Friday, August 28, 2015

Toilets of Katrina and the Gentilly District

Visiting the Lower Ninth Ward and the Mississippi Gulf Coast a year after Hurricane Katrina, we were struck by the vast number of abandoned porta-potties. It looks like they were set up quickly for the rescue workers and just abandoned. Hmmm, I suspect the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) was paying for the service and the contractors figured it was easier to bill for loss of equipment rather then retrieve the units.
These cheerful units were in the Lower Ninth Ward. It was easy exploring. If you needed to use a lavatory, there was one on every 2nd or 3rd street corner. Very convenient. The contents had dried and congealed into solid masses, so the porta-potties were quite usable.
The Mississippi coast near Pass Christian and beyond was similarly well-supplied with abandoned Royal Flush containers. The manufacturers of these plastic units must have done well in 2005.
On a more serious note, the Gentilly part of town paralleled the London Avenue Canal. This failed in two sections and flooded the low-lying homes.
Many of the locals felt that government had failed them miserably. Can you blame them?

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Hurricane Katrina 10-Year Anniversary - the Lower Ninth Ward

(Note: click any image to enlarge it.)
Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Mississippi Gulf coast on August 29, 2005. It proved to be the costliest natural disaster in United States history as well as one of the 5 most deadly hurricanes in our history. People around the world were transfixed by dramatic television pictures of flooded residents on rooftops and the refugees in the Superdome. They were also amazed at the stupid and inept mayor, who bungled everything. My daughter and I were out of the country when the storm struck and watched the unfolding events on Greek television. As I recall, Greek TV crews were filming and interviewing in New Orleans even before FEMA representatives arrived. Many Greeks have a personal connection with and interest in New Orleans because Greek merchant marine sailors have visited or been stationed there.

I did not have a chance to see New Orleans immediately after the storm but spent some time exploring in 2006, when initial cleanup had begun but little restoration was underway. These photographs will show some of the destruction. We will start with a visit to the Lower Ninth Ward, but first let's discuss the geography of New Orleans and the Mississippi delta.

Many people are still confused about what part of the city flooded and why this happened. Possibly a short explanation will help. Nouvelle-Orléans was founded by the French in 1718. They founded it at a bend of the Mississippi River on natural high ground. I assume they must have learned from experience or from the native Americans which areas were high and, therefore, relatively safe from flooding.
This is a 1720 map from the British Admiralty (click to enlarge). It shows the core of the city with cypress forest and marsh surrounding it.
The figure above shows how the city in 1862 had grown but was still concentrated along the bend in the Mississippi River. The view looking north shows Lake Pontchartrain in the distance (from  Illustration from Campfires and Battlefields by Rossiter, Johnson, et al. (New York, 1894), from Wikipedia commons). New Orleans prospered and early in the 20th century, businessmen wondered how they could provide more living space near the downtown. Idea: build levees along Lake Pontchartrain, cut drainage canals, install pumps, and pump out the water. Once the land was drained, the developers cleared out trees and debris, platted the land, and instant suburbia was formed (Gentilly, New Orleans East, and other neighborhoods). The pumps had to be used whenever there was rainfall, and even during non-hurricane storms, they ran continuously to clear out the runoff.

