For the residents of New Orleans, the agonies of the biblical wrath unleashed by the hurricane known as Katrina on Aug. 29 and 30, 2005, left a multitude of candidates for the Image That Says It All. The site of the actual breach in the Industrial Canal levee in the Ninth Ward. The dispossessed standing on the rooftops of homes fully underwater. Masses of humanity screaming for assistance from inside the Superdome. The I-10/I-610/West End Boulevard interchange so badly flooded that parts of the roadway utterly disappear from view.
There’s another choice, of course. You’ve seen the woman in the shot taken by photographer Eric Gay of The Associated Press. An elderly woman who sits amid the devastation wrought by Katrina, awaiting rescue while draped in the American flag, her face a map of fear and woe.
When 84-year-old Milvirtha Hendricks was covered by the blanket adorned in the stars and stripes outside the New Orleans Convention Center, she became the Katrina Madonna, the visual symbol of those enduring dual catastrophes: one unleashed by nature, the other incrementally unleashed by human indifference in the long years before nature’s fury hit the Gulf Coast five years back.
More than 1,800 people were killed by Katrina, directly or indirectly. More than $81 billion in property damage was sustained. Tens of thousands of people were displaced permanently. And maybe the storm that scarred the Gulf region and other states further inland created a dividing line. For New Orleans, there was a life Before Katrina and life After Katrina. Life was tough enough for New Orleans' poor B.K.; it’s been far worse A.K.
And the disparities of life in the city after the storm revealed that other dividing line, that eternal third rail: the fissure of race in America.
“No response, no security, no food or water. We were back there on our own. Nobody to help us, direct us or nothing.” Layman Thomas, who worked for the New Orleans Parks Department, expressed outrage at what he saw at the convention center, in a 2005 interview with The AP.
“I think they played race on our entire state,” he says. “We had people from all different cities who wanted to come get us. But the president and the governor had to release all that. But it took them all days to sign the papers.”
Mike Davis, a San Diego historian and author of “City of Quartz,” an acclaimed 1990 social history of Los Angeles, went to New Orleans post-Katrina, and expressed for AP what black people in New Orleans almost certainly believed: “Communities of color have always favored urban legends, because all too often they have corresponded to reality.”
The urban legend that flared after Katrina is one that’s persisted for decades: that black people in the impoverished Ninth Ward were intentionally abandoned to the furies of the weather since the Industrial Canal was built back in 1922.
◊ ◊ ◊
A report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, released in 2007, stated plainly that the failures of the levee system in New Orleans were mainly caused by mistakes in the system’s design — the start-to-finish responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers.
That’s presumably why on Nov. 18, 2009, U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr. found the Corps responsible for “monumental negligence” for failing to properly maintain the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), the vital arterial connecting New Orleans and Louisiana to the Gulf of Mexico.