Life in the Fishbowl: Is New Orleans Storm Ready?

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NEW ORLEANS -- Nine years ago, Katrina roared in the Gulf of Mexico as a Category 5 hurricane, preparing to tear through the nation's Gulf coast.

New Orleans bore the brunt and nearly a decade later it's still fighting its way back.

Swimming a Life Skill

Monique Voitier loves teaching people how to swim. She offers lessons at her home in a suburb of New Orleans and teaches for free in the city to those who can't afford it.

The images we all remember of bodies floating in the flooded city are her inspiration.

"Half of the bodies they found were from drowning because a lot of people did not know how to swim." Voitier said.

When Katrina flooded the city, Voitier, her sister and parents lost everything.

"As much as it took everything away it gave me a whole new start," she said.

And a new purpose.

"The parents don't want their kids to drown or they're just so afraid because so many people have drowned around them that they instill that fear," she explained.

"I think it's important for everybody here to swim.  I mean, [we live in a] fishbowl," she said with a chuckle.

Life in the Fishbowl

"No matter where you go you're going to find water, whether it's the Mississippi River, the massive Lake Pontchartrain to our north, the open water of the Gulf to our south, we are surrounded by water," retired Air Force officer Rene Poche said.

Poche was born and raised in New Orleans and started working for the Army Corps of Engineers just as the recovery began.

When Katrina hit, New Orleans was operating with a partial levee system at best, he said. Improvements were on the books, but many were left unfinished, awaiting federal funding.

Now for the past nine years, the Army Corps of Engineers has worked full time fortifying the city. Levees, or flood walls, have been reinforced or added to the city's 133-mile perimeter, not to mention the 350-mile network of interior flood barriers.

The work is 99 percent complete and expected to be finished by the end of 2016.

So the big question, after all this work, and $14.5 billion tax dollars, is New Orleans storm ready?

"The system would be challenged at a Katrina-type storm," Poche' said. "But it would perform as designed. There may be some interior flooding; again it's speculation as to what may happen inside the system."

Visible Scars

For tourists, the city is as good as new, maybe even better.

The famous French Quarter is vibrant and once again a top travel destination. The New Orleans Saints Super Dome, a shelter for refugees after the storm, is now restored as a crown jewel to the city's skyline.

There are more hotel rooms and nearly two times the number of restaurants than before the storm.

However, look closer past the tourist hubs and scars are still very visible.

In the Lower Ninth Ward a community center tells the story. A map painted on the wall shows where residents retreated and offers an accounting of the many who never came back.

"The water was, like I said, anywhere between 25 and 30 foot high," Steven Robinson, a Lower 9th Ward resident, said.

He estimates at least 50 people from his neighborhood stayed away, their decaying houses all boarded up.

"When we decided to come back here it was devastating for my wife and for me," he said. "We had just got through renovating our home, spent right at a $100,000 in renovations, and four months later here comes Katrina. It wiped us out."

Abandoned Lots for Sale

The overgrown lots, some barely mowed in nearly a decade, could soon be occupied again. State lawmakers passed a plan to let local residents buy abandoned lots for $100.

It's now before Louisiana voters.

Meanwhile, volunteers from across the globe still come to help people rebuild.

Robinson lists people from half a dozen countries who've worked to rebuild his father's house. It's been a long road after he fell victim to contract fraud after the storm.

"Things could have been done a lot differently," Robinson said.

Roads still need to be repaired. Restaurants and stores that once dotted the community never came back, he said.

Before the storm 25 churches served the community. Now many are lifeless, left to the elements, abandoned by their congregations.

A Resilient People

Gov. Bobby Jindal inherited Katrina's mess.

"How confident are you, nearly a decade since Katrina hit New Orleans, that the city is prepared to weather the next storm?" CBN News asked him.

"The hurricane floodwalls, the levees, the protection is better than it's been ever before," he saud. "You can never build a wall that's going to keep out the water and hurricanes forever."

Gov. Jindal talks more below about how ready the levees are.

Once the levees and flood walls are complete, Army engineers will focus on coastal restoration, another expensive project to prevent flooding.

"Our people are resilient and they keep bouncing back storm after storm," Jindal said.

People who returned consider each other family.

"I love this city, I love everything about it and I think the people are so unique and great," Voitier said with a smile. "It's always nice to clean out your closet and start again."

"There's no place like New Orleans for me," Robinson said. "I have a lot of friends who say, 'Why did I come back? What do you see down there? There's nothing down there.' Yes, it is something down there, I'm down here. That's what makes the difference."

In Louisiana, some say hurricanes are the cost of living in paradise.

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Jennifer Wishon

Jennifer Wishon

CBN News White House Correspondent

Jennifer Wishon is the White House correspondent for CBN News based in the network’s Washington, D.C. Bureau.  Before taking over the White House beat, Jennifer covered Capitol Hill and other national news, from the economy to the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Follow Jennifer on Twitter @JenniferWishon and "like" her at Facebook.com/JennWishon.