From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.
Today, 16 years after Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Ida was a major test of how prepared cities like New Orleans now are for extreme weather.
Kevin Roose spoke with our colleague Richard Fawcett about what worked and what didn’t.
It’s Thursday, September 2.
Hey, Kevin. How are you?
I’m doing OK. How are you?
I’m good. I’m here.
Where are you?
I am in my parents’ house in uptown New Orleans. They’ve evacuated. And we’re trying to figure out right now, like tens of thousands of people, whether it’s going to be OK for them to come back. Without electricity, it’s just really a slog here.
It looks pretty dark there. Do you have power?
So how are you— you’re just talking to us because you have a lot of chargers for your cell phone or something?
Yeah, exactly. I mean, running off of batteries. And it’s just this constant juggling act of running stuff off of your car, charging up batteries, relying, in the Tennessee Williams sense, on the kindness of strangers.
Hmm. And who are some of the people you’ve been meeting and talking to?
Well, after the storm, I set out and visited a few parts of the city to see how people have a hard time getting by on a sunny day were doing. So one of the places I headed to was New Orleans East, which is a low-lying, very flood-prone part of the city. There is an apartment complex in New Orleans East called The Willows, which was badly damaged in Hurricane Katrina. It’s been fixed up, and a lot of working-class people are living there—
dondrel anderson —stuff like that.
richard fawcett Hey, what’s your name?
dondrel anderson My name is Dondrel
richard fawcett How do you spell Dondrel
dondrel anderson D-O-N—
—including Dondrel Anderson.
richard fawcett What do you do for a living?
dondrel anderson Right now, I’m headed to the barn up the street. They have two horses up the street.
richard fawcett Oh, really?
dondrel anderson And I work around the barn.
richard fawcett OK.
dondrel anderson And I also do—
He’s a guy in his 30s. He was on a bicycle. His car was in the shop. And he was trying to think creatively about how to think his way out of a place that was incredibly hot and incredibly unpleasant.
dondrel anderson Right now, I’m currently riding around looking for somebody to help me get air in my tires. I have a slow leak on two tires.
richard fawcett On your car.
dondrel anderson Yeah, right now.
richard fawcett So you wanted to get out of town, but you couldn’t, because you had slow leaks on the tires.
dondrel anderson Not only I had slow leaks on the tires, but it’s like, I ain’t know exactly where to go. I could have went to Baton Rouge, here, here, or there. But what do I do when I get there? What would it cost me going there?
richard fawcett Yeah.
So the problem that Dondrel and many people in the city of New Orleans faces is pretty basic and also pretty tragic. In Dondrel case, it was a question of having access to a car that could get him out of this zone of suffering.
richard fawcett Do you have money to buy groceries right now?
dondrel anderson I promise you, I have a dollar and 70-some cents in my pocket right now, minus probably about 100 and some amount of food stamps. But you can’t use any, because there ain’t no power, ain’t no data. I’m just going off my survival skills that I know from Katrina and that I know, period. You know what I’m saying?
richard fawcett Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Let me ask you, right now, do you have enough food?
dondrel anderson I’m going to say no, but yeah. The reason why I say that— because how long is this going to be like this? I don’t know.
richard fawcett Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got—
So that was the problem for a lot of people, in a nutshell. So there he is, trying to improvise his way out of something.
richard fawcett OK. OK. We’ll— all right. Good luck to you, man. It was nice talking to you. Bye.
There’s another woman I met at the apartment complex.
richard fawcett Hey, I’m so sorry. I’m Richard Fawcett. I’m from The New York Times.
dianne delpit I’m Dianne Delpit. I’m from New Orleans.
Her name was Dianne Delpit. She’s about 40 years old, and she had a very large extended family in the apartment complex.
dianne delpit I have kids with disabilities. I have three kids with disabilities. hurricane hit. We went through it. My apartment has been flooded with water.
They had had roof damage. In their part of the complex, the water had come through and soaked their wall-to-wall carpeting.
dianne delpit Yeah, but we can’t live like this no more. It’s going to kill us.
richard fawcett That house— you can’t live in there.
dianne delpit No—
speaker No, it’s—
richard fawcett Not with the mold and the—
dianne delpit It’s horrible. It is like—
richard fawcett And you all slept in there last night, right?
dianne delpit Yeah, yeah. We slept in there since the hurricane. We’ve been—
It did not seem safe.
dianne delpit We’ve been without power for three days. Has it been three days? I might be exaggerating. It feels like a lifetime.
richard fawcett Yeah, if you’re starting to—
dianne delpit We don’t have no food, no water, nothing cold. Nobody has come back here and checked on us. It’s like we just have to survive on our own. We’ve got to find a way out. We don’t have a way out.
richard fawcett Do you have a car?
dianne delpit No, I don’t have a car at the moment. My car is in the shop.
