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. nonPCrealist

    “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.”

    awesome.. love the mentality of these idiots who _choose_ to live in such an obvious danger area then expect the rest of the country to come galloping to their rescue when (not if) a catastrophe happens.

    If people choose to live there that is their issue, insurance companies and the Government (read: The rest of us) should have absolutely no responsibility to help them rebuild though.

    August 28, 2010 at 6:53 pm | Report abuse |
  2. JohnDorian

    “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.

    Of course you shouldn't feel safe. That is the absolute correct observation to make living below sea level when a hurricane is approaching, no matter where you live in the US. Matter of fact, that's the correct observation to make even if you live somewhat significantly above sea level when a hurricane approaches, and you live in a concrete reinforced house near (within a hundred miles of) the coast. Hurricanes are unpredictable, and can do significant damage to human made structures. I don't think you can possibly think any other way. Congratulations! Maybe it's not obvious to you, but it's painfully obvious to the rest of us. That's what evacuations are for, and were ignored by a significant number of people. I would blame the government for not having enough resources to warn or get the people out of an obviously risky impending situation such as an approaching hurricane than for not making the levies strong enough. If a person wasn't sufficiently warned that their home was in danger, and there weren't enough shelters, than that's something you can blame the goverment for (for whom you voted, so it's still your own fault). Believing that a levy system would be 100%, 90%, or even 80% secure during a hurricane is just foolhardy anyways.

    I don't see anything wrong with rebuilding in NO, as there is not one safe place on Earth that is not subjected to nature's wrath. However, know what the risks are, accept them, and make preparations, if possible and given enough time and money, to get the heck out of there until the coast is clear. The people of NO were, IM not so HO, warned with a sufficient amount of urgency and time to evacuate to a "safe" place. But, even then, the term "safe" is relative.

    I'm starting to ramble incoherently; time to take my meds.


    August 28, 2010 at 6:53 pm | Report abuse |
  3. D Smith

    Duh...I built my house on a dormant volcano and it just erupted, are you going to rebuild MY house ?? I DOUBT IT !!! Take some responsibility for your stupididty and quit blaming everyone else and the system......BLAME YOURSELF !!!!! IF YOU REBUILT WHERE YOU WERE FLODDED OUT, YOU ARE EXTREMELY STUPID AND DESERVE WHATEVER HAPPENS NEXT TIME !!

    August 28, 2010 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Colleen

    I've been to New Orleans five times since Katrina hit. The first two were to help clean up, and the other three were because the first two times I went down there, I left a bit of my heart in that city. As rich with culture it is, and as beautiful it is...Katrina made me very grateful that I live in the Minnesota, and the worst we have is a 3 foot blizzard in April. That I can handle. Flooding, not so much. I applaud the residents of New Orleans for their courage to continue to live there, despite the unspoken and the spoken skepticism.

    August 28, 2010 at 7:03 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Dr. Martin

    I have a patient of mine that was an enginer of the origional levees. He told me that the original design allowed for a category 3 hurricane. We all know Katrina landed at level 5. Thus the levees broke. (He was amazed that only a few of them broke, and that the damage wasn't even more extensive) Also, he also told me that the people living there were told to leave prior to the landing of Katrina. Whos fault is it now? I grew up in Iowa,where we've had flood afer flood. Towns are moved and levees are re-built to ward off the floods. No whiners begging for tax dollars there!

    August 28, 2010 at 7:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bensky

      I believe it has to do in large part with the demographics of those living in these areas and their historical structure for support. Man is a little more hard-wired when searching for basics of life than we might like.

      August 28, 2010 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
  6. american55

    The floods of 2008 claimed more households in Iowa and the Midwest than Hurricane Katrina claimed from New Orleans in 2005. The people of Iowa, the Midwest, and Cedar Rapids in particular are practically back to normality in their rebuilt cities and communities; this is a true testament to cooperation, values and the balance between individual-government responsibilities. Noone should ever say that the people of New Orleans are community minded and family friendly, just look at the violence rate. The people of New Orleans should be disgraced by their own dicisions... church groups and volunteers will be going down their to lsave their sorry selves for years to come.

