(As originally published in Daily Telegraph)
TAKE a walk along New Orleans’ rowdy and sometimes seedy Bourbon Street – packed every night with drunken revellers – and it’s easy to see why this is one of the fastest growing cities in America.Any memories of the horror that Hurricane Katrina wreaked on the Big Easy 10 years ago have been forgotten in a flood of cheap, giant-sized cocktails.
But travel just a few kilometres to the 9th Ward – the working class African American suburb – and you quickly see all is still not well.
Thousands of homes are still missing – washed away when the levees broke.
Only a third of its population has been able to return. There’s only school (out of six originally) no restaurants, banks or businesses. While predominantly white suburbs have recovered, the 9th Ward doesn’t have the basic infrastructure a community needs to grow.
A hundred thousand African Americans have left New Orleans, a city that is still 60 per cent black.
No amount of Bourbon St booze can wash away the feeling that under the surface, this is still a community of great racial divide.
When Seven News cameraman Trent Miller and I made our way into devastated New Orleans a decade ago, we found thousands of people – mostly African Americans – abandoned not only by their city but by their nation.
Tens of thousands had been left to rot at the famed football stadium, the Superdome, and thousands more at the Convention Centre, where we found two frightened Australian couples huddled among the refugees.
Tim and Joanne Miller and Garry and Cynthia Jones had been kicked out of their hotels in the hours after the storm.
With nowhere to go and no way out, they had to survive on the streets for four days with thousands of stranded locals.
“There was a body of an elderly lady brought down and put beside a dumpster, left there for days,” Cynthia told me this week.
Trent and I saw dozens of people, the elderly and the young, who were obviously very ill and some appeared close to death.
We had been warned it was too dangerous to visit the Convention Centre.
All we found was despair, not danger.
We were there to take out the Australians, but I still feel guilty for not helping more.
While a large part of New Orleans was flooded, it wasn’t cut off.
The Greater New Orleans Bridge was still wide open, but its ten lanes were left empty.
Authorities on the other side of the Mississippi River wouldn’t allow people to cross.
They even reportedly fired warning shots to stop them.
They didn’t want the looting to spread to their town.
Trouble is, while some of the looting was carried out in greed, most of it was for survival.
“The American government was insecure about their own people, they didn’t trust them,” Garry Jones told me this week.
“You couldn’t walk out of the place.
“The county next door was locked down.
“Their emergency services, at the time, were rubbish.”
After spending a night sleeping in our car on the main street of New Orleans, we found a third Aussie couple camped outside their closed hotel.
As we loaded them in our car, two angry policemen raced towards us.
They grabbed us by the throats, shaking us furiously and threatening to arrest us.
“I thought one of them was going to shoot you, Mike” Trent told me. “It was just crazy.”
They were concerned those left behind would turn on them.
It was ironic that the only real danger we faced came from those who should’ve been protecting the city.
Less than an hour up America’s famous 10 Freeway, you could see people in restaurants, swilling cocktails and devouring 20-ounce steaks.
They seemed oblivious to the thousands stuck on the streets a short distance away who didn’t even have water.
“It changed my view of America,” Trent said.
“I thought Americans looked after each other – a lot like Australians.
“What I saw was a country not looking after its people.
“It took too long to react.
A lot of people died that probably shouldn’t have.”
So ten years on, I will of course remember those heartbreaking scenes of a city washed away when Katrina burst the levees protecting New Orleans, leaving more than a thousand dead.
But I will also remember the pain this city and country inflicted on itself.
If you travel to New Orleans 9th Ward – a place tourists seldom venture – you can’t help but wonder whether those who were abandoned then are still forgotten now.