New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward was devastated in Katrina. It’s coming back, slowly. What does this slow recovery teach us about resilience?
The closest analogy to what happened in the Lower Ninth, Blum says, is a volcanic eruption on the order of Mount St. Helens. The next closest is the tsunami that hit Japan’s northeast coast a year ago. This is what distinguishes the Lower Ninth from the most derelict neighborhoods in cities like Detroit and Cleveland. Katrina was not merely destructive; it brought about a “catastrophic reimagining of the landscape.” As in Japan, a surge of water destroyed most human structures. In much of the neighborhood, nothing remained — neither man, plants nor animals. The ecological term for this is simplification. “In 2007, before rebuilding started, when you went down there, it was like going to an agricultural field,” Blum says. “Literally it was wiped clean.”
What happened over the intervening years has made the Lower Ninth one of the richest ecological case studies in the world. Ecologists hypothesize that, after a catastrophic event, human communities and ecological communities return at the same rate. But this theory has not been tested in real time. Blum is among a coalition of scientists — ecologists, ornithologists, botanists, geographers and sociologists — that is studying the Lower Ninth’s recovery to learn how man, and the environment, will cope with future catastrophes.