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Lower 9th Ward passes test after Hurricane Isaac

5:04 PM, Sep 25, 2012   |    comments
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Last week, Guy mostly napped and chatted with family members inside her newly built home on the same lot where Katrina's floods nearly took her life as Hurricane Isaac wailed and moaned outside but failed to deliver any damage.

"We were all right," said Guy, 72, who rode out the storm inside her home with her two sons, a daughter-in-law and several grandchildren. "We were even comfortable."

The Lower 9th Ward was at the epicenter of the destructive floods that destroyed 80% of New Orleans during Katrina in 2005. TV images of residents stranded on rooftops there became the lasting picture of the storm and a symbol of the federal government's failure to protect and respond to its citizens.

In the seven years since Katrina, a $14.45 billion bolstering of the area's hurricane-protection system has focused on avoiding a repeat of a Katrina-like catastrophe in the neighborhood. Isaac, the system's first true test since Katrina, proved that the Lower 9th Ward is a different place today than it was in 2005 and a place that can rebuild, residents and hurricane-protection experts said.

Actor Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation has also brought 86 homes, including Guy's, to the Lower 9th that are elevated and built to withstand punishing winds and floods.

"We're much safer than we were before," said Linda Jackson, president of the Lower 9th Ward Homeowners Association. "That's now a proven fact."

Isaac was the first storm since Katrina where a mandatory evacuation wasn't ordered for the city, causing most Lower 9th residents to ride out the storm at home, she said. By contrast, an evacuation order given during Hurricane Gustav in 2008 caused about 95% of residents to flee.

Besides roof damage to some homes and downed tree limbs, the neighborhood survived unscathed during Isaac, Jackson said. Most important: no significant flooding. The Lower 9th's weathering of Isaac will hopefully sway more residents to return home, she said. The community's population dropped from 17,000 pre-Katrina to about 3,000 today. "I hope they take a good look at Isaac," Jackson said. "There were no floods. We fared well."

Even if the surge did come in and overtopped floodwalls adjacent to the Lower 9th, the floodwalls -- built and installed stronger since Katrina -- shouldn't collapse and breach levees as they did during the 2005 floods, said Richard Campanella, a Tulane University geographer who has studied the city's hurricane-protection improvements. Those levee breaches sent a violent torrent of water rushing into the neighborhood that pushed homes off foundations, flipped cars over and led to hundreds of drownings. Some 4,000 homes in the Lower 9th Ward were destroyed as 12 feet of water pounded the area.
"The system today could sustain quite a bit of (overtopping)," said Campanella. "Overtopping is not disasterous. Breaching is disasterous."

Raymond Mackey, 75, a retired tugboat operator and Lower 9th resident, was equally confident. He had watched carefully as the Army Corps erected stronger floodwalls and installed a storm surge gate at the mouth of the nearby Industrial Canal. Mackey lost his home during Katrina and evacuated for Gustav. He rode out Isaac in his new modular three-bedroom home on Tennessee Street.

"Clean as a whistle," he said of the home. "It didn't even budge."
After being rescued from her roof in 2005, Guy joined thousands of evacuees at the Superdome and eventually fled to Houston. For Gustav three years later, she evacuated again.

Given the improved floodwalls and surge gates and the steel beams running through her elevated Make It Right home, Guy decided to stay put for Isaac. "I'm glad I stayed," she said. "I'm tired of running."

By Rick Jervis, Gannett

Gannett

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