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The levee breaking: it was always the terror of the Delta

Melissa Whitworth, Telegraph, September 4, 2005

What happened in Mississippi and Alabama is an act of God. But what is happening in New Orleans is a human tragedy. There are still people stranded on rooftops, people in treetops, people without medicine or water or shelter or food. There are old people in wheelchairs dying needlessly on the streets. There are dead piled in the stairwells of darkened hospitals without power or supplies.

The doctors and nurses and rescue workers who stayed at their posts haven't had their repeated pleas for relief answered. There doesn't seem to be any centralized information. No one knows where to go or what to do; and everyone, understandably, is getting desperate after five days without water or food.

The recent hurricanes in Jeb Bush's Florida were handled briskly, there was immediate on-the-ground help, delivered with military efficiency. But these people in New Orleans are poor, they're elderly, they're African-American, they aren't important to politicians: they've waited for days, they're sick and dying, and the help still hasn't come. It's an emergency and a disgrace.

I spent a lot of time on the Gulf Coast when I was a child. My mother's family has been in Mississippi since the early 1800s, and they're still there. I remember the devastation of Hurricane Camille, which happened when I was four, and sent shock waves (and a flurry of tornados) up through the rest of Mississippi. I wasn't able to reach my mother in northern Mississippi for a while, not until Thursday night. Though the storm was incredibly minor compared to Biloxi or places like that, still there was a good deal of damage, even hundreds of miles inland. Huge trees were uprooted; her phones were down and her electricity was out for four days but her house is still standing and she is safe.

New Orleans is one of the cities I love most in the world, I've spent a lot of time there, and have any number of friends there. It's surely the most beloved city in America, and indeed it's beloved around the world. Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana: they're the deepest cultural touchstone of American arts. Jazz, the only truly American art form, came out of Louisiana, and the blues, the predecessor of jazz, came out of Mississippi. I don't think I need to list all the great writers that come from this part of the world: William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, Harper Lee, Walker Percy, John Kennedy Toole, the list goes on and on.

Mississippi's tough. Wars, hurricanes, destruction: we get through it. But it took the very worst of the initial hit. The eye of the hurricane passed right through Gulfport, Biloxi, Bay St Louis: those places were reduced to splinters in a matter of minutes. There was no way to prepare for an immediate, ferocious blow of that magnitude, apart from evacuating as fast as possible.

But should America have been better prepared for the tragedy that's taking place now in New Orleans? Definitely. This was a completely preventable disaster. For years, scientists have warned of the immense tragedy and loss of human life that would take place if a Category Four or Five hurricane hit New Orleans. Last year, National Geographic wrote about how unprepared New Orleans was for a hurricane of this magnitude.

They've known for years that the levees would be endangered during a Category Four hurricane. They could have - and should have - reinforced the levees; but the Bush administration cut funds from the Corps of Engineers, despite the fact that many scientists thought that the chances of a hurricane like this hitting New Orleans were one in six over the next 50 years. They were only given 20 per cent of the money they needed to maintain the levees. This was a disaster waiting to happen.

The great, great fear was the levee breaking. This is the perennial terror of anybody who has ever lived in or around the Mississippi Delta. When we first heard that a Category Four was heading towards New Orleans, the news struck terror in the hearts of all people who grew up in Louisiana, Mississippi or Alabama. But then we had days of watching it barrel towards us, days when preparations could have been made, lives could have been saved.

Yet though everyone had feared the worst for years, no plan was in place for New Orleans: no plan to reinforce the levees if they broke, no plan to get the people out, no plan to rescue people, no plan to get food and water in... no plan at all.

New Orleans is a very, very poor city. I don't think you're going to find that kind of extreme poverty anywhere else in North America. Thirty per cent of people live below the poverty level. They had a couple of days warning before the hurricane hit; if there had been buses or trains to get people out, it would have been a different story.

It wasn't as if these people capriciously tried to stay; they were poor and ill and elderly; they had no transportation, no way to get out. And now that the absolute worst has happened, the help hasn't come. It hasn't come for days. Whatever help comes now is too late, for thousands.

The Gulf Coast recovered after Camille but it was never quite the same again. This time, everything on the Coast seems to be gone. The casinos are gone, but also all the beautiful old antebellum houses like Beauvoir that Camille spared - the houses I loved and visited as a child. The casinos they can and will rebuild, but any remnant of the architectural character that was left on the Gulf Coast, that's lost forever now.

In New Orleans, the loss is incomprehensible. Even though (from what I understand) the French Quarter and the Garden District have been spared, I'm not sure how the city as a whole will recover. The areas where working people live are gone. A lot of the poor and working class people will never come back, I'm sure, because they can't afford to; and that will mean that a lot of the soul of the city is gone.

I don't know how the tourist industry will weather this disaster, and tourism is the life's blood of the area. I plan to go back down there as soon as I can, just as soon as the area is open again.

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