Twice last month, I went back to my old home, Louisiana - the second time pretty much for vacation, to New Orleans. I checked in on my usual spots: not just my favorite neighborhood restaurant, or my favorite new chicken place, but the outfall canals, some pumping stations (run by the city on a different system than the Corps-run gates and pumps), and the 9th Ward.
Today I'm watching with trepidation as the US Army Corps of Engineers considers how to manipulate the vast plumbing of the Mississippi River to try to minimize flooding in south Louisiana. On Monday they pulled 72 teeth out of the 350-some bays that make up the Bonnet Carre Spillway and let the water run toward Lake Pontchartrain. Now river parishes are ordering evacuations; opening another spillway, Morganza, will still flood the Atchafalaya Basin and threaten thousands of homes, while avoiding potentially worse damage. Even still, earthen levees, floodwalls, and built levees are stressing. My experience with some components of the flood protection system makes me nervous about that.
I had somewhat the opposite experience when I visited the 9th ward last month: where new houses appreciate the risk flooding presents. I made a slide show of them: you can read the captions at Flickr, or just flip through pictures below.
The changes I see toward a more public environmental practice are small. Recycling cans at Jazzfest (mostly, or at least sometimes, used). A LOT of bicycle riding. (Always was popular here, what with parade parking and all, but it does seem on the rise.) Solar panels on some of the great mansions that line Esplanade, and houses in the Bayou St. John neighborhood. (One lady I talked to said, "Tell 'em if New Orleans can do it, any of y'all can."
As for recovery itself: some people believed this would happen faster, or at least, wanted it to. But nobody I knew here ever through this would happen easily. And the shiniest, newest, prettiest work that's been done has been that of private groups, of non profits, of non governmental organizations.
I had this idea when I moved to New Orleans not long after Katrina that Americans owed a recovery to each other - that it was the job of this country to take care of each other, that it was in our principles somewhere, unwritten, maybe, but indelible. Every time I've said this out loud, pretty much, I've gotten laughed at. But it's something else to see it made true, even just for some dozens of houses, even just a little.