And without electricity, they were forced to make this horrible decision, moment after moment, which is, go inside and get out of the heat, or go outside and bake in the heat and at least get out of the stink of the place.
richard fawcett Is your cell phone working?
dianne delpit My cell phone is not working. We can’t charge our phones. We don’t have anything. We don’t—
The whole family was hoping that some relatives in Baton Rouge could come down and pick them up and take them away. But it was tough to be in straight communication with them for all kinds of reasons. The cell service has been very spotty. So there was just a lot of confusion about how they might get away.
richard fawcett I’m wishing you all a whole lot of luck. Did I give you my card?
dianne delpit No, but please do.
richard fawcett When you—
dianne delpit From New York, right?
richard fawcett Yeah. When you get cell service or whatever, I just want to hear—
Richard, this all sounds really brutal and like there are a lot of people making a lot of very hard decisions. And I think the obvious comparison to draw is to Hurricane Katrina and to all the horrible images and the footage we all saw of the destruction in New Orleans 16 years ago. And I know you’re from New Orleans, and you also covered Hurricane Katrina. How would you compare what you’ve seen over the last few days to what you saw back then?
Well, Katrina is the obvious comparison. And it’s, of course, the hurricane that haunts everyone inside and outside of New Orleans. But that’s not really what happened here. You didn’t see this massive government breakdown. You didn’t see this massive societal breakdown. You haven’t seen really horrific confrontations between law enforcement and people trying to get out. The biggest difference, of course, is that Katrina put 80 percent of New Orleans underwater, and the city struggled mightily to respond.
I was driving around an uptown neighborhood after Katrina, and I remember, in this very still moment after the storm, a few days after the storm, finding an elderly man laid out on his porch with nothing but his name and a Social Security number, if I recall correctly. And it was just chilling. There was no one for me to call. There was no one to report it to, really. This is not exactly that. People aren’t finding bodies in the city. The physical damage immediately to people and to property is nowhere near the same as it was.
And why is that? Why is there less damage this time?
One of the biggest reasons is that the federal government, local governments came together and built a massive, multibillion-dollar, 350-mile ring, essentially, around New Orleans of improved levees, locks, floodgates. This was one of the most ambitious public-works projects in the last few decades in this country. And it was all spurred by the outrage and the horror and the concern that people felt, both inside and outside of the city, when they saw what happened when the levees failed in 2005.
There’s some asterisks here to the notion that this new system saved the city. For one, every hurricane is different. This one headed to the west of the city, and it was a very different track than Katrina. It also appears that the storm surge that was predicted wasn’t quite as high in the end. But I think, in the end, you can really say that it was, indeed, a success. And this country built something very big and very, very expensive, and it kind of did its job.
And what does this levee system actually look like? How does it work, for those of us who aren’t levee experts?
Well, I’m not a levee expert, either. But I can tell you that it’s many things. In some cases, it’s strengthened levees, levee walls. And there are things that you don’t really always see if you’re living in this very urban environment in this old city of New Orleans. But it’s out there. And some of this stuff is Hoover-Dam-level huge. A few years ago, I went fishing out by one of these massive new gates. Imagine a placid wetland and then this “Star Wars Death Star level” concrete edifice just stuck out there. It’s really impressive.
But one of the dynamics that’s been interesting here is that people don’t trust the government after Katrina. They’ve been told that this thing exists. But like I said, it’s really hard to see it. And you can’t really see it just all at once. It’s hard to really grasp how big and how vast it is. And there was definitely an interesting tension here between people, this week, who were saying, oh, I don’t trust this system. I don’t care what they say or how many billions they spent— versus a lot of people who really know the system, who were saying, no, no. It’s real. We really spent the billions, and we have some really smart engineers. But it’s hard to trust the government after what happened with Katrina. And the loss of confidence in government entities after Katrina was really, really intense. And it certainly lingers to this day.
Yeah. And of course, now, with a couple days of reporting, in hindsight, we know that Hurricane Ida did come, and the levees held. And I wonder if there’s a part of you that thinks that this is a story of things working. Do you feel any sense of that on the ground with the people you’re talking to? Because when you talk to people, it sounds like they’re dealing with very real issues in their own lives. They’re maybe not thinking about, well, I’m glad we funded that levee system.
