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New Orleans: Then and now photos, 16 years after Katrina

Since Hurricane Katrina made landfall, the city’s flood walls have been rebuilt and strengthened

Marine engineer Jason Fernandes inspects a 250-ton barge in the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans on Oct. 1, 2005. Hurricane Katrina's floodwater pushed the barge through a breach in the Industrial Canal flood wall. (CHARLIE RIEDEL/AP)
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Sixteen years ago, Hurricane Katrina reached its peak intensity in the Gulf of Mexico with maximum sustained winds of 175 mph. When the hurricane made landfall in southeast Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2005, its intensity had diminished but was still a major Category 3 storm.

Katrina caused over 1,800 deaths and $100 billion in damage. New Orleans was particularly hit hard due to flooding. The hurricane’s 19-foot storm surge broke through the city’s flood walls and the levees.

The failure of New Orleans’s flood-protection system was blamed on engineering flaws. Foundations of flood walls did not extend deep enough in the ground to support the force of the floodwater. Man-made canals also funneled the storm surge into populated areas.

Hurricane Ida intensifying, forecast to hit Louisiana as Category 4 storm Sunday

Since Katrina, the city’s flood-protection system has been rebuilt, strengthened and improved. As a result, it should offer the city a much greater defense against storm surges from future hurricanes, including approaching Hurricane Ida.

Last month, Barbara Johnson, of the Great Delta Tours, and Peter Yaukey, biology professor at University of Holy Cross, drove me through New Orleans to photograph flood walls and surge barriers that were repaired and constructed since Katrina. During the tour, I also photographed various locations in the city to compare them with scenes photographed during the storm’s aftermath.

The Katrina photos show how horrific the flooding was for most of New Orleans. My comparison photos show the extent the city has recovered. Some areas have fully rebounded, while other sites still have storm damage or have been left uninhabited. But overall, the city has bounced back well since 2005.

Bourbon Street

The city’s main entertainment district, which includes the French Quarter and much of the downtown area, did not flood during Hurricane Katrina. There was wind damage, but overall the region fared well.

Major flooding in the French Quarter was avoided due to the location’s relatively higher elevation. The Mississippi River deposited sediment along its banks during floods for thousands of years, helping to elevate the site.

Industrial Canal flood wall breach

Hours after Katrina made landfall on the Louisiana coast, a long breach of about 1,000 feet occurred at the Industrial Canal flood wall. Did a barge strike the flood wall causing it to collapse? Or did the wall break from the floodwater’s pressure and then pull the barge through its opening? It’s uncertain.

Aerial images show the slow return of the Lower Ninth Ward

Regardless, the flood wall’s failure, which also included a smaller breach, caused catastrophic damage that “killed hundreds, destroyed homes, toppled trees and forever altered the fabric of the historic Lower Ninth Ward,” as written on a historical marker in the area.

The barge that went through the flood wall breach was named ING 4727, and it was later cut apart and removed in 2006.

London Avenue flood wall breaches

Floodwaters did not overtop the London Avenue flood wall. Instead, the wall and its foundation could not support the pressure of the rising water, and it crumbled.

There were two breaches on the London Avenue Canal. The breach in the photo below occurred near Mirabeau Avenue and Warrington Drive. The other breach occurred on the opposite side of the canal, about five blocks away near Pratt Drive.

A historical marker placed near the London Avenue breaches states: “The floodwater killed many Gentilly residents and their beloved pets.” The plaque also places blame on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the breaches.

Six Flags New Orleans

The 146-acre amusement park, first opened in 2000, was closed and abandoned after Katrina. The park is now overgrown by plants, its structures covered with graffiti. It’s also inhabited by wildlife, including alligators.

The park has become a destination for urban explorers and filmmakers. According to Wired, “Jurassic World” was filmed for nine weeks in the park’s ruins, but many of the scenes may have been staged in its parking lot.

City officials are banning visitors to the park and exploring demolition and redevelopment.

Lower Ninth Ward

Each year, a group of Hurricane Katrina survivors gathers in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward, near the location where the flood wall broke. They share touching stories and read the names of the storm victims.

The Lower Ninth Ward was the last area to have power and water restored and the last to be pumped dry. According to Johnson, of the Great Delta Tours, the ward has been one of the slowest neighborhoods to recover, but its redevelopment has been led by activist Leona Tate and a foundation she helped to create.

City Park, New Orleans

City Park, located in the middle of New Orleans, comprises 1,300 acres, two times larger than New York’s Central Park. After flood walls broke during Katrina, the park was flooded for 20 days to a depth of 6-to-8 feet by waters from Lake Pontchartrain.

The park’s live oak trees survived the flood, but nonnative trees such as magnolias perished. Today, the park has been fully restored, and the Louisiana Children’s Museum is located inside it with a beautiful fog art installation.

St. Bernard Parish

St. Bernard was the only parish in the New Orleans region completely flooded during Katrina, from 8- to 14-feet underwater. As a result, the parish had to demolish thousands of homes.

Despite the setback from Katrina, St. Bernard Parish is now the fastest recovering and growing parish in Louisiana. From 2010 to 2020, it grew 21 percent; other surrounding parishes grew on average 11 percent. And St. Bernard produces plentiful seafood, which attracts tourists and commercial fishermen.

Lake Borgne Surge Barrier

The Lake Borgne Surge Barrier, also known as the “Great Wall of New Orleans,” was completed in 2013 was designed to block a storm surge from Lake Borgne, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway to the New Orleans metropolitan area.

The 26-foot tall wall is held in place by more than 600 piles driven into the ground to a depth of 130 feet. Thus, 80 percent of the wall is under the mud line. The gates in the wall were built to be operated manually in case of power outages.

Loss of wetlands

Ironically, New Orleans’s new and repaired flood walls and levees inhibit the growth of wetlands, which provide a natural barrier to floods and storm surges. Sediments from the Mississippi River, which help build up wetland ecosystems, are no longer deposited around the city. Instead, the river sediment is carried away from the delta into the Gulf of Mexico.

As a result, the wetlands around New Orleans are shrinking, and open water is rapidly expanding around the city. The photo below is an example.

An effort has begun to protect and restore wetlands in the Mississippi Delta as a natural defense against storm surges. The effort is part of the Multiple Lines of Defense Strategy plan for coastal restoration, and it has a long road ahead to succeed.


A previous version of this article misspelled Leona Tate's first name. The article has been corrected.