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Katrina . . . Eyewitness to the collapse of civilization – Part One

Katrina . . . Eyewitness to the collapse of civilization – Part One


Whenever I speak to young people, I stress to them that any time in your life can turn out to be of incredible importance many years later.  Always do your best at whatever you do . . . and remember the lessons learned from those tasks, no matter how menial they seem. Such was the case, with a side project I was assigned in 1974.  I was preparing maps that 32 years later would become a horrific reality.

The only thing that can begin to describe my first view of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is Hiroshima after a nuclear bomb was dropped . . .  except the devastation in New Orleans was worse.  A 20 mile wide swath of East New Orleans was leveled, except for the skeletons of steel buildings.  I still have nightmares from time to time . . . thinking that I am still there.

Preparing the maps of a future catastrophe

Upon returning from designing a pedestrian community in Sweden, I was immediately hired by Richard P. Browne Associates in Columbia, MD and assigned to its newtown planning team.  My first project was to plan a pedestrian path system in Peachtree City, GA.  No one thought it would be built, so as the low man on the totem pole in an office full of Ivy League graduates, I was assigned the task.   By the way, the PTC path system is now 95 miles long!

Later in the year, our VP for Planning, Ed Risse, pulled me off of the Peachtreee City project and asked me to help prepare maps for a study being done by two other divisions for the firm.  The engineers and environmental planners had a contract with the State of Louisiana and the US Army Corps of Engineers to prepare a report that examined the probable impact of various size hurricanes directly striking New Orleans at various angles.

Drawing maps that showed how far flooding would extend into Louisiana for Category 1-5 hurricanes seemed demeaning for a young architect, but I decided to at least ask questions to the senior professionals as I was coloring away on topographic maps.  It seemed preposterous that the lower third of Louisiana and most of the City of New Orleans could be flooded by a major hurricane.

new_orleans_elevationsThe experts told me that most of New Orleans was under sea level and the only thing that kept it from returning to being a swamp was a massive levee, which surrounded the city.  In recent years the Corp of Engineers had built canals from the Mississippi and the ocean to the industrial area within the levees. A series of locks (gates) and massive pumps kept these canals from re-filling the city with water.  The experts in our firm felt it was unlikely that high winds or a tidal surge could do much damage, 40 miles inland from open sea, but if a major hurricane struck from the south, it could push water up the canals and over the levees.

Actually,  there was severe wind and tidal surge damage in East New Orleans during Katrina, even though the storm had been down-graded to a Category Three hurricane.  Part Two will explain why the hurricane did more damage than was assumed was possible. 

Even after the explanation from the “experts,” these maps still seemed to be as relevant as a map of glaciers in the next ice age.  I couldn’t imagine that the US Army Corps of Engineers or the State of Louisiana would be associated with anything that would endanger such an important city as New Orleans.

I have remained in contact with Ed Risse through the years.  In 2011, I asked him how the Louisiana State and Corps of Engineers officials reacted to the report.  He said that they didn’t take the warning about flooding seriously and generally ignored the report.  Louisiana did eventually upgrade its building code to require buildings to have structures, which resisted the high winds and water pressure of major hurricanes.  At least, THEY THOUGHT, standards had been adopted, which would prevent the destruction of buildings.

An anticipated “Gold Rush” and ethnic cleansing parties

katrina1During the last week of August 2005, a wave of giddy excitement swept through those members of the real estate development community in the Southeast, who were “politically connected” with the Bush Administration.   Once it was clear that a minor hurricane named Katrina had strengthened and was headed straight toward New Orleans, word was spread that those with political connections were about to get rich. 

According to these greedy developers, the Bush Administration planned to buy up the real estate for as little as possible in predominantly Black neighborhoods in New Orleans and then sell the land at Dollar General prices to developers in large tracts for construction of upper-middle class planned communities.  Keep in mind that this is BEFORE the hurricane struck.

Several former clients telephoned me to confirm that I indeed had a background in planned communities.  They wanted to know how soon I could go down to New Orleans to start planning their “tract.”    They told me that we all were going to be rich.  It made me sick to my stomach.  These self-styled capitalists had exactly the same attitude as the Georgia planters before Indian Removal opened up vast territories of cheap land.  No thought at all was given to the misery, injuries and deaths that were about to strike the people on the Gulf.

At the same time, photocopied flyers were taped to downtown store windows in Jasper, GA where I lived and other cities in the lily-white suburbs on the northern edge of Metro Atlanta, inviting the public to “Ethnic Cleansing” parties . . . barbecues and picnics at the rural estates of local Boss Hoggs.  Most flyers advertised that attendees would be told about the golden opportunities about to available in the redevelopment of New Orleans.  These flyers were taken down by August 31, when it was found out that Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi had been also devastated by the hurricane.  A lot of wealthy white southerners had beach houses there.

The pent up anger of hearing and seeing these abominations, made me do something very rash. My sister had lived in New Orleans for 15 years, but had recently moved.  I loved visiting New Orleans, except in the summer. Outraged, I decided to drop the income-producing work I was doing and volunteered to help out with the recovery efforts.  I have a lot of experience with survival in the wilderness and thought that would be useful skills I could teach to the hurricane survivors . . .  like a simple means of distilling potable water with household items.   In fact, in August of 1971, two fraternity brothers and I were shipwrecked castaways on an island in the Atlantic with no potable water, because of a hurricane.  We had to live off the land for two weeks, until rescued by a fisherman.

