Six Months After Storm, New Orleans Tries to Reclaim Famous Spirit
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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Barbara Klein.
And I’m Steve Ember. This week, we have a report on the recovery efforts in New Orleans. Six months ago that city found itself in the deadly path of Hurricane Katrina.
Over the years, millions of people have visited New Orleans for its music, food, architectural design and unusual history. New Orleans was a mainly African-American city with many ethnic influences and traditions. Almost one half-million people lived there.
But at the end of August, Hurricane Katrina hit states along the Gulf Coast, in the southeastern United States. Louisiana suffered the greatest losses. More than one thousand people were killed in that state.
About two thousand people are still listed officially as missing, although many are believed to be alive. Louisiana's medical examiner says the missing include several hundred in New Orleans.
More than five hundred fifty people are known to have died in New Orleans. A new search for bodies in the wreckage started earlier this month, using dogs to smell for remains.
Estimates differ, but the current population of New Orleans seems to be around two hundred thousand. Many people have resettled, at least temporarily. Many are in Houston, Texas, and Baton Rouge, the Louisiana capital. New Orleans was almost seventy percent black before the storm. So far, many of the African-Americans who left have not returned.
Fewer families means fewer children. Most of the public schools in New Orleans remain closed.
Some people who went home briefly had a terrible shock. They were unable to find even where their houses had stood. They said the damage looked like a huge bomb had exploded.
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Hurricane Katrina produced winds of two hundred eighty kilometers per hour or stronger. But in some areas, the winds alone did not do as much damage as expected. Then came the deadly floods. Floodwalls and earthen levees could not hold back the rising waters of Lake Pontchartrain. Soon, most of the city was underwater.
Driving through New Orleans today, you see areas that appear normal. But you also see areas of what looks like endless wreckage. In many cases people lost everything they had.
Considering the extent of the damage, New Orleans officials often express surprise that so many people survived.
Most people acted on warnings. They left New Orleans before the storm. Others stayed in their homes, either for lack of transportation or simply by choice.
Rescuers in helicopters and boats pulled some people to safety. Others had to wait a long time for help.
Thousands of people went to the New Orleans Convention Center and the Superdome for shelter. Conditions became crowded and deplorable. There were situations of anarchy in the city. But some reports by public officials and the news media were later found to have been overstated.
There have been investigations in Congress and the administration into what went wrong and what could be done better in the future. Democrats in the House of Representatives, however, want an independent investigation of the federal reaction to Katrina.
A newly broadcast videotape shows a conference call with President Bush and other federal officials a day before Katrina hit. They hear warnings that water could flow over the top of the levees. The president later said he did not think anybody believed the levees would fail.
All levels of government have been accused of failures in the crisis. The director of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, resigned in September. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin have also faced a lot of criticism.
In another newly broadcast video, from the hours after the storm hit, the governor tells federal officials that the levees appeared unbroken.
Since Katrina, Mayor Nagin has had to work harder for re-election. He now faces more than twenty opponents. The election is April twenty-second.
The mayor, who is black, recently apologized after he faced criticism for stating: "This city will be chocolate at the end of the day. This city will be a majority African-American city. It's the way God wants it to be."
John Logan is a researcher at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Mr. Logan says people of all colors and economic levels suffered in Katrina, but black people suffered the most flood damage. He found this was especially true of poor African-Americans. Many lived in the city's lowest-lying areas. New Orleans is built below sea level.
Other researchers have presented different findings about race and the effects of the storm. These dispute the idea that black people suffered a much greater share of the effects than whites did in relation to their numbers.
Some people displaced by Katrina do not have enough money to return and rebuild. Some had no homeowner's insurance, or policies that only paid for wind damage. Some are having to make loan payments on flooded houses even while paying to live in other places.
But several areas of New Orleans are not ready to be re-occupied yet. The Lower Ninth Ward, for example, in nearly empty. Thousands of homes in the city might be too damaged to repair.
The next Atlantic hurricane season officially begins June first. The Army Corps of Engineers is working to repair the levee system around New Orleans in time. Yet why rebuild, some Americans say, when future storms might be as bad if not worse than Katrina?
Supporters of New Orleans see many reasons to rebuild the city. Local officials point out, for example, that New Orleans is a major seaport for a lot of trade to and from the United States. Oil and agriculture are two industries that depend on it.
New Orleans is also a major place for tourism. And a big reason for that is the yearly celebration of Mardi Gras. The name means "Fat Tuesday" in French. It marks the day before the beginning of the Christian season of Lent.
After Hurricane Katrina, some people did not think New Orleans should hold a Mardi Gras celebration this year. But the city carried on a tradition begun in the eighteen hundreds.
By Fat Tuesday, February twenty-eighth, an estimated one hundred thirty thousand visitors had gathered in New Orleans. There were smaller crowds and fewer events than in the past. Still, people stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the parades and joined in the noisy spirit of Mardi Gras.
Officials estimated that the two weeks of Carnival celebrations had about seventy percent of the usual crowds. Still, it appeared that the local economy gained at least two hundred million dollars.
Some people who lived in the city before the storm returned for Mardi Gras. They included a number of African-Americans. Some talked of returning to live in New Orleans.
Colorful floats paraded along the streets of the French Quarter. Marching bands played New Orleans jazz. Mayor Nagin rode a horse in a parade organized by an African-American group, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. He dressed as Russel Honore, Army general who led military support in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi after Katrina.
A small group paraded in the Lower Ninth Ward, past the tortured shapes of wreckage. Houses, cars, buses, bicycles, mailboxes, trees.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which hit the Gulf Coast later in the season, were two of the most intense Atlantic storms ever recorded. Officials at FEMA says eighty-eight thousand million dollars in federal money has already been approved for aid, recovery and rebuilding. And President Bush is asking Congress for twenty thousand million more. Last week he discussed his budget request during his tenth visit in the last six months to New Orleans and other affected areas.
Thirty-four members of Congress recently visited storm-damaged areas of the Gulf Coast. The lawmakers said they wanted to see how the federal money was being spent. They wanted to see progress, or lack of it.
What the lawmakers saw when they visited New Orleans could play a part in deciding the future of that city.
Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember. Internet users can read and listen to our programs at voaspecialenglish.com. Please join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.