Opinion

A tale of two cities, and floods in both

Three years ago today, New Orleans was under water.

Katrina. The storm that flooded New Orleans was so catastrophic it's now familiar to all by a few short syllables.

The flood of August 2005 caused damage unprecedented for a U.S. city. New Orleans' poverty and squalor were exposed to the globe, to people who thought this country was one of wealth and power. Instead they saw hundreds of people – black, poor and powerless – abandoned by government.

I visited New Orleans in May with a group of journalists from around the world. We found a city still badly damaged, like the survivor of a horrific car wreck with so many broken bones, internal injuries and head trauma that even after weeks in the ICU you still don't know if she'll survive.

As rebuilding began, you'd hear people here say some version of this: What were those people ( those people) thinking? They built on low-lying land, below sea level, where anyone ought to know it would eventually flood. And they're going to rebuild there? How dumb is that?

Three days ago today some parts of Charlotte were under water. Wednesday morning Briar Creek did its humble best to imitate Lake Pontchartrain – or, more accurately, Pontchartrain with a torrential current in the middle.

I went to check out a spot I first wrote about in 2003.

Lots regularly flooded

It's near Briar Creek, in an affluent neighborhood, Eastover. The spot has repeatedly flooded, including a few weeks before I first wrote about it. Yet a Charlotte developer – E.C. Griffith Co. – had won permission to put four houses there. Some of the neighbors were outraged. John and Cindy Wood-lief of Twiford Place, whose own driveway was sometimes under water, fought the city for months with letters, memos, zoning appeals and even lawsuits. Eventually they lost.

It was perfectly legal to build four houses on land that everyone involved knew would flood.

“That land,” longtime neighbor Suzanne Coddington said Wednesday, “was not buildable.”

Today two houses are there, both inhabited. One was on the market for about $3 million. The lots were built up with dirt, so the houses didn't flood Wednesday, but their driveways and streets – Eastover Woods and Twiford Place – were under water. Water was thigh deep at the street corner.

‘Tell the world'

In New Orleans, even three years after the storm, just about everyone we talked with, from health providers to ecologists to activists to bartenders to Lower Ninth Ward residents had one message: “Tell the world about us,” they pleaded.

They think the country and the world are no longer interested. They may be right.

We heard that mentally ill residents have, essentially, no place to go and no treatment. Many homeless reside in a semi-permanent tent city under an overpass. People joked ruefully that everyone in New Orleans has post-traumatic stress disorder. And still, they are rebuilding a city they love.

Many residents – not all – are abiding by plans that discourage returning to the most flood-prone areas. But some houses remain, and some who stayed are trying to convince former neighbors to move back, so the empty neighborhood can be a living neighborhood again.

And today, the city and all who live in it are praying as never before that Hurricane Gustav will spare it.

New Orleans and Charlotte are almost polar opposites. Charlotte is yin to New Orleans' yang. We have no port, canals, levees, Mississippi River or, some would say, fun. We have a dynamic economy and – at least compared to Louisiana – relatively clean, competent government.

In Charlotte, Wednesday's floods have receded. We're moving on. And anyway, we're not like those people in New Orleans. We don't build where it's going to flood.

Except when we do.

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