Wednesday, March 25, 2015 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Day 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.

Forstall Street
Driving north between Claiborne Street and Florida Avenue in the Lower Ninth, we saw block after block of vacant lots, almost all overgrown, with an occasional random lot neatly mowed.  House numbers have been spray painted on curb cuts, the only remnants of the hundreds of homes that used to line these streets.

Make It Right homes
Just a couple of blocks over from the endless swaths of emptiness, we saw numerous newly built houses, raised on stilts and exuding a distinctly modern architectural aesthetic.  These are the work of Make It Right, a non-profit organization founded by actor Brad Pitt and "dedicated to building healthy homes for communities in need."  The organization has constructed 100 homes in the Lower Ninth and is committed to building 50 more.

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
The houses designed and built by Make It Right incorporate experimental building components and construction techniques that render them costly to maintain, a significant disadvantage for the target population of previous residents the organization is trying to lure back to the Lower Ninth.  Moreover, the rush to employ untested materials has left some residents with mold and decay problems in homes just a few years old.  Other materials are visibly failing—a warped metal pergola here, a torn eave there.  All this in a neighborhood still largely deserted, requiring residents to travel several miles for basic commercial services.

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.

Malus-Beauregard House
The battlefield's dominant feature today is the Malus-Beauregard House, built about twenty years after the battle, now restored to its mid-1800s Greek Revival style after serving as the park headquarters for a number of years.  Though the battle lasted less than two hours, it served to inspire settlement along the Mississippi River and made Jackson a national hero.  Beneath the sheltering limbs of ancient oaks nearby lie the remains of U.S. military veterans who fought in various wars from 1812 to Vietnam.

Chalmette National Cemetery
A mile down the road we caught a ferry across the river to Lower Algiers, where we had lunch before seeking out Louisiana Highway 23 to drive southeast, following the Mississippi River.  Our goal was to drive as far as we could go toward the mouth of the river.  We had entered Plaquemines.

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.

Seventy percent of the parish's total area is water, leaving only a narrow strip of land suitable for traditional housing.  On the west bank of the Mississippi River, LA-23 threads down the middle of this precarious alley with a levee on the east holding out the river and one on the west keeping the bayous from encroaching on the populated areas.

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?
Six of the parish's nine schools were completely flooded by Katrina.  In lower Plaquemines, the only structure in a 40-mile radius that sustained only minimal damage was Boothville-Venice School, nine miles north of the southern terminus of LA-23.  After earlier hurricanes had destroyed the previous school, it was rebuilt on 14-ft concrete stilts with tall, narrow windows to reduce targets for flying debris.  A photo from the parish web site shows the classroom level of the school above the water level, which flooded all the homes and other buildings in the area.

Boothville-Venice School after Katrina (photo from Plaquemines Parish web site)
An employee at Boothville told us that all schools built in the parish are now required to model this elevated construction.  The beautiful new South Plaquemines High School proudly opened in 2013, after students and staff had spent six years on a campus of modular classrooms.  Built primarily with FEMA funding, the state-of-the-art SPHS sits 20 feet above ground level.

South Plaquemines High School
Though this watery territory with its small population of 23,447 might seem inconsequential and even a candidate for abandonment, Plaquemines Parish plays a significant economic role, both in the state and nationally.  The parish is home to the largest commercial fishing fleet in the lower 48 states, accounting for 70 percent of the total poundage in Louisiana, whose annual catch is second only to Alaska.  The parish also acts as an operational center for the offshore oil and gas industry.  Heliports along LA-23 constantly ferry oil workers to and from offshore rigs.  Serving as gateway to the Mississippi Valley corridor, the Plaquemines Parish port is one of America's top ten ports by tonnage, providing water access to 33 states.  Two of the country's biggest coal terminals are located at the Plaquemines port.

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.
We drove to the end of the LA-23, as far south as you can go by road in Louisiana, though still a good ten miles north of the actual mouth of the Mississippi River.  On our way back north, we stopped after 30 miles to check out Fort Jackson near the hamlet of Buras.  At the urging of Andrew Jackson, the fortress was built on the ruins of an old Spanish fortress in 1822-32 to help guard the approaches to New Orleans.  The fort did not see action until the Civil War and later served as a training base during World War I.  Sold as surplus property in 1927, it was purchased by private owners from New Orleans, who obviously found it a bit much to maintain and donated it to the parish in 1960.  Today it is home to the annual crawfish boil-off and a yearly orange festival.

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.
Daily Stats
  • 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

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.