Thursday, August 23

Dean and Katrina

Hurricane Dean has dominated the news this week. As the first major hurricane this season it swept through the Caribbean, leaving a trail of destruction in Jamaica and Mexico. I couldn’t help but notice Dean passed over the same area on the Yucatan Peninsula that Garry and I are visiting this time next year. At least 50,000 tourists were evacuated from resorts along the Mexican coast as Dean's Category Five fury drew closer.

Dean is now the third-most intense Atlantic hurricane to make landfall since record keeping began in the 1850s. Insured losses from the storm are likely to range between $750 million and $1.5 billion. Most of these loses occurred in Jamaica which subsequently announced that it was postponing next week’s general election.

This week’s scenes of death and destruction were a timely reminder of the tragedy that stuck New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Garry and I saw how much the city had suffered when we briefly visited earlier this month. Before Katrina, New Orleans had more than 450,000 residents. Fewer than 265,000 have returned in the two years since.

Today, much of the city still lies in ruins and what has been restored often appears a little battered and worn. Its clear that the city was in decline before disaster struck. One came away with an impression that it had been living off its former glory; an income that wasn't quite enough to cover the bills.

On our second day New Orleans, Garry and I booked ourselves on a mini-van tour that took us through some of the worst hit areas of the city. The Lower Ninth Ward was particularly poignant. Here we were shown homes whose roofs had been completely submerged when Katrina’s storm surge broke through levees long the Industrial Canal.

As we drove deeper in the Ward we saw spray-painted crosses still displayed on homes indicating the location of bodies and hazardous waste. I found it surreal to see these markings in place almost two years later. No doubt many homes had been abandoned while others remained empty because their owners had not survived Katrina. It soon became all to easy to understand why more than 700 died in the days following August 29.

Our guide later explained how to tell if tiles had been blown off a roof by rescue helicopters, or simply swept away by hurricane winds. Look for an evenly scattered pattern of tiles across the rooftop and you'll know a helicopter once hovered above. In places, holes could still be seen in roofs of abandoned properties where people had punched through in a desperate attempt to escape the rising flood water. At times the drama of these moments seemed all too real.

Two years later entire city blocks remain abandoned to weeds and shrubs with nothing more than desolate concrete pads to indicate where homes had once stood. Our guide explained that entire houses had been swept away by raging floodwater and these pads were all that remained. Elsewhere we saw the odd FEMA trailer on site, a sign that residents had returned. Behind them a gleaming new flood wall sat in place of that which had failed. I must admit it looked rather frail as it stretched out into the distance.

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