Initially, I was supposed to be part of a team of Native American volunteers to help with the initial recovery of the Houma People near the mouth of the Mississippi River.  However, the road system in Terrebonne Parish was so devastated by the hurricane that we was never even allowed to travel down there. I then joined the Recovery and Reconstruction Program sponsored by the American Institute of Architects.  I was assigned to the Bywater District, which is between the Mississippi and the Ninth Ward.

Unless you were also there, it is impossible to describe what it is like to see a major American city destroyed and then see inept government and civic leadership allow civilization to collapse.  What if we had a national disaster, such as from a massive nuclear attack or plague?  Even six months later, most of New Orleans had no garbage pickup, no drinking water, no electrical power, no working traffic lights, no sewerage and very few inhabitants.  The people seemed to have no survival skills.  They dumped their excrement on the edges of roads.   Vast mounds of garbage built up in the sections of the city where people still lived.  The garbage filled the parking lots of apartment buildings and commercial buildings. Meanwhile, in Iraq the US Armed Forces were rebuilding entire cities and installing modern utilities.  The excuse was that it would be “Marxist” to help out the millions of suffering American citizens on the Gulf Coast.

In late February 2006, I saw one convenience store on the less affluent end of St. Charles Avenue in which every square foot of paving was covered in garbage.   Navy SEABEES and Army Engineers could have been sent in with bulldozers and dump trucks to remove the heaps of garbage festering in New Orleans , but our national government was either paralyzed or else intentionally wanted New Orleans to die.


On my second trip to New Orleans in February 2006, I saw thousands of unused FEMA trailers crowded into parking lots near Interstate 10, while those who tried to survive in New Orleans were struggling to live in the ruins of homes and apartments without running water or sewage.  Most of the people in the city had no way to buy tents, even if they had the money.   All the department stores were closed. 

The explanation given me at the time was that there were no trucks available to haul the trailers to cleared lands, where water and sewage could be provided.  YET, when I studied the damage on the east side of Lake Ponchartrain in all white, upper middle class neighborhoods, each household had been provided a trailer, a portable generator and a portable  toilet by FEMA.    Perhaps it is just as well.  New Orleans residents, who lived in the mobile homes are now coming down with strange cancers and auto-immune diseases from the illegal, toxic chemicals that were used in their fabrication. 


Louisiana building inspectors were stunned that reinforced concrete buildings, designed by structural engineers to survive a tornado or Category Five hurricane, were turned into rubble. You will see photos in the second part of this series of several pulverized concrete structures. My most useful project was an investigation of these buildings.  I eventually figured out that a wall of water 28 feet high had passed through the channel between Lake Ponchartrain and Lake Borgne.  This tsunami contained numerous maelstroms or water tornadoes.  No building code contains provisions for resisting such horrific stresses on a structure.  It was if giant hands had grabbed the buildings and twisted them like bottle caps.  In Part Two, you will see those modern buildings in ruins.

The politics behind the scenes

I have no way of knowing if, in fact, there really were people in the Bush Administration, who planned to kill the old New Orleans and then treat the depopulated metropolis like newly acquired Injun lands.   What I can say is that the initial response of the federal government was so inept as to be criminal.  At the very moment that eastern New Orleans was being destroyed and hundreds of people were dying,  the senior staff of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was dining at an exclusive restaurant in Baton Rouge.  After the hurricane had passed, the brave men and women of our armed forces begged to be dispatched to New Orleans to rescue people.  In particular, the US Coast Guard,  Navy SEABEES and SEALS, plus the Special Forces teams of the US Army had the equipment and training to go into the flooded areas and rescue people before they died.   They were held back until it was too late for most victims.

The Bush Administration tried to blame the state and municipal governments for the disaster in order to cover up the incompetence of its executive branch.  At the time, both state and local governments were controlled by Democrats.  Party politics entered the fray.   The Democrats then refused to cooperate with the Bush Administration for several months less Republicans get the credit for the restoration.  As a result, very little was done, except reconstruction of the dykes and canals, for over six months.  Yet, the truth was that both the state and federal governments had rejected the findings of that report 32 years earlier. Both political parties had held power during the 32 years when nothing was done.  All levels of government and both major political parties were to blame.

Before our eyes, civilization disintegrated for over two years at the mouth of the Mississippi River.


PART TWO contains photographs of Katrina’s damage that the national media never showed you.  Many people will find these photographs disturbing.  While network journalists stayed in a luxury hotel in the French Quarter and rented helicopters to shoot sanitized videos from the air, I stayed in a tent on the beach at Lake Pontchartrain and worked at ground level . . . seeing and smelling firsthand the horrors of mass deaths that can never be forgotten. 

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.

1 Comment


    Hey Richard,
    During the time Katrina was moving towards and right after it hit a very good friend of mine was on active duty at Fort Mac in Atlanta. His job for the few days leading up to land fall was to get readiness reports together and contact the units that may be called to go into New Orleans. About 100,000 possible troops from all over the U.S. After the storm cleared he said he was waiting on the call from Washington to set the US army in motion to help rescue the people of Louisiana. The call never came. To this day he still says he is waiting.
    Thanks for helping to get the story out there.


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