Decades later, scientists learned that land subsidence had been grossly underestimated. Much of the former swamp terrain has continued to slowly sink as the soil dewaters. This is a natural process in all river deltas. As a result, many of the neighborhoods developed after 1900 have settled below sea level. A coworker told me that a common practice every spring was for homeowners to have sand spread over the their house lots to try to combat the settlement. I will leave it to you readers to decide if building suburbia below sea level in an area that needs pumps and depends on the integrity of the levees and on the electric supply is a wise idea.
In the colonial area, the area now occupied by the Lower Ninth Ward consisted of sugarcane plantations. In the late-1800s, house lots were developed along the Mississippi River waterfront (the higher ground). The interior then was cypress swamp, later to be drained and converted to residential. The Lower Ninth Ward has suffered from devastating flooding several times in the 20th century. When Hurricane Betsy roared through New Orleans on  September 9, 1965, with 110 mph winds, a levee breached and the Ward flooded. Recovery was slow, and many of the homes that flooded during Katrina in 2005 were post-Betsy vintage. The photograph above shows the flooded Ward on September 1965, (from a brochure prepared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).
Forty years later, it happened again. Look at the figure above. The red "+" marks show where the levees or walls breached in various parts of town. Four of the breaks were in the canals that carry pumped-out rain runoff to Lake Pontchartrain. The blue areas show the extent of flooding on September 15, 2005 (map from Dartmouth Flood Observatory, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH). The French Quarter and the historic Garden District did not flood because they were on natural high ground.
As of late-2006, very little recovery was underway, utilities were still not available, and the area looked like a ghost town. The streets had been cleared, and you could drive around. Grass was growing in the lots. Houses were unoccupied. Some had been cleared out, while others had their furniture and junk strewn about untouched since the water receded.
I did not record the exact location of the photographs. The group of three above are near the industrial Canal. The bridge in the distance spans the canal.
Some houses were untouched in over a year, with rotted furniture and abandoned possessions left unvandalized. Most of these mid-century houses were on ground-level slab foundations, utterly unsuitable for a wet area prone to flooding.
The former resident of this house had a sizable collection of LPs. They were probably playable if removed from their moldering jackets and cleaned. Hmmm, will the data on flooded hard drives be retrievable in the future?
There was a lot of graffiti expressing anger towards various agencies or cities. The reference towards Houston may refer to the fact that the Houston police cracked down hard on criminals who had fled New Orleans. They tried to set up practice in Houston and discovered that the Texas public prosecutors and police were much more strict than they had experienced in New Orleans. Don't mess with Texas was true; they really couldn't get away with murder. It underscores how dysfunctional the criminal justice system was in New Orleans in the years before Katrina.
I was surprised how many crushed cars were left abandoned.

This is just a sampling of the destruction wrought by Katrina. We will explore more parts of the city in later articles.

Much has been written about Katrina and its consequences. The article in Wikipedia provides a good summary. Another Wikipedia article describes the Lower Ninth Ward. The article on Hurricane Betsy is interesting reading. A summary on restoration efforts in the Mississippi River Delta is in this New York Times article. John McPhee's classic article "Atchafalaya" in The New Yorker is an excellent and readable introduction to why we control the flow of water and sediment down the Mississippi and the interplay with the Atchafalaya waterway.

Photographs were taken with a Sony DSC-R1 digital camera. This was a 10 mpixel camera with a superb lens.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Deserted Culkin Academy, Vicksburg, Mississippi

(Note: click any photograph to enlarge it.)
Generations of Warren County students who lived east of Vicksburg went to school at the Culkin Academy, later the Culkin Elementary School. When I first moved to the area in the mid-1980s, Culkin was still open, and I recall a PTA fund drive to buy air conditioners. The last year of operation was around 1999. A coworker's children attended elementary school there before the new Sherman Avenue Elementary School opened.
The old "Culkin Academy" sign is still engraved in the architectural concrete. On the front wall, each window was topped with the symbol of an academic discipline (in this case, mechanics). According to a friend at Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the building can be considered Art Moderne style, designed by a Modernist master, E.L. Malvaney of Jackson. It was completed in 1942. This was during World War II, but construction obviously started before the war began, likely funded by the Works Progress Administration. The county was lucky on the timing because most civilian construction was terminated on put on hold during the war years.
The classrooms are a mess. Many of the windows no longer have plywood covers, so I was able to place my camera on the window ledges and use time exposures. For a few years, a fellow rented the building and raised worms (yes, a worm farm). But I can't tell in what part of the building this animal husbandry occurred.
Not much is happening out back on a sultry summer day. 

