Volume 75, Number 32 | Dec. 28 - Jan. 3, 2005

Ninth circle of hell

At the end of November, three months after the storm surge of Hurricane Katrina breached New Orleans’s levees, Villager photographer Ramin Talaie was in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward covering the aftermath of the disaster. With a death toll of close to 1,400, the combined hurricane and flooding are considered the country’s worst natural disaster ever.

Text and photos by Ramin Talaie

Flying over the Gulf Coast as the plane made its final approach to Louis Armstrong International Airport the government-issued blue tarps were the first sign of the magnitude of Katrina’s disaster.

From the air it appeared that every other house still standing had a blue roof, a quick fix and temporary solution, telling of the situation on the ground. The tarps were issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to residents to protect their homes from further rain damage and exposure to the environment.

In the city, outside of the French Quarter, almost everyplace north of the Mississippi River has been affected. Very few people actually live in New Orleans now. Some estimates are as low as 60,000.

Three months after the flooding, the Lower Ninth Ward, the hardest-hit area, is still cordoned off by the Louisiana National Guard. Residents and journalists are only allowed to go on “look and leave” bus tours.

I was in a total state of awe as I drove around the city making my way to the Ninth Ward. I had never seen such devastation. So vast and so empty. I kept thinking, How many more miles before I see a normal community?

A restaurant on St. Claude St. had been completely gutted by the owner. Chairs, dishes and silverware were all piled up on the sidewalk for the city to pick up.

White refrigerator panels tossed out on the streets served as frustration billboards for locals with graffiti often criticizing FEMA and local officials.

In the Lower Ninth, people have not even been allowed to gut their homes. Whatever the flood waters didn’t destroy immediately has been infested with mold and fouled by polluted water.

Thousands of cars were scattered haphazardly about the streets along with personal belongings. A house was resting in the middle of a road. God only knew where it had come from.

Lack of any organized cleanup effort was as glaring as the devastation itself. From time to time I would run into a handful of church volunteers from surrounding cities lending a hand. However, there was only one volunteer group, Common Ground, which had set up permanent camp beside some railroad tracks.

Watermarks on houses rose all the way to the second floor and I wondered how anyone survived this. And then I thought about them losing everything but the clothing they were wearing.

About 600 people are officially listed as missing. Most of these are assumed to be alive and residing in other states. From time to time, though, officials would get a call and an address and sometimes bodies would be found in attics or other places.

There is just so much devastation that it’s hard to imagine when the city will be normal again. Especially when there is so little that seems to be going on to get it back on its feet. New Orleans will never be the same.

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