Under a bright blue sky, the 9:30 a.m. warmth was beginning to shine on Royal Street in New Orleans on Saturday, where yellow, blue and black bicycles lined the sidewalk. Eight tourists were adjusting their bike seats preparing for the Confederacy of Cruisers’ Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tour, lasting four hours, led by New Orleans native and Hurricane Katrina survivor, Derek Wood.
Hurricane Katrina and Lower Ninth Ward themed tours have sprouted since the storm ravaged the city nine years ago on Aug. 29, 2005. The largest hurricane and third strongest ever recorded to make landfall in the United States, Katrina peaked at a Category 5, with winds up to 175 miles per hour. An estimated 80 percent of the city was under water, 90,000 square miles were impacted, and it caused $81 billion in property damages.
“You can’t disassociate [Hurricane Katrina], it’s part of [New Orleans] and it probably will be for generations to come,” Wood said. “Mardi Gras, jazz, French Quarter and Hurricane Katrina.”
Like Wood at Confederacy of Cruisers, tour guides at both Gray Line and Tours by Isabelle lived through and survived Katrina. Instead of the storm being a memory for them, these guides lead packs of tours through New Orleans, recounting days when the levees first broke and comparing that with the city’s current state of rebuilding.
The Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tour, established in 2009, begins in the Seventh Ward and works its way east to the Lower Ninth Ward. Wood changes his route frequently, but still tells the general history of the Lower Ninth Ward. The ride costs $60 per person.
Gray Line established its “Hurricane Katrina Tour” in January 2006. At a cost of $48 for adults, as many as 40 people may travel on the bus, depending on the day’s demand, learning of New Orleans history and seeing levees that breached and the resulting state of the Lower Ninth Ward.
Tours by Isabelle, established in October 2005, runs two Katrina Tours. “New Orleans City and Katrina Tour” puts riders in a 13-passenger van at a cost of $75 per person, while a private “Post Katrina Tour” for special groups drives at a rate of $900, as the group buys all 12 seats at $75 per person.
Each tour runs as long as there is demand, and is usually only closed on Mardi Gras, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
At the head of these post-Katrina tours aren’t just any other tour guides, but rather, residents who lived through the 20-foot storm surges.
‘I kept coming back’
“I was literally packing my house to move and I had to abandon that,” Wood said.
When Katrina hit, he went to a cousin’s house in Baton Rouge for a few nights, made his way to Houston, and flew to New York to begin his Ph. D program at The New School. He didn’t have much with him in New York though, as his house thankfully stood in New Orleans with most of his possessions still there. A friend of his lost his home, so Wood let him take over the lease. But, not enjoying the city that never sleeps, Wood found himself back in New Orleans within one year, pedaling his way through the Lower Ninth Ward.
“I kept coming back to New Orleans,” Wood said. “I came back in October, I came back for Christmas, I came back for Mardi Gras, I came back during Spring Break. What kind of grad student does that? I just felt guilty.”
‘It was a duty’
While Frenchwoman Isabelle Cossart isn’t a native New Orleanian, the Algiers resident, owner, and guide of Tours by Isabelle since 1979, felt it was her duty to show the public the destruction made by Katrina.
“I didn’t want to create it, people asked me to do it,” said Cossart. “I was very much not wanting to delve into that anymore having lost much, but it was the only way to have any kind of livelihood. That was the only thing people wanted to see.”
Cossart’s roof blew off her house, her belongings inside her home were ruined, and she lost three months worth of work, as people weren’t interested in Isabelle’s New Orleans city, plantation and swap tours.
“Nobody wanted to do that anymore,” said Cossart. “There was no demand.”
With a vehicle still operable and knowledge of New Orleans, Cossart figured there was a way to still earn a living while giving people what they wanted. She created a 40-mile, three and a half hour route, showcasing the different areas of levee failures, where flood walls busted.
“I just made that [route] because people wanted to see that,” Cossart said. “There was no other work. It was out of necessity and public demand . . . and also one has to show the truth. It was a survival mode and it was a duty.”
‘They wanted to see what made it real’
Gray Line wanted to show the public the truth as well.
People visiting New Orleans wanted to understand what had happened and where it had happened, said Adrienne Thomas, Director of Marketing and Public Relations at Gray Line, who has lived in New Orleans for 30 years. Operating city, plantation and swamp tours too, its Katrina tour was created by tour development workers who lost their homes and who were in New Orleans through the storm.
“This was not something we made up as we went along,” Thomas said. “They really wanted to share their story and how we live our life and how we come back. At the beginning, people wanted to understand what they had seen on TV. They wanted to see what made it real.”
‘How did we not know?’
The bright, glossy, smooth finish of the bicycles was a stark contrast to the paint-chipped, burned wood and dilapidated homes that sat, unsteadily, along quiet, nearly deserted streets in the Lower Ninth Ward.
People are generally ashamed when they see the state of the streets, Wood said, even nine years later.
“What has happened here and how did we not know about this more, about this disaster that happened?” Wood said. “They’re just embarrassed by the failure of the government. I’m not just talking about the federal government, I’m talking about the state, local government, a complete failure, all around. So there’s just this shock, often there’s disbelief that the place is still in so many areas a complete [mess] and empty. Just blocks of nothing where there used to be [something.]”
The Lower Ninth Ward’s total population in 2000, five years before Katrina, was at 14,008 residents, compared to five years after Katrina, in 2010, at 2,842 residents, according to The Data Center analysis of data from U.S. Census 2000 and 2010.
“To a degree it was a ghost town,” said Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Trymaine Lee, who joined The Times-Picayune in April 2005 and covered Katrina for the nearly two years he worked there.
“This used to be a neighborhood, a place where people called home, where generations of families grew up through good times and bad times and worse times and that’d all been washed away by the storm,” Lee said.
Lea Sinclair, Director of Communications at New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation (NOTMC) and a New Orleans resident since 1980, explained that people really couldn’t imagine the scene. It appeared as if a nuclear bomb went off.
“You have to understand that when 80 percent of your city is under water for 10 days or more, when that water goes away, there’s no longer grass, trees die, there aren’t birds, and there aren’t children. There’s nothing,” Sinclair said.
‘We’re still a long way away’
As Wood led the way deeper into the Lower Ninth Ward, more and more lots of nothing but grass appeared, stairs led to nowhere, and burnt buildings with exposed interior walls appeared frozen in time. Weeds lingered higher than fire hydrants, roads were full of pot holes, and every once in a while, an ‘X’ marked the spot, signaling that rescue teams had searched the home and reported findings. (The top section of the ‘X’ represents the date the house was searched, the bottom is the number of victims found dead, the left identifies the rescue team, and the right reveals any hazards.) But, along the streets, a few residents remained.
People walking and sitting on their front porches live in the Lower Ninth Ward because they want to, because that’s home, and because there’s nowhere else like it, even in New Orleans, Wood said.
“A lot of people didn’t have home insurance or at best a lot of people didn’t have flood insurance, which pretty much gets you nothing. So these people did it themselves,” Wood said. “People worked hard to come back to their community and their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents.”
Lee echoed Wood, saying that he has hope and dreams and cares about the community still reeling and rebuilding.
“For a lot of people that would be the dream that the Lower Ninth Ward would be revitalized,” Lee said. “But to use the word ‘revitalize’, we’re still a long way away.
“I’m not sure how many people could say they can sleep well at night after what we’ve seen,” said Lee.