the taxpayer to continually pay for your new house every time a levee is breeched. I pay my share of taxes and wouldn't expect the Gov't to replace my house if I was living in an area where my house could be destroyed by violent weather at ANY time....use your heads people!

    August 27, 2010 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rigel54

      That's pretty much anywhere, H Daddy.

      August 27, 2010 at 11:58 pm | Report abuse |
  12. wow

    How heartless r some of these comments. Shame, shame, shame on u heartless ones. I hope u'll never need a helping hand.

    August 27, 2010 at 10:07 pm | Report abuse |
  13. rdavis

    I just wanted to share this thought about the Re-living of the mass destruction of Katrina.This week every news net work has decended upon New Orleans to say what the area is like 5 years later and in my opinion little has change they are only focusing on Burbon Street the Restaurants,and the music they want take cameras to the ninth ward to show the Nation that nothing has change it's pretty much the same the people are still suffering few have came back because they can't afford to live there and the majority have gone on with there lives and are not stupid enough to live their again knowing the same thing could happen again just a matter of time before it happens again.I think Wendel Pierce is doing a good thing but I am afraid he and others will get stuck with the loans that have borrowed to rebuild again. Brad Pitt is not concerned about he 7th and 9th wards so wake up you people in New Orleans and those that are thinking about living there again if you don't have $300,000 just laying around I am afraid you are out of business all of this is just a part of this dying world coming to an end.Good Night folks

    August 27, 2010 at 11:28 pm | Report abuse |
  14. tuffcookie

    Evacuating would not have prevented hundreds of thousands of people from having their homes and everything that they own unnecessarily destroyed. Let me ask you Mr. Tax payer, if you drove across a bridge built by the government and it collapsed would you want to be compensated for your losses? I lost everything I owned to those clowns in camo, the Corps. They were exempt from any liability. I have not recieved a red cent from your pi$$ poor excuse of a government. Like over 95% of the New Orleanians, I too evacuated. I don't expect the taxpayers to pay for my house everytime the levees are breached, I just expect the government to compensate me for my losses when THE government causes them.

    Katie-It wasn't mother nature that caused this. That's like saying the folks who died in 911 died of natural causes. Or the folks who plumetted off of that minneapolis bridge died from gravity. What happened in New orleans was not a natural disaster, it was an engineering mistake. Just like the minneapolis bridge.

    August 28, 2010 at 12:04 am | Report abuse |
  15. theblueshirt

    If you drove a big truck across a bridge that was built for small cars only, you should not be surprised if it collapses. BUT if you drive across that same car bridge on a motorcycle and it collapses when exposed to forces far less than it was supposed to stand up to, then someone should be held responsible. Yes, us taxpayers got the short end of the stick alright, but we got it from the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. U.S. taxpayers essentially paid them to build a bridge that should hold trucks (a cat 3 levee), but got one that collapsed under the weight of a motorcycle(cat 1 forces). Thousands got killed as a result and hundreds of thousands lost all that they owned.

    Folks, floodwalls that were supposed to hold back 12 feet of water fell over when the bottom of the walls got wet. We paid for 12 foot of water protection and got only two feet worth.

    August 28, 2010 at 12:15 am | Report abuse |
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