Suzassippi wrote about how the high school in Eupora, Mississippi (now the Webster County school district), may be an architectural match to the Culkin Academy

There may be a use for the Culkin school yet. On July 7, 2015, the Vicksburg Post reported:
The sheriff’s department uses a building on the school’s campus for self-contained breathing apparatus training and tactical training like searching through smoke filled rooms, Warren County Sheriff Martin Pace said. The department also practices intruder simulations besides using the site for other law enforcement training purposes. Pace said it gives the department’s employees real world experience so they can be prepared for any emergency that might arise in the schools, offices or other locations.
Photographs taken with a Panasonic G3 digital camera with the Panasonic Lumix 12-32mm lens. I processed the raw files and converted to black and white with PhotoNinja software.

Friday, July 17, 2015

On the Delta: the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Washington

When you visit Olympia, Washington, a great day's outing is to walk in the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. 
"Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is located where the freshwater of the Nisqually River meets the saltwater of south Puget Sound, creating the Nisqually River Delta. The delta is a biologically-rich and diverse area that supports a variety of habitats including the estuary, freshwater wetlands and riparian woodlands. It is considered the last unspoiled major estuary in Puget Sound. The Nisqually Delta has been designated as a National Natural Landmark because of its national significance as one of the best examples of this kind of coastal salt marsh system remaining in the North Pacific.
Nisqually Refuge is famous for the more than 275 migratory bird species that use the refuge for migration, wintering, or breeding. The refuge provides rearing and migration habitat for steelhead trout and several salmon species, and habitat for a variety of threatened and endangered species. The Black River Unit, southwest of Olympia, provides high quality habitat for Coho and Chinook salmon, steelhead trout, migratory birds, and a diversity of other species." (from the US Fish and Wildlife Service).
The first European settlers came to the area in the 1830s. By the late 1830s, the economy began to shift from fur trading to farming and sheep-grazing. During the late-19th century, settlers throughout the Puget Sound area built dikes and drained river deltas. The soil in the former tidal marshland was rich and fertile, making excellent flat farmland. But as a consequence, estuarine habitats were lost, including much of the Nisqually River estuary.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is slowly removing some of the old dikes and allowing natural tidal flow to return to the creeks and channels. The photograph above, taken at low tide, shows pilings in one of the channels, possibly remains of weirs.
In 1904, a farmer, Alson Brown, and his wife bought 2,350 acres in the Nisqually delta. He built dikes and converted the fertile land to crop production and to chicken, hog, and cattle farming. After World War I, Brown went bankrupt, but subsequent owners raised the dikes and built the tall twin barns in 1932. This was during the Depression - how did they raise the funds?
The barns were damaged in the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake and have been closed since then. They are secured and in reasonably good condition, so the Fish and Wildlife Service has maintained them to some extent. On a sunny clear day, they are a nice photographic topic.
Let's briefly look at Olympia. 
 This is downtown Olympia from the west.
The state capitol was begun in 1890 but construction languished because of funding issues. The building was finally completed in 1928, during the easy-money years of the Roaring Twenties. At a height of 287 feet, the dome is said to be the fifth tallest masonry dome on earth, meaning a dome held up by its stone bearing walls without reinforcement.The US capitol in Washington is higher, at 302 ft, but it has a steel framework. The 2001 earthquake caused serious damage and required a $118 million renovation and internal reinforcement.

Trivia item: The Capitol has the largest collection of Tiffany lights in the world, some 438 units. Go see them. The chandelier above the rotunda weighs 10,000 lb and is suspended 50 feet above the floor. Serious lamp.
Washington State is a wonderful place to live if you like organic vegetables and fruits and locally-sourced ingredients (like Italy, Spain, or other civilized places with a real food culture). Apples and pears are local specialties. This photograph is from the farmers' market in downtown Olympia.

Camera notes: the square frames are from a Fujifilm X-E1 digital camera, with raw files processed in PhotoNinja software. A polarizing filter helped darken the sky on this amazingly clear and sunny February day. The long wide panoramic frames are from a Hasselblad XPan film camera (which was manufactured by Fuji). The XPan had a film opening of 72x24mm, or twice the width of a standard 35mm camera frame. A friend took me flying over the area in a cloth airplane of the type where you can swing open the window.