Super Bowl-host New Orleans still recovering from Katrina
NEW ORLEANS — Ed Reed, a safety for the Baltimore Ravens, is one of the National Football League's true tough guys. But talking about the devastation that Hurricane Katrina wrought upon his beloved city of New Orleans over seven years ago nearly brings tears to his eyes.
A storm that peaked at the maximum Category 5 blew through unfinished levees and the city's woefully inadequate flood defenses on Aug. 29, 2005. Katrina brought with it a mammoth swell of water that was extraordinarily deadly and caused almost unthinkable destruction. It remains the costliest natural disaster in American history.
A 15-foot swell of water inundated almost 80 percent of a city that had nearly 500,000 residents. As the sixth-strongest hurricane ever recorded, Katrina killed more than 1,800 people and caused $81 billion in property damage.
Those who died — many who were abandoned or too poor to leave — haunt Reed, who watched from afar with horror, disbelief and sadness.
Even today, on Super Bowl Sunday, when Reed's Ravens will face the San Francisco 49ers for the NFL championship in a reborn, refurbished and rejuvenated city, he says he still hurts.
“People lost their homes, lost family members. People just left people to save themselves and not help everybody else. We lost a whole hospital,” Reed said, shaking his head in disbelief.
“I don't know how that happened. How does that happen? It really hurt my heart to see things like that. … In Louisiana, we lived through a bunch of hurricanes, but some didn't live through this one. You just didn't think the levees would break.”
Rising from the rubble
In the midst of the week's celebration wrapped around the record-tying 10th Super Bowl in New Orleans, it is not difficult to find remnants of the storm. Visitors need not wander far beyond downtown to find abandoned homes, ruined properties and other reminders such as bent street signs or a concrete porch with a spray-painted street number in front of where a house once stood.
“Only those who aren't here truly know what happened,” Reed said.
In the years since 2005, thousands have worked to revive this city that is nearly three centuries old. And while New Orleans is not back to being what it once was — the population dipped from 484,000 to 360,000 — Katrina could not strip it of its soul.
The nightlife, the jazz clubs and the hip-is-created-here vibe remain. Tourists are back. Louis Armstrong Airport and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome each received about $350 million in renovations. Reborn businesses line newly paved streets. A downtown streetcar line opened in time for the game and could pump $435 million into Louisiana's economy. Hotel rooms for 100 miles are sold out as the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras — arguably America's two biggest parties — converge for only the second time.
The city that wouldn't die is coming alive in midwinter like no other American metropolis can.
“We don't have to create anything in New Orleans,” said political consultant James Carville, co-chairman of the Super Bowl Host Committee along with his wife and fellow political pundit, Mary Matalin. “And it's been here for 294 years.”
What is striking is how much of New Orleans is new, having been developed in only the past three, four or five years.
“This is a story about the resurrection and redemption of a great American city,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who points out that New Orleans is spending just $13 million to put on its post-Katrina Super Bowl. “The Super Bowl gives us an opportunity to reflect on where we've been and we're going.”
Jonathan Goodwin, who plays center for the San Francisco 49ers, knows about both.
A member of the New Orleans Saints team that won the Super Bowl three years ago, he said he still loves New Orleans. Upon returning last week, he said he could immediately see how it has changed.
“I tell people that when I first got here, the grocery stores were closing at 5 p.m.,” Goodwin said. “We're a long way from that. It's very hard now to tell a storm even happened here.”
Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones has the words “New Orleans” and the city's symbolic fleur-de-lis tattooed on his right arm, just below the elbow. In every way, New Orleans is part of him.
“New Orleans is going to be New Orleans no matter what, no matter the many ups and downs,” Jones said. “We're still going to enjoy ourselves in the city no matter what. You can never take our spirit or our pride.
“That's why sometimes I'll say, ‘Man, I've been through Katrina with my family. There's nothing that could really hurt me anymore.'”
For the Big Easy, a nickname reflective of the city's never-too-busy-to-relax attitude, this was not an easy rebuild. Instead, it is reshaping the city's core.
About 67 percent of pre-Katrina residents were black; now about 60 percent are. The white population increased from 28 percent to 33 percent. Poverty, some of it acute, still affects 28 percent of the population, or more than 1 in 4. The crime and homeless rates are about twice the national average.
Other metropolitan hubs have similar problems, though none went through anything like what New Orleans endured. The city's rebirth on the national stage is reflected by the two college football national championship games it has hosted since 2008, college basketball's Final Four played in the Superdome last spring, and the National Basketball Association's All-Star Game held here in 2008.
Some American cities are indistinguishable from one to the next for NFL players, Goodwin said. But New Orleans is instantly recognizable — one of a kind. Touristy Bourbon Street thrives, as it did before Katrina.
“You definitely know you're in New Orleans,” he said. “The accents. The people are so friendly. It's a great all-around vibe.”
Some people say there is no better place to come alive than in New Orleans, where music, fun and relaxation are not just part of the culture — they are the culture.
“Everybody wants to come to New Orleans. Everybody loves New Orleans,” Goodwin said. “I'm just happy the city has come back.”
Alan Robinson is a staff writer
for Trib Total Media. Reach him
or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.
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