Today, Shelly Dupre looks back 10 years to the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, and shares her views on the storm’s unprecedented impact, then and now.
As a native of south Louisiana and a resident of Baton Rouge, it is hard to believe that a decade has passed since the costliest natural disaster in United States history devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, killing almost 2,000 people and causing damage estimated upwards of $100 billion.
Watching the events of Hurricane Katrina unfold from my apartment in Baton Rouge was surreal. Overnight, I watched my sleepy mid-sized city transform as people from all over the Gulf Coast started traveling west to escape Mother Nature’s path of destruction, and in the days and weeks to come, I saw the devastation of an unpredictable storm that no one on the Gulf Coast could have prepared for.
While no one was allowed in New Orleans until the water subsided, a couple of months after Katrina hit, I decided to drive down to support friends who had sustained damage to their home. I grew up two hours west of New Orleans and have been to the city hundreds of times, so normally the route to my friend’s house was very simple. But, I quickly discovered this was no longer the case as I began to see the aftermath of a natural disaster that can only be described as footage from a war zone. There were no standing street signs, no working traffic lights, and debris piled high everywhere. I had no sense of where I was and cell service was spotty at best due to the extensive damage to cell towers and utility lines.
After what felt like a wild goose chase, I managed to make it to my friend’s house, and since she was more comfortable driving around the devastation, we took off towards Lakeview subdivision to see where one of the canals broke. Many images will forever stick with me from this area—the slab where a house once stood, the remaining half of a brick home across the street, and the orange “X” marks on the doors with numbers of anyone emergency responders or the National Guard found. But the strangest thing was the silence. There wasn’t a sound, not even the chirping of birds. The silence, coupled with the fact that there was no one out driving, made it feel as if you were standing on the precipice of the apocalypse.
The city felt desolate as most businesses weren’t open due to extensive damage and no electricity, but also because most of their employees had not returned to the city, making these businesses ill-equipped to handle customers. For those who could and did decide to return, most didn’t have a job to return to and found themselves without a means of income in a city with little to no working services.
There was nothing silent about Baton Rouge following Katrina. The city became the base for all emergency operations – including the military Blackhawk helicopters. Every day, the sky was filled with the noise of Blackhawks taking off enroute to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Envoys of military Humvees came in from Fort Polk and other bases west and north of Baton Rouge. While it took a lot of adjusting, this became “the new normal” for a few months in our region, and as the city of New Orleans worked to rebuild, amidst all the mayhem, a silver lining began to emerge.
The event sparked an economic development boom in Baton Rouge that started taking shape in 12-24 months that in normal circumstances would take 20 years. GoZone Funds to the Gulf Coast fueled and incentivized big-box businesses and others to invest in areas they probably would have never considered had the population from the New Orleans/Waveland, MS area not moved to the eastern suburbs of Baton Rouge. According to a recent Greater Baton Rouge Business Report story, “Hurricane Katrina was a significant catalyst for a partnership between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The two cities eventually partnered in 2009 to form the Southeast Super Region Committee to spur economic growth in south Louisiana and helped lobby for new tax incentives and workforce training programs to continue the boom. The result has been new businesses like Nucor’s $3.2 billion steel plant in St. James Parish and companies such as, BASF, Benteler and Syngenta investing more than $1.6 billion in Louisiana.”
This economic development “bonanza” is not without its challenges. The residual effects have caused residential and commercial construction projects to grow so fast that many residents with small construction businesses are still finding it almost impossible to find reliable workers in order to take on projects. Also, the roadway infrastructure in the Baton Rouge region has been slow to keep up with the population growth over the past 10 years, and airline hubs such as Charlotte, NC, are still more attractive to large companies. But, the I-10/I-12 corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is still developing its assets in this “new normal” of long-term impact of adversity, including shifts in job training, new building codes for flood impact, and environmental remediation, which is creating more architecture and engineering jobs.
As I reflect on the 10 year Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, what I see for the future of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is potential. While financial, cultural and logistical hurdles have slowed the growth in the technology sector, incubators continue to nurture an ecosystem for entrepreneurs. In a short time, the region has grown tremendously, and despite the hurdles that still lay ahead, there is hope in the aftermath of what, at the end of 2005, looked almost hopeless.