By: Dan Back
Switzerland County Historical Society
We just returned from a River Explorer trip originating in New Orleans. Before I tell you about our river adventure I want to share with you the devastation we saw from Hurricane’s Katrina and Rita.
We scheduled this trip last year before the hurricanes hit. Since we had traveled through New Orleans last year visions of the pre-storm Gulf Coast were fresh in our minds. I looked forward, with both anticipation and apprehension, to returning to New Orleans. I wondered what was left? Did the friends we made on the boat lose everything? How much progress had been made in recovery?
As we drove toward New Orleans we saw the first damage about 100 miles out. This was in the form of blue tarps covering roofs. About 75 miles out we drove for miles amid pine trees snapped in half. When we were about 50 miles out we passed farm fields with hundreds of new FEMA camping trailers sitting empty.
We saw the first indication of the magnitude of the storm when we reached Slidell, Louisiana. As we crossed Lake Pontchartrain we could see what was once a thriving port of fishing fleets, yachts and fine homes was now gone. Slidell had been hit with a 28-foot storm surge. All that was left were pilings sticking out of the water. Even massive concrete sections of the I-10 Bridge had been washed away.
As we approached New Orleans from the East the surrounding area looked like scenes of Europe from a World War II movie. In some areas all that stood were walls. Blue tarps became the predominant roof material. Shopping centers, restaurants, homes, and apartments stood vacant with their walls washed out. There were no signs of life. It was this way for about 20 miles until we reached downtown New Orleans.
As we turned toward the downtown area we saw little hurricane damage. However, there was an eerie feeling as we drove along the elevated highway approaching New Orleans. This was the same highway where hundreds of people found themselves stranded after the levee broke.
We learned that contrary to what the news media were telling us, downtown and western New Orleans received only slight wind damage. The 9th Ward, which became the battle cry, received almost no direct hurricane damage.
Hurricane Katrina came across the Delta below New Orleans in Plaquemines Parrish catching the eastern side of New Orleans. Katrina’s eastern reach was near Mobile. Everything between these two boundaries suffered unbelievable destruction.
Last year I wrote about our trip to Pilot town. Everything below New Orleans described in that article, including Pilot town, was destroyed.
We had time to walk around the French Quarter and downtown New Orleans before we departed on our trip. Everything looked normal with one exception, the lack of people. There were few tourists and almost every shop had a help wanted sign. The city is trying to get the word out that New Orleans is “open for business”.
New Orleans is caught in a “which came first the chicken or the egg” situation. Workers are desperately needed in New Orleans to rebuild. However, there is no housing for the workers to stay in while they rebuild so the workers are not coming.
When we began our trip on the River Explorer we headed west on the Intercostal Waterway. All of the businesses along the intercoastals appeared to be in operation. However, most had parking lots full of campers to house their workers. We saw little damage during the rest of the trip.
After we returned to New Orleans we drove to Biloxi. We were last in Biloxi three years ago. On that trip we drove along the coast and marveled at the beautiful homes overlooking the Gulf coast. We were curious to see how badly the homes were damaged. We were not prepared for what we saw.
Instead of damage we saw nothing, and I literally mean nothing.
The first 1500-2000 feet where the homes had stood was totally vacant. We saw an occasional set of steps going to nowhere or a standing column that once supported a magnificent porch. The storm surge that hit Biloxi was estimated to be over 30 feet tall.
Biloxi was home to a number of casinos. Most were heavily damaged or destroyed by Katrina. Grand Casino Biloxi washed across U.S. 90. Treasure Bay’s pirate ship was beached. They were clearing the pirate ship from the beach as we drove past. A new Hard Rock Casino, scheduled to open the week of the storm, was half destroyed. The bridge across the bay to Ocean Springs was completely missing.
We saw very little cleanup effort going on in New Orleans. This may be a function of the magnitude of the damage or simply cleanup was going on in sections of the city we did not see. Mississippi on the other hand was a beehive of activity with most of the debris removed, electricity restored and business open.
You might ask what does New Orleans have to do with Switzerland County?
Historically, New Orleans was the principal destination for the products and produce of Switzerland County. The Schenck family and other notable residents made their fortunes by shipping goods to and from New Orleans.
Today the Gulf Coast is still very important to us. The New Orleans to Baton Rouge harbor is the largest port in the world. Over 6,000 ships import and export cargo yearly. A majority of our seafood comes from the Gulf coast. A significant amount of oil is pumped and refined into gasoline along the Gulf.
Will the Gulf recover from the Hurricanes? I say yes, however, it will be a very different Gulf Coast.
By: Dan Back