By Brian Thevenot
HOUSTON (Reuters) – As I sat with Raeann Barber in the Houston convention center, surrounded by nearly 10,000 refugees from Hurricane Harvey, we figured out that we had nearly crossed paths 12 years ago – to the day – in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
Barber, 36, used to live on Forstall Street, just east of the Industrial Canal, where a catastrophic levee breach sent a tidal wave into the impoverished neighborhood.
She had picked a good time to have a seizure.
Just before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Barber was taken to Touro Hospital in Uptown, which would soon be one of a precious few dry neighborhoods. Already disabled by epilepsy and a head-on car wreck at age 21, she almost certainly would have died in the flood.
After the worst of Katrina’s winds had passed, I headed in the other direction, from The Times-Picayune’s newspaper offices, close to Uptown, to a bridge over the same canal, where I got our first look at the catastrophic flooding on the afternoon of Aug. 29, 2005.
I passed Forstall Street in a civilian rescue boat that we would load with people, a large dog and a duffel bag full of cats, all pulled from rooftops or second stories.
“There are going to be tons of dead people,” our boat captain, Jerry Rayes, accurately predicted as we navigated down St. Claude Avenue.
Barber’s life was spared but upended. When the hospital evacuated, a staffer told her: “We’ll take you to a safe place – the Superdome.”
After a week without power or running water, she was shuttled onto a bus to Houston, where she stayed – and now faces the trauma of another historic flood.
As images of Harvey’s destructive power are broadcast worldwide, the obvious comparisons to Katrina are everywhere.
I can’t sum it up any better than Barber did: “Besides not having all the dead babies and dead bodies out there, this is like Katrina all over again.”
Katrina took 1,833 lives, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Harvey’s grim toll is not yet taken, but current estimates reach as high as 30 deaths or suspected deaths.
A MAN-MADE DISASTER
The divergent death tolls illuminate key differences between the two biblical floods and their responses from emergency management officials.
What people forget about Katrina – and many never fully understood – is that the catastrophe stemmed from fatal flaws in a levee system constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Three key canals failed at water heights that were within their…