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Scene from Louisiana: Waiting to close floodgates in Ninth Ward

August 28, 2012|By Matthew Teague
  • With Hurricane Isaac bearing down on New Orleans, many abandoned houses in the Lower Ninth Ward still bear marks of search-and-rescue crews from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, seven years ago.
With Hurricane Isaac bearing down on New Orleans, many abandoned houses… (Mira Oberman / AFP/Getty…)

NEW ORLEANS -- Tuesday afternoon, a man named Steve sat in a cement tower, holding the fate of New Orleans' Ninth Ward in his hand. In particular he held a radio, waiting for word to close the Seabrook structure, a massive set of floodgates in the Lake Pontchartrain levee.

"It's tricky," said Steve Pantorno of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

White-capped waves -- the earliest signs of Hurricane Isaac -- poured in from the lake as he watched. But gates throughout the region had to be closed in proper order, he said, ending with Seabrook.

PHOTOS: Bracing for Isaac

Last time -- and people here know what "last time" means -- the levee blew out and famously flooded the Ninth Ward. After Katrina, the corps built the Seabrook Floodgate Structure to shore up and control the levee where the lake flows into the Industrial Canal. Its mighty steel gate swings shut and, in theory, should protect the city against a storm surge.

In early afternoon word came, for the first time: Shut the door.

The levee's collapse in 2005 was only half the reason people died in the Ninth Ward during Katrina. The other half was the fact that so many people in the neighborhood had decided to stay during the storm -- they hadn't gotten word of its imminent arrival, or its severity.

This time, things have changed.

During the past seven years, technology and awareness have proliferated throughout the area. Even before Hurricane Isaac had grown to hurricane strength, residents packed their belongings, climbed into their vehicles and headed out to Texas, or Alabama, or Tennessee. The Lower Ninth Ward -- the worst-hit during Katrina -- stood almost utterly empty Tuesday evening.

Like the last man in an abandoned fortress, Billy Saffrhan surveyed the levees that surround his home. It's a new place, built since Katrina, and even though his family headed to Dallas, he stayed behind.

"Just watching for looters," he said. "And really I don't think it's going to be that bad a storm."

He petted his wire-haired terrier. "This here is Lucky," he said.

"We're gonna be all right."

A few blocks away was a series of stylized houses that look like traditional New Orleans homes as re-imagined by Dr. Seuss. People here call them BradPittHouses, all one word. In the back yard of a BradPittHouse on Tennessee Street, Sid William and Lisa Bourgeois strapped down their barbecue grill and prepared to ride out the storm.

"We're about to party through this thing," William said, doing a quick boogie. The charity founded and backed by the actor -- a charity called Make It Right -- built the homes to higher standard than the Ninth Ward's typical wood-frame shotgun house. William pointed out the house's cement pillars, rainwater tank and storm windows. "All thanks to Mr. Brad Pitt."

Another quick shimmy. "We‘re going to grill everything from the freezer and enjoy ourselves," he said. "We have a good time on Tennessee Street."

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nation@latimes.com

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