    August 28, 2010 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • humanone

      Are you white?

      August 28, 2010 at 7:13 pm | Report abuse |
  7. humanone

    If you build below sea level – you take the chance of getting flooded. If you build near an active seismic fault – the earth is guaranteed to shake up now and then. If you build in tornado alley – there's a chance you'll run for cover now and then.
    Home is where you hang your hat. Many in New Orleans who were forced to leave 5 years ago have now returned. I'm not sure it's the wisest of choices but it's their choice.

    August 28, 2010 at 7:12 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Skeptic

    The New Orleans levee makes Chinese Three Gorges Dam look small. The Chinese say they will recoup their investment in 10 years. How about New Orleans?

    August 28, 2010 at 7:16 pm | Report abuse |
  9. JW

    People bashing the levee failure and blaming the govt and engineers need to stop and think: what does a levy do? A levy is man's way of constricting and directing a river where they would like it to go. The result is a faster movement of water with increased pressure. While I don't know the details of the levee breaks, etc, don't you think that after any period of time, this constant, 24/7 stress on the levee take a toll on them? What I'm saying is, you cannot place the blame on any one person. Nature can't be controlled, no matter how we try. All we can do is learn from our mistakes, however sad and unfortunate, and move on. I don't think everybody in N.O. is stupid for living there or refusing to move. For many, it is their home and they don't want to go. Others cannot afford to move. I do believe they should try to help themselves, though, rather than point fingers. As a nation, help should be (and has been) given. Hurrah for rebuilding and for understanding. Both are necessary.

    August 28, 2010 at 7:20 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Erik

    Is it just me or are these folks crazy for building there homes next to raised up levees ? I mean it reminds me wanting to build a home on a semi active volcano that may erupt. Then when it does I expect everyone to help me and feel sorry for me... It just doesn't seem to smart to me.

    August 28, 2010 at 7:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eli

      Just wondering Erik, but where do you live? Hopefully you don't live in Hawaii AKA on top of a semi-active volcano, or in the south central US, where tornadoes occur many times a year, or on the west coast where there are earthquakes and wildfires, the east coast with hurricanes and flooding, the Northeast with horrible blizzards and blackouts, or basically anywhere else in our great nation, because guess what! EVERY region here has some sort of natural disaster waiting to happen, it's not just the South who has to deal with these things.

      If Americans were to only live in cities with no risk of anything like this ever happening, where would that leave? Michigan seems to be the only state I can think of that doesn't seem to have much in the way of weather, but then again it also doesn't seem to have much in the way of jobs either, so I guess that doesn't leave you much of an option.

      Get off your high horse and realize that people can't always easily get up and leave the place their people have lived in for centuries.

      August 28, 2010 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
  11. william moore

    Hey, let's build a house under a wall of water, sounds like a good idea. Yo, move where the water ain't dummies. We're tired of bailing you out (pum intended).

    August 28, 2010 at 7:33 pm | Report abuse |
  12. roger

    I first visited New Orleans in 1980 and couldn't believe it when I saw all the homes build at a level dozens of feet BELOW the levee. I remember thinking, what will happen when a hurricane hits - now we all know!
    Now they are rebuilding in the same area!!! - don't come crying next time it happens.

    August 28, 2010 at 7:33 pm | Report abuse |
  13. B2

    At what point did the Army Corps of Engineers promise anyone in NO that those levees were indestructible?? My guess is never. The people of NO need to shut up and stop blaming others for their decision to live in a massive potential flood zone.

    August 28, 2010 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Karen K Baker

    I am sorry for al the devastastion, but why on earth would anyone live behind a concrete wall containing water higher than the land?

    August 28, 2010 at 7:41 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Bewise

    You foolish people. "I wonder what will happen if the levee breaks". If you build your home in a bowl, you can count on one day the water again coming through. New Orleans should have been let go; how foolish to spend all that money to rebuild a city in a bowl.

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