A City Prepared for Disaster Is a City that Looks to the Future

Click to view Back in May, there were reports that the rebuilt levees in New Orleans were still leaking, despite the fact that storm season had nearly arrived. One example of a leaker was this one, a levee along the Industrial Canal that was patched up for nearly $22 million and barely managed to hold back the waters whipped up by yesterday's highly-diminished Hurricane Gustav. Though Gustav was predicted to possibly reach Category 4 and slam New Orleans directly, luckily the storm went down to a Category 2 and didn't pass directly over the city (Katrina, which flooded the city three years ago, was Category 3). It would seem New Orleans was saved by luck alone. But there are also signs that New Orleans is fast becoming one of the most disaster-prepared cities in the world.

Though it's likely that a bigger assault on New Orleans would have caused the rebuilt levee to collapse — and indeed it might still collapse under the pressure of all that water — the US Army Corps of Engineers is hasty to point out that the repairs are not complete yet. Still, there is hope that the data they gathered during yesterday's storm will make the completed levees more likely to be flood-proof. Certain areas, like the industrial area you see above, were flooded despite preparations. But while most of Louisiana's coast suffered a blackout, New Orleans remained powered up. Sloshing levee photo above the fold by Stephen Morton/Getty Images. Topped-up levee and industrial area photos by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.


The most horrifying images and stories that emerged after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans were all related to the evacuees. Or rather, the lack of evacuees, since the process of getting people out of town went so badly that casualties were high and tales of evacuation centers grim (people were beaten and raped in the city's emergency facilities, for example). But when Hurricane Gustav threatened this year, evacuation began days in advance and free busses and trains carried more than 2 million people out of the New Orleans and Louisiana coast areas. Of course, about 10,000 people remained behind in New Orleans. But that was by choice. Perhaps because huge portions of the population never returned after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has become one of the most easy-to-evacuate cities in the world. Evacuee photos by Mario Tama/Getty Images


In the months leading up to Hurricane Gustav, images like this one by the graffiti artist Banksy started showing up on the levees. New Orleans has already started to weave its status as a weather disaster city into its public art. This is significant because when storm disasters become part of the city's self-image, part of its mythology even, it can serve to reinforce its citizens' ability to mobilize in a disaster. This playful image may seem frivolous when compared to the faces of those evacuees above, but it's testimony to the way New Orleans residents view themselves as storm survivors. Now it simply remains to be seen if the city and the US government can finish those repairs in time to save the city from a truly dangerous storm. We've got evidence now that it can endure a category 2, but there is already another hurricane called Hanna brewing over the Atlantic — soon to be followed by more in this storm-heavy season. Will New Orleans go the way of Mayan cities, which some believe were abandoned due to years of terrible weather? Or will it become a hardened city of the future, prepared for disasters that could become part of everyday life as our climate slowly transforms? Banksy art photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

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