Well, there’s very little sense of celebration here. And part of that has to do with the fact that, as of right now, there’s a humanitarian crisis looming in New Orleans, even though it’s dry. There’s no electricity. And with no electricity, there’s no air conditioning. And we’re in late August, early September in South Louisiana. It’s sweltering to the point of dangerous. The heat index is 100-plus every day and will be for many days. We don’t know when the energy is going to come back.
People don’t have jobs to go to. The schools are closed. In Jefferson Parish, which is the suburban parish right next door to Orleans Parish, nobody has any water right now. The lines for gasoline are four-plus hours for those places that are open. People are cooking their last food from the refrigerators that they’ve cleaned out.
The people who are living in these sweltering apartments, who are infirm, who have issues with health, are potentially headed to a health-care system that was already way overtaxed due to Covid-19 and the new Delta-variant-related spike. From the vantage of us right now who are in the city, it doesn’t feel like things are fixed. It feels like we’re confronting major, major challenges.
Right. It’s hard to focus on the silver lining when the cloud is so big.
Exactly. And the silver lining only helps so much. I’ve been thinking a lot, in the last day or so, about the toll that even this storm, which didn’t swamp the city, has taken. For one, you have all these outlying areas that have been very badly hit. They were hit by heavy rain. They were hit by wind. The city of Houma, Louisiana has been very badly beaten up.
And we know, from researchers, that we’re going to see stronger storms, most likely. And we’re going to see more frequent storms. And I really fear now that the city is just going to continue to suffer, despite the incredible resilience of the people who live here. How can the city not continue to be diminished? Who can afford, literally, to live through this every year?
We’ll be right back.
Richard, you raised the question of how many residents of New Orleans will continue to stay in the city and how long they’ll stay for. What did you mean by that?
Well, I grew up here. And to me, this is always just the center of the universe. And most New Orleans people feel that way. But I’m really increasingly concerned about the stresses on so many of the people who have given the world this incredible culture, food, music, and just the people who are here trying to live and get by and have a normal life.
There’s, I think, for a very long time, going to be a group of very privileged people who are going to live very well in New Orleans. And I’m staying in uptown New Orleans right now. And when I went on a walk this morning to go see if the grocery store was open, you could hear the sound of privilege. And it sounds like the low hum of a gas-powered generator that’s keeping the A.C. blowing in some of these nicer homes and is allowing people to live through this thing with cold beer and to cook gumbo and to keep a refrigerator running.
And that really stands in contrast with so many of the people I talk to and so many of the people we know who have left. For a middle-class person, not to mention a working-class person, going out and staying in a hotel for four or five days with your kids— it becomes very trying. And of course, for some people, it’s just untenable. And it can break them. And for the poor, they have no way to get out. They’re stuck in a very difficult situation without power.
I just really wonder how long people are going to be able to stand this, if this is something that we see with more frequent and more powerful hurricanes. Are they going to want to stick it out, even in a city that just generates a tremendous amount of love among its inhabitants?
Yeah. It sounds like, for a lot of people in New Orleans, they don’t have the money to leave. They can’t get a hotel room. They can’t move themselves and their families out of town for a couple of days or maybe even a couple of weeks. And they also, in some sense, don’t have the money to stay. They can’t get a generator. They can’t do the things that would help them maintain a basic standard of living.
Yeah. I remember talking to a native New Orleanian who’s an old friend of mine after Katrina. And I said, well, how is the city faring? And he said to me, well, the people who were doing all right before the storm are doing fine. And the people who were just on the bubble of doing all right— they’re not doing very well right now.
And then that doesn’t even begin to describe what’s happening to the people economically below that level. I think Warren Buffett said that when the tide goes out, you really know who’s got their drawers on or not. And you feel that after a storm like this.
And what has this reality of just constantly making these choices about leaving or staying— what has that meant for the city and its population as a whole?
Well, we saw tremendous population decline after Katrina. And you see cultures that were transformed in Houston, Texas, to cite one important example, and Atlanta, where I live now. There are just a lot more New Orleans people there.
And one of the things that you heard, that I heard one guy say to me— he was heading off to Sugar Land, Texas, which is right by Houston. He’s packing up his car with his kids and family and stuff. And I said, do you have people there? And he said, yeah, I’ve got family there. They left in Katrina, and they never came back. And it was the day before the 16th anniversary of Katrina. He said, we’re going to go have a sweet-sixteen reunion. The culture of New Orleans is now spread out, from Houston up to Atlanta and beyond.
