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. misscansi

    I've read most the comments. And I've seen things over and over. Wasn't N.O. built on wetland BY the government? So seeing how the government built it they should build sufficient protection. But if the levees broke once against a NATURAL OCCURING problem then the government shouldnt waist the money rebuilding the levees and towns but moving the people out of there. Shouldnt the government be helping? [Sorry for any misspellings.]

    August 28, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Luke

    When you decide to live below sea level, you reap what you sow...

    August 28, 2010 at 6:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • southern lady

      Well i guess the same can be said for people who live in california wildfires and earthquaks, mid west tornado alley and all the flooding. anywhere on the east coast with hurricaines every part of the country has its problems! Jackhole!

      August 29, 2010 at 7:21 am | Report abuse |
  3. Mark

    Hey New Orleans, RUN , you live below sea level and the sea is rising. Get out while you can. Do not expect any sympathy from the rest of the country. We have our own problems.

    August 28, 2010 at 6:28 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Scott

    IF you don;t trust the work that has benn done then move away from the araa. You have seen what Mother Nature can do when the elemnts overwhelm what man can build. You take the same risk as those in Florida who rebuild in hurricane areas, those in California who live in high-fire areas, etc. You have chosen to live in an area know for high-risk. Live wiht your choice and the possible cnasquence and DO NOT look to anyone for a gurantee of your safety.

    August 28, 2010 at 6:29 pm | Report abuse |
  5. McCoard

    It is stupid to for the taxpayers to pay for this and then allow them to rebuild in the same area. Sure living anywhere has some risks but this is beyond reasonable.

    And before the replies are posted –we did live in a flood plain and MOVED after the first flood.

    August 28, 2010 at 6:31 pm | Report abuse |
  6. George from LA

    You live in an area that is below sea level and you expect the government to bail you out when your home gets flooded (and it will too again)? BS! I have a simple solution for you...MOVE!

    August 28, 2010 at 6:31 pm | Report abuse |
  7. richardsrussell

    Let's not be unduly subtle or polite about it. If you voluntarily choose to live on an earthquake fault line, the side of a volcano, the edge of a cliff, downstream of a dam, or below sea level, you are just asking for it. When the disaster finally arrives — as it inevitably will — you have nobody to blame but yourself. You should NOT expect the rest of us to pay for your foolishness.

    August 28, 2010 at 6:32 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Liveelsewhere

    Problem is not trusting a wall to hold water, the problem is living there to begin with. Move somewhere else if you want security. Hey everyone! Let's move to Baghdad! I hear the houses are cheap, but I fully expect to be protected from the gunfire and bombs going off! Idiots.... move somewhere else, at least away from a dangerous flood area.

    August 28, 2010 at 6:40 pm | Report abuse |
  9. D Frost

    Common sense doesn't exist in NO, apparently. Look at the picture! The houses are below the waterline of the canal. What are they thinking!? In that hurricane prone area, houses should be at least several feet above any waterline. I say put a 100 foot wall around downtown NO, build bridges to it, and call it "New New Orleans Island." If we are to continue this foolishness of rebuilding NO, let's at least reduce the costly impact to taxpayers for this folly. It's going to take the next hurricane, I guess, to wake people up? And it will come.

    August 28, 2010 at 6:41 pm | Report abuse |
  10. marchmadness

    You can never build a levee system that is 100% fail save. Especially in New Orleans where most of the city sits below sea level. Just hope and pray that Katrina's twin doesn't come.

    August 28, 2010 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Maggie

    Please, people, if you don't know how to spell it, look at the article. It's levee, not leavee or levy or any of the other weird spellings.

    August 28, 2010 at 6:44 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Tyhouston

    It's not even raining and it's near the top...see the DOWNHILL path water will take?

    That's just a stupid place for a house... like a house on a flooding river bank or on a active volcano...get a braincell working and move man

    August 28, 2010 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
  13. JayC

    I must concur. We can't place Govt. responsibility over personal responsibility. No one is being forced to live there below sea level. You, your friends and family have chosen to make it your home. Certainly it is a horrendous thing when so many suffer from such an event. That does not absolve you of your personal role in it. You made it your home and the chances that choice could end tragically are your fault before anyone else. Absolutely we should help our fellow citizens in their time of need. Just don't sit there and tell us how it was the fault of everyone but you.

    August 28, 2010 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
  14. NB

    Can they trust the new wall? Of course not. Nothing built by man can withstand the fury of nature at its worst.

    August 28, 2010 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Hurricane Hater

    The people of N.O. love their unique city, but must understand that the levees will not hold against a cat 4 or 5. The Mississippi River will eventually retake the city.

    August 28, 2010 at 6:48 pm | Report abuse |
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