Watch CBS News

New Orleans after Katrina: A tale of two cities

Martha Teichner looks back at the monumental 2005 hurricane -- the most costly natural disaster, in lives lost and property destroyed, in U.S. history -- and the struggle of New Orleans residents to rebuild ever since
New Orleans after Katrina: A tale of two cities 09:54

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina's assault, the story of New Orleans is very much a tale of two cities. In some parts of town, rebirth and restoration; in other parts, few signs of any recovery. Our Cover Story is reported now by Martha Teichner:

As if we needed reminding, even after ten years, how terrible Katrina really was -- and what a colossal fiasco.

The horror show at the Superdome, where close to 25,000 people were trapped for days in the heat and stink. Desperation on overpasses, where thousands more baked along the Interstate, crying out for help that didn't come.

More than 1,800 people died across the Gulf Coast.

Flashback: CBS News coverage of Hurricane Katrina 01:23

How could this be happening in the United States of America? Who seemed more out of touch -- President Bush, or FEMA director Mike Brown? ("Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job!")

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin let loose on a radio broadcast: "Now get off your asses and let's do something, and let's fix the biggest goddamned crisis in the history of this country!"

Eighty percent of New Orleans was flooded. Billions and billions of gallons of water swept over the city, not so much because of the storm itself, but because the levees gave way. The floodwalls broke.

"Being there in those first months, it felt like, 'Am I witnessing the death of a great American city?'" said Gary Rivlin, who covered Katrina for The New York Times.

Rivlin's new book about New Orleans in the years since, "Katrina: After the Flood," has just been published by Simon & Schuster (owned by CBS).

Simon & Schuster

"People talk about Katrina being an equal opportunity storm, [how] it didn't make a difference if you were black or white, rich or poor," Rivlin said. "But it wasn't exactly an equal storm. If you were a black homeowner, you were more than three times more likely to have lost your home in the flooding than if you were a white homeowner.

"And just like it wasn't an equal opportunity storm, it has not been an equal opportunity recovery."

Read an excerpt from Gary Rivlin's "Katrina: After the Flood"

When Connie Uddo returned to her neighborhood, Lakeview, she found a mound of debris 10 stories high. "I just remember pulling to the side, stunned, and I just began to weep," she told Teichner.

Yet, despite the destruction in her middle-class, overwhelmingly white neighborhood, she says she was fortunate. "Because my home is a triplex. Because we lived on the second and third floor, we didn't lose everything."

After moving six times, Uddo, her husband and two children dared to go home in January 2006, four months after the storm. "It was a very sad place to be," she said. "As long as I was in my house, I was okay. When I walked outside, I would feel myself just kind of slide. And got to the point where I told my husband, 'I don't think I can do this.' And so he said, 'I think you have to find a purpose.'"

A few months later, the former tennis teacher had become a combination Angie's List and Mr. Clean -- a whirlwind, running the St. Paul's Homecoming Center. Her job: connecting people to resources, marshaling volunteers to get her Lakeview neighbors back in their houses.

"I realized we were in a fight for our life, to save our neighborhood, to save our city," she said.

"How did you go about this assault on the storm?" asked Teichner.

"Do not wait for the government -- that became our motto," she replied. "People would say, 'Well, I'm gonna wait for this. They government's going to do this, right?' I was like, 'No, I don't think so. Government didn't even show up when we were stranded at the Dome for five days. Why do you think they're gonna show up to help gut our schools and churches and businesses? Why do you think that? We need to do this.'"

And they did -- Connie Uddo's organization and others. She showed Teichner a house her group worked on: "We helped this homeowner rebuild. It was a guy with no flood insurance."

There are still reminders of Katrina. The high water line is immortalized at Starbucks. But Lakeview is back. A supermarket opened in 2010. The St. Paul's Homecoming Center has moved on, and Connie Uddo now heads a group replanting the 65,000 trees Katrina killed around New Orleans.

In New Orleans, happy or sad, you dance to the music. And yesterday, on the actual anniversary of Katrina, people danced in the Lower Ninth Ward, where the most damage was done.

Almost entirely African American before the storm, only 37 percent of its pre-Katrina residents have returned. Brad Pitt's Make It Right and other charities have built hundreds of homes, but thousands were destroyed. The closest thing to a grocery store opened last year.

Someone else's roof was on top of Betty Bell's house when the retired social worker finally was allowed back for a look a month after Katrina. The city demolished it.

Why, after ten years, there's nothing but a slab here explains a lot about why the Lower Ninth Ward remains an urban wilderness.

A view of the Lower Ninth Ward. CBS News

"You know, I just try to be strong and not let it really affect me too much, 'cause I don't wanna run my blood sugar up," Bell said.

Her insurance settlement nowhere nearly enough to rebuild -- the bank took most of it to pay off her mortgage, anyway.

Construction is about to start on Bell's lot, but it's taken 10 years of fighting -- and the intervention of a local advocacy group -- to get her barely enough money for a house one-third the size of her old one.

"It's not what I had, but at least I'm getting something," she said. "And it took a long time to get to this point."

For Bell, the problem was Road Home, Louisiana's nearly $10 billion federally-funded program intended to bridge the gap, to provide homeowners enough money to rebuild. For many, many Katrina victims, it ended up a bureaucratic nightmare -- a symbol of incompetence.

But for residents of African-American neighborhoods, such as the Lower Ninth Ward, it was a symbol of something else: discrimination.

Road Home based its payment formula on the value of a property before Katrina. In New Orleans, historically, homes in African-American neighborhoods have been valued significantly lower than similar homes in white neighborhoods.

Never mind that construction costs are the same regardless.

The appraisal of homes was essentially based on race, said Rivlin: "It was just a fundamental flaw in the program. A federal judge ended up concluding that the Road Home did, in fact, discriminate against black homeowners."

"It's not that they were not made aware that it was not a good policy," said Alden McDonald, who heads Liberty Bank and Trust Co.. "Myself and others personally appealed to the powers-that-be to not use that policy."

After Katrina, McDonald's headquarters, his branches, and his own home were all devastated. But he managed to keep the bank open, and has in the past ten years built it into one of the largest minority-owned banks in the United States.

But today, the Liberty Bank building in the African-American New Orleans East speaks volumes. Today, the building is marooned, surrounded by what was a million-square-foot mall, now vacant lots.

"When I take a look at what happened and what didn't happen, you could see that the ability of money helped communities to rebuild faster, bigger, and to do things that perhaps the African-American community, with less wealth, was not able to do," said McDonald.

The current mayor, Mitch Landrieu, likes to talk about a new New Orleans:

"We are ready. Nearly 10 years after Katrina, we are no longer recovering, We're not rebuilding. Now we are creating." -- Mayor Mitch Landrieu, State of the City speech, May 28, 2015 (pdf)

All you have to do is look around: the Superdome rebuilt, a new state-of-the-art hospital, new schools. A new $14.5 billion flood protection system that reduces (but doesn't eliminate) the risk of catastrophic flooding.

The tourists have returned. But nearly 100,000 African-American New Orleanians are gone.

The new New Orleans looks familiar, but may never quite be the Big Easy again.

For more info:

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.