And it seems like, to return to Hurricane Ida a little bit, there’s this kind of metaphor that is forming in my mind about the futility of trying to engineer our way out of a climate crisis, because despite this fact of the levees, this multibillion-dollar infrastructure project actually working, all this human ingenuity and political will that New Orleans marshaled to protect itself from another Katrina-level storm, it’s still not somehow equal to the task of protecting the city from a storm and making the city into a place that people can live in and thrive in even if they’re not wealthy.
The amount of ingenuity and necessary hubris and vision that went into building this system around the city— to me, it smacks of an Old Testament kind of story. Like, and the people built this thing, right? And then the Lord was like, yeah. Well, good for you. But guess what? That’s, like, one-tenth of your problem solved right there.
There is a huge swath of the Gulf Coast. A lot of it is full of people who are just as worthy of saving as the people of New Orleans. And where’s their wall? These hurricanes strike all over. The sea levels are rising all up and down the Atlantic coast and beyond.
Right. I’m wondering about— you mentioned there are places other than New Orleans that don’t have this kind of infrastructure, these levees to protect themselves from flooding and from storms. How are they dealing with Hurricane Ida?
Well, there are a lot of areas south and west, as I mentioned, that are hurting really bad. There is a proposed project that’s in the works called the Morganza to the Gulf Project. It’s very similar to the ring around New Orleans that would contain some of these places, like the city of Houma, Louisiana, which is this oil-patch city, and others.
But hurricanes are complex things in themselves. And building a levee or a wall can help you prevent inundation from storm surge, if you’re lucky and smart. But there’s also the question of wind. And there’s also the question of rainfall.
And I think when you look at Louisiana and much of the South, including Tennessee just the other day, a lot of these flooding events we’re having in this moment are coming from storms, some of them unnamed, day-to-day storms, that will just sit and park themselves over a community and just trash them. And those are the kinds of problems that building a wall really doesn’t solve.
Richard, in some sense, what you’re describing, it sounds like, is a great American city— New Orleans— that has become if not uninhabitable due to climate disasters, at least a lot harder and more expensive to keep open and livable. And I’m also thinking about friends of mine— privileged friends of mine, I guess— who are planning to leave California for a few months this fall to get away from the fires and the smoke.
And I guess I’m just meditating on the fact that, in America, because of climate change, there are some people who are leaving home because they don’t have any other choice. And there are some people who are leaving home because they do. They’re privileged enough to be able to move somewhere safer. But both groups are leaving home.
I think it’s dawning on everybody that so many people in our country are having to come up with a plan B for the very most basic element of their existence, which is, where do I need to be because of tragedy X? The problem that New Orleans faces is a problem that so many communities face, sometimes in a different guise with a different challenge. But it’s become a universal fact of life for people all over the place.
Right. I know that, Richard, you’re there in New Orleans reporting on this in your professional capacity. But as someone who still has family there and who has spent a lot of time in New Orleans, I’m wondering how you and your family are thinking about your own version of these questions, whether New Orleans is still the right place to be, what New Orleans will even be 10 or 20 years from now.
These kinds of processes happen over such a long timeline, sometimes. In this era of climate crisis, the way that I think a lot of people, myself included, thought about how a tragedy that would befall a city would happen are not quite accurate.
It’s not the Godzilla who comes and destroys the city in five minutes, breathing fire. And maybe it’s not even Katrina, where one day, you’re dry. The next day, you’re 80 percent underwater, and there’s more than 1,000 people dead. This longer-term tragedy that unfolds is the thing that I’m really concerned about, and I think concerns everyone, which is that, over decades, there’s just a tremendous weakening of a place. And it’s almost impossible to stop.
Richard, stay safe, stay dry, stay cool, to the extent possible. And thank you so much.
Thank you, Kevin.
As of Wednesday night, the death toll from Hurricane Ida and its aftermath rose to at least eight. Meanwhile, Louisiana’s largest utility, Entergy, said it had restored power to more than 11,000 customers in New Orleans. But more than a million customers across the state of Louisiana were still without power. And the company says it could take weeks or even months to fully restore power across the state.
We’ll be right back.
Here’s what else you need to know today.
On Wednesday, the nation’s most restrictive abortion law went into effect in Texas after the Supreme Court did not act on a request to stop it. The law blocks most abortions after just six weeks of pregnancy, before many women even know they’re pregnant, and therefore, amounts to an almost total ban on abortion. In the hours after the law went into effect, abortion providers across Texas began turning away women seeking the procedure.
Today’s episode was produced by Michael Simon Johnson, Neena Pathak and Diana Nguyen. It was edited by Paige Cowett and Dave Shaw and engineered by Dan Powell.
That’s it for The Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.