Two Years After Katrina, Revisiting New Orleans, and Its Struggles
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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember. Two years ago, Hurricane Katrina hit the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Floodwalls around New Orleans, Louisiana, failed. Soon, eighty percent of the city was underwater.
Today New Orleans is making progress. But it still faces major problems as people work to rebuild their homes and their lives.
RAY NAGIN: "Our city was totally devastated after Katrina. And after two years we are still trying to recover. But our citizens, they continue to suffer."
That was New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, speaking this month at a congressional hearing in Washington.
Mayor Nagin continues to meet with federal and state officials about ways to rebuild his city and help its citizens. He has expressed dissatisfaction with levels of financial help for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region.
RAY NAGIN: "I implore, I ask, I beg this committee to really do something to help us.
Congress has already approved tens of billions of dollars in Gulf Coast aid.
That includes seven billion dollars for the Army Corps of Engineers to repair the city's flood protection system. Last week federal officials described proposals for an additional seven and a half billion dollars of improvements by two thousand eleven.
They say the plan would sharply reduce the chances of a repeat of what happened after Katrina.
Hurricane Katrina hit land three times in the final days of August of two thousand five. Its third landfall, on August twenty-ninth, was the one that caused the most damage by breaking through the flood barriers.
Katrina was blamed for almost one thousand seven hundred deaths. Most of the deaths happened in Louisiana.
It was the most costly hurricane in American history with estimates of at least eighty-one billion dollars in property damage. Whole communities were destroyed.
The floodwaters in New Orleans tore through areas including some of the poorest in the city, such as the Lower Ninth Ward.
Local resident Glen Madison expresses his dissatisfaction with the way officials are dealing with the problems in the Lower Ninth Ward.
GLEN MADISON: "Instead of sending all that money over there -- more troops. What about us? Because most of the damage was right here. The Lower, Lower Ninth Ward. Had more damage than anybody. And this is the last place they dealing with when it should have been the first."
Rebuilding has begun. But workers have yet to clear away many of the homes and other buildings wrecked by the storm.
Thousands of people are still living in trailers provided as emergency housing by the government. But there are concerns that the trailers may be making some people sick.
The people have reported headaches, nosebleeds and other problems. Officials have been investigating reports that the cause may be high levels of formaldehyde used in building materials. That chemical gives off a gas that can cause breathing difficulties. But there are no national rules about acceptable levels of formaldehyde in trailers.
Still, hundreds of people in Louisiana are taking legal action against trailer manufacturers. They accuse them of providing the government with poorly built trailers.
Some families in Louisiana and Mississippi have asked to be moved out of their temporary housing because of the concerns. Government officials say they are working to move people from trailers to hotels and other places.
Many homeowners are still waiting for insurance payments or government help to rebuild.
And many people are dissatisfied with a state program, financed mainly by the federal government, called Road Home. This program was designed to help aid the citizens of New Orleans in rebuilding their homes.
Homeowners could be approved to receive as much as one hundred fifty thousand dollars to rebuild their home. Or the government could buy their property.
As of now, the program is five billion dollars short of what is needed.
Residents like Lucas Simmons question if the money is being spent properly.
LUCAS SIMMONS: "They keep putting it on the back burner. Then they claim and come back later and say ‘Oh look, we short.’ I guess you is short if you steady lacing everybody’s pocket that don’t need it from the ones that need it. They ain't getting no help."
Lucas Simmons says two years later, some people do not really understand the lasting mental effect of Katrina and the floods.
LUCAS SIMMONS: "Lot of them, they didn’t lose nothing but they always saying ‘Get over it.’ I lost everything. There's no way you can tell me to get over it."
The mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, told lawmakers that he has received shocking reports from city health officials. One report said that since Katrina, New Orleans had seen a forty-seven percent increase in deaths.
The medical examiner says there is no question that the after-effects of Katrina are killing people. Stress levels are extremely high and Mayor Nagin said resources for mental health care are limited.
Before Katrina, New Orleans had around four hundred fifty thousand people. Many left after the storm. Large numbers relocated to Texas. But in the last two years, thousands of people have returned to New Orleans. Mayor Nagin said the population now is about three hundred thousand.
Recently a congressional delegation traveled to parts of the Gulf Coast for a two-day visit. The lawmakers promised to work with state and local governments to set goals and time limits to improve health care. That includes mental health services.
The lawmakers also said their visit to Louisiana will help them decide what to do about the financially troubled Road Home program.
In addition to the federal government, state governments have also provided money for Gulf Coast recovery efforts.
Last year, HBO television showed a documentary by movie director Spike Lee called "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts."
The four-part movie centered on the Lower Ninth Ward.
Jazz musician and composer Terence Blanchard wrote and performed for the film. But his connection with the project was far more involved. He had lived in the Lower Ninth Ward for sixteen years. His family's home was among those destroyed. His family lost everything.
Earlier this month Terence Blanchard released an album called "A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina.)"
The songs on the album express the pain caused by the disaster two years ago. This song "Levees" does not need any words to describe feelings both of deep sadness and inner strength.
Undoing the damage to New Orleans after Katrina has been slow in some cases but not so slow in others. Officials of the city known as the Big Easy are proud to talk about the progress that has been made. For example, crowds have returned to traditions like the yearly Mardi Gras parades.
Resident Glen Madison says the hurricane may have destroyed parts of New Orleans but not the spirit of its people.
GLEN MADISON: "You have mishaps and this is one of those things that just happen. So you just got to regroup and survive."
Our program was written and produced by Lawan Davis. To learn more about American life, go to voaspecialenglish.com. You can download transcripts and audio archives of our programs. I’m Faith Lapidus.
And I’m Steve Ember. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.