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The Federal Flood

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When Hurricane Katrina hit ground in 2005, it seemed at first as though the city had done relatively well in light of the full-scale damage wrought along the Mississippi coast. On August 29, however, New Orleans’s levees were breached, and rising floodwaters soon covered eighty percent of the city, destroying much of it in their wake. Most damage was sustained by residential areas – whether in the suburban homes around the lakeside, from where most residents had been evacuated, to the less affluent neighbourhoods of the east, like the Ninth Ward and Gentilly, where those too poor or ill or old to move were trapped in attics and on rooftops for days. The French Quarter, which, as the oldest part of the city was built on the highest ground, was physically unhurt by the flooding, although the economic blow – not least the loss of a huge number of the neighbourhood’s workforce – was tremendous.

Despite being referred to in shorthand as Katrina, the devastation of New Orleans was no natural disaster: in November 2009, a federal judge declared the Corps of Engineers, the government body responsible for building New Orleans’ levees, as guilty of negligence, ruling that “The Corps’ lassitude and failure to fulfil its duties resulted in a catastrophic loss of human life and property in unprecedented proportions…Furthermore, the Corps not only knew, but admitted by 1988, that the Mr-Go [navigation channel] threatened human life… and yet it did not act in time to prevent the catastrophic disaster that ensued”. The Corps appealed on a technicality, and the finding may still be overturned, but for most people, the case has been amply proven: the worst engineering disaster in American history could have been avoided.

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