The Good Intentions Blues
CHASING THE BLUES, CHAPTER 4: New Orleans to Houma, LA
On this foggy morning, we left the Marigny district of New Orleans and drove east on St. Claude Avenue toward the Chalmette battlefield site, another unit of the Jean Lafitte NHP. Our route took us through the Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood that gained notoriety after Hurricane Katrina due to the sheer magnitude of destruction there after two major levee breaches laid the area open to the ravages of nature at its worst.
|Make It Right homes|
Make It Right invited avant-garde architectural firms to design housing for lower income New Orleanians displaced by Katrina. With complete disregard for the architectural heritage of this 300-year-old city and with no concern about pleasing those who would reside there, the new wave designers unleashed their imaginations and created a motley collection of futuristic houses that have little relation to their environment or to each other.
|More Make It Right homes|
Continuing from the Lower Ninth into St. Bernard Parish, we drove on to the Chalmette Battlefield historic site where the Battle of New Orleans was fought in 1815—the momentous clash marked by the stunning victory of Andrew Jackson's American forces and seared into memory by Johnny Horton's popular ballad The Battle of New Orleans.
|Chalmette National Cemetery|
Just 12 miles south of New Orleans, Plaquemines (PLACK-uh-min) Parish is spread over a total area larger than the state of Delaware. Founded in 1807, the parish occupies a long peninsula perforated extensively by bayous and marshland and encompassing the last 70 miles of the Mississippi River where it meets the Gulf of Mexico. Unless you opt to live in a houseboat, the Plaquemines geography is all but inhospitable to human habitation.
Between the little towns strung along this lifeline of highway are breaks in the levees to permit access to the river and the bayous. To protect the communities from floodwaters that might flow from these gaps, small east-west levees are built north and south of each town, forming a ring of levee walls around each hamlet.
We remembered hearing ten years ago that more than 90% of Plaquemines Parish was underwater after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the center of the peninsula. Today when we visited the area, we learned about the role of the ring levees in destroying these towns. With her huge size, by the time Katrina made landfall, most of the Plaquemines marshlands were already underwater. At landfall, the powerful winds and storm surge thrust this excess water into the ring levees, engulfing the towns with a sea of floodwater. After the surge receded, the ring levee remained filled with floodwater, like an enormous bathtub with no way to release its stopper. The destruction of the area's infrastructure left no way to pump the brackish water out of the ring or to cut the levee and allow it to drain into the marshes, so the towns lay swamped under the corrosive, briny water for weeks.
With so many homes destroyed, many of the people who have come back have returned in the most cost-efficient and expedient housing—mobile homes. Of course, this type of structure is notoriously fragile also, but brick and frame homes had no more resilience to Katrina's forces than an untethered travel trailer. With federal grants offered to people who elevate their houses, a few have built homes they hope will withstand the storm surges that have ravaged this peninsula for hundreds of years.
|How high is enough?|
|Boothville-Venice School after Katrina (photo from Plaquemines Parish web site)|
|South Plaquemines High School|
Yet not one cent of the $14 billion spent on federal levee upgrades in Louisiana after Katrina was spent on projects in Plaquemines Parish.
|Fort Jackson was under water for a month after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.|
After 240 miles of driving, we arrived in Houma (HOE-muh), 48 miles from where we started in New Orleans this morning. In the heart of bayou country, Houma boasts numerous outfitters offering swamp tours. We hope to take advantage of this opportunity and get up close (if not personal) with some gators tomorrow.
- Started in New Orleans, LA; ended in Houma, LA
- Miles driven: 239
- Weather: clear to partly cloudy, 63° to 79°
- Vacant lots in the Lower Ninth Ward: 764
- Mississippi River bridges south of New Orleans (85 mi): 0 (3 ferries)
- Cost of Chalmette-Lower Algiers ferry: $1 each
More Photos from Today
|Houses in this condition are still relatively common in the Lower Ninth Ward.|
|Another Make It Right experiment|
|Road on top of levee in lower Plaquemines Parish|
|Boothville-Venice School design saved it from major damage in flood.|
|NOAA photo shows floodwater inside Venice ring levee, post-Katrina. (2005)|
|Another NOAA post-Katrina photo shows water held inside ring levee, ship washed up onto levee, in Plaquemines. (2005)|
|Oil industry service equipment at the end of Louisiana Highway 23 in Venice.|
|A few idle commercial fishing boats near Venice.|