Gulf region remains devastated one week after Hurricane Isaac

On August 29, the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s ravaging of New Orleans, category one Hurricane Isaac made landfall in southeastern Louisiana. While the city of New Orleans was spared flooding due, in part, to upgraded levees, hundreds of thousands of its residents lost power for days and the surrounding region, which had no flood-control upgrades, continues to suffer from extensive flooding and power outages.

Isaac has so far claimed eight lives in the US, six of them in Louisiana. The latest came Monday, when a 90-year-old man was found dead in his home in suburban New Orleans, having died of heat stroke. His home had air conditioning but the power was out.

More than 900,000 people lost power in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Arkansas as a result of the storm. Some 13,000 homes were destroyed in Louisiana alone. Thousands of residents in communities outside of New Orleans remain in shelters, unable to return to homes that remain submerged in up to ten feet of water. The damage from Isaac could reach $2 billion.

Severe flooding affected all of the areas around New Orleans, including St. Tammany Parish to the north, Plaquemines and St. Bernard to the south and east, and St. John the Baptist Parish, St. James Parish, Jefferson Parish, and St. Charles Parish to the west. Around one million people in this region live outside of the greater New Orleans levee system and face flood risk.

Plaquemines Parish saw some of the highest floodwaters and most extensive damage. Carolyn Sylve, a 62-year-old resident who was reviewing damage to her property from a canoe, told CBS news, “This is our land, you know. You want to come home, but you can’t. I mean, people just can’t keep doing this. We just don’t have the resources. People just aren’t rich here, we’re poor. Things need to change.”

Matt Ranatza, a farmer in Jesuit Bend in Plaquemines, told Fox News that the situation makes him “insane.”

“There’s a perfectly good levee right behind my house that they could have fixed, and that’s the levee that was in danger of overtopping,” he said. “For them to just say we’re not going to do it there is criminal.”

Thirty miles west of New Orleans, in St. John the Baptist Parish, Calvin and Constance Woods’ home had taken in five feet of water, ruining everything from the floors to the doors and even the roof. The Woods told CBS they had also lost their house in Katrina.

St. John the Baptist parish resident Michael Turner told the Los Angeles Times that he saw waters from Lake Pontchartrain pouring into his neighborhood even before Isaac made landfall, filling streets in a massive wave.

Residents of the Algiers Point neighborhood of New Orleans complained that a downed tree left them without power for five days. They described a farcical situation where city workers would come to the scene, only to leave because no one from Entergy, the local power company, was there. When Entergy arrived, the city workers had already left. Eventually residents took matters into their own hands and used their own chain saws to clear the tree.

New Orleans resident Tyrone Wilson told CNN that he was rendered immobile by the power outage, as he could not charge his electric wheel chair. “I have no way to get around,” Wilson said. “I have to get medicine and go to the doctor. I have no way to get there.”

Aside from flooding and power outages, Hurricane Isaac has also washed ashore tar balls that first showed up after the catastrophic explosion at the BP Deep Water Horizon oil rig in 2010. The West Nile virus outbreak may be exacerbated as well, as the mosquitoes that transmit the virus find more pools of water where they can lay their eggs.

President Obama visited St. John the Baptist Parish on Monday. According to him, the fact that Hurricane Isaac had not caused additional death or destruction was cause for celebration. Regarding the lack of a more complete levee system in the broader region, he said, “We are going to make sure at the federal level, we are getting on the case very quickly about figuring out what exactly happened here, what can we do to make sure that it doesn’t happen again and expediting some of the decisions that may need to be made to make sure we’ve got the infrastructure to protect people's properly and protect people’s lives.”

In reality, Louisiana has pleaded with the federal government for decades for funds to construct and revamp levee systems in the parishes around New Orleans. While the Army Corps of Engineers completed a $14.5 billion levee improvement for New Orleans itself following hurricane Katrina in 2005, the surrounding areas remain highly vulnerable to flooding, as category one Hurricane Isaac has shown.

In June, the Army Corps of Engineers dropped plans to build a $1 billion levee system to protect areas between the Mississippi River and Bayou Lafourche southwest of New Orleans. Another levee project designed to protect the city of Houma on the Gulf Coast is on hold.

The author also recommends:

Hurricane Isaac… and the seven years since Hurricane Katrina
[31 August 2012]