Some New Orleans residents and city officials are pushing back against tour operators who bus out-of-towners into the city's Lower 9th Ward, where Hurricane Katrina unleashed a wall of water when the levees failed that pushed homes off foundations and stranded residents on rooftops.
About 9 million people visit New Orleans each year, mostly to see its stately homes along oak-lined avenues, dine at its renowned restaurants and take in the jazz and ribaldry of Bourbon Street. But Katrina's devastation in August 2005 unleashed an unexpected cottage tourism industry, drawing a daily parade of rubbernecking tourists for a close-up look at the city's hard-hit Lower 9th Ward.
Worried that a flood of tour buses and vans would interfere with clean-up efforts, the City Council approved an ordinance in 2006 banning them from crossing the prominent Industrial Canal entering the neighborhood that received Katrina's fury. Now, tour operators are crying foul, claiming that the ordinance had been thinly enforced until recently.
Disasters That Ruined Whole Towns
Hurricane Katrina Victims Outraged at Bus Tours Through Ravaged 9th Ward in New Orleans
As we gear up for the height of the hurricane season (also a time when tornados, wildfires and floods are common), we're taking a look back at some of the worst natural disasters in recent memory and how they reshaped the affected regions. Entire towns have been wiped off the map, and you'll be as shocked as we were to see the before and after shots of areas that have been hardest-hit by storms and other natural phenomena.
When: April 27, 2011
Cost of damage: $2.2 billion
The powerful EF4 tornado that hit the quiet town of Tuscaloosa, Ala., was one of 358 that tore across the Midwest from April 25-28 in 2011 -- the largest tornado outbreak in U.S. history. The rows of suburban houses that you see here were suddenly blown away.
When: May 22, 2011
Cost of damage: $2.8 billion
The quaint town of Joplin was nearly wiped off the map when an EF5 tornado struck. About 2,000 buildings were destroyed in the storm, which reached sustained winds of over 200 mph. It beat the Tuscaloosa tornado to become the costliest twister in U.S. history.
The tornado grew to a width of over 1 mile as it made its way through the southern part of Joplin.
This Joplin neighborhood was rendered unrecognizable after the tornado hit.
But it returned to some semblance of normalcy a year later, after ongoing recovery efforts to rebuild.
When: December 2010-January 2011
Cost of damage: $30+ billion
Brisbane, the capitol city of Queensland in Australia, was one of the most affected areas in a massive flood that began in December 2010. Half of Queensland, which is more than 715,000 square miles large, was affected.
At least 70 towns and over 200,000 people were affected by the rising waters. In Brisbane, residents of 2,100 streets were ordered to evacuate. The flood waters peaked at 14.6 feet, the 10th highest in the city's history.
Date: August 23-30, 2005
Cost of damage: $108 billion
The Superdome arena in New Orleans became one of the most well-known symbols of the storm's devastation when Hurricane Katrina rolled through the area. Katrina was the most destructive hurricane in U.S. history and the deadliest since 1928. The Category 3 hurricane caused New Orleans' levee system to fail, sending floodwater into 80 percent of the city. This is the Superdome before the storm.
After Katrina, the Superdome was used to house 26,000 people who were unable to evacuate the city before the storm. The National Guard delivered truckloads of food and water for the evacuees. After the storm, it took $185 million to repair and refurbish the stadium, which was reopened in 2006 in time for the New Orleans Saints' opening game of the season.
New Orleans was a majestic city before Katrina struck.
But much of the city became submerged after its levees crumbled under Katrina's force.
When: January 12, 2010
Cost of Damage: Estimated $14 billion
Casualties: 316,000 (Haiti government estimate)
The National Palace in Haiti's capitol of Port-au-Prince was a beautiful property where the Haitian president lived. But its beauty crumbled under a devastating magnitude-7.0 earthquake -- one of the deadliest in history. In addition to the horrific number of deaths, the earthquake injured 300,000 people, and 1 million people lost their homes.
The National Palace was reduced to rubble after the earthquake. The Haitian government estimated that the quake damaged 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial buildings. Even six months after the earthquake, as much as 98 percent of the rubble remained uncleared. By May 2010, enough money had been raised worldwide to give each displaced family $37,000.
In January 2012, it was reported that 500,000 Haitians still remained homeless.
When: March 11, 2011
Cost of damage: $235 billion (World Bank estimate)
Casualties: 15,861 confirmed by Japan's National Police Agency
The Sendai region of Japan was almost wiped off the map when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake rocked the country. A nuclear reactor was crippled by the quake and went into meltdown, causing a radioactive catastrophe.
The National Police Agency reported that 129,225 buildings completely collapsed in the quake; 254,204 "half collapsed"; and 691,766 were partly damaged.
The city of Natori before the earthquake ...
... and after, nearly completely destroyed.
When: August 2011
Cost of damage: Estimated $15.6 billion
Casualties: At least 44
Bill Stinson's family ranch, a waterfront property in Nags Head, N.C., became an iconic image related to Hurricane Irene's destruction. The storm made nine landfalls, starting in the Caribbean and making its way up the East Coast to New York City. The flooding that Irene caused was widespread, leading it to become the sixth-costliest hurricane in U.S. history.
Stinson's home, which he shared with his wife, Sandra, and daughter, Erin, was completely blown away by Irene, leaving nothing behind but the staircase. The home had been in his family since 1963. Sandra had told North Carolina's Our State magazine in 2010: "God has really protected it [the home]. ... We have had so many storms, and really, inside, we've only had damage one time since Billy's family has owned it."
The town of Rodanthe before Irene's wrath ...
... and what remained after the storm.
When: September 2008
Cost of damage: Estimated $29.6 billion
Casualties: At least 195
After slamming into Cuba as a Category 4 hurricane, Ike moved along the Gulf of Mexico, devastating areas from the Louisiana coast all the way to Kenedy County, Texas, near Corpus Christi. Crystal Beach, Texas, was hit particularly hard. This is what the waterfront town looked like before the storm.
The town was devastated, with most coastline properties wiped away.
When: Feb. 22, 2011
Cost of damage: Estimated at around $23 billion
The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Christchurch was considered the finest renaissance-style building in New Zealand. But all that changed when a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck the region. Damage to Christchurch was extensive, primarily because another earthquake that had struck six months earlier had already weakened many of the city's structures. This is the cathedral before the earthquake ...
... and following the disaster. The two bell towers collapsed in the quake, and the building's dome was destabilized. The dome was eventually removed. It is yet to be determined whether the cathedral will be restored or demolished.
The historic Christchurch Cathedral was built in the second half of the 19th century, but the earthquake changed it considerably. ...
... as the spire and part of the tower of the church was destroyed in the quake. Work to demolish the building began in March 2012, and a temporary cathedral is being built.
When: June 26, 2012
Homes damaged: 347 houses
A fire sparked in the Waldo Canyon in Colorado Springs jumped firefighters' perimeter lines and quickly spread, devouring 347 homes. More than 9,000 residents were forced to evacuate.
The fire left several homes completely burnt to the ground.
They say a business that is bringing them and the city tourist dollars is being hurt.
"I can't afford to keep paying tickets," said David Lee Ducote, owner of Southern Style Tours.
As the Lower 9th Ward slowly rebuilds -- vacant lots still attest to where homes once stood -- visitor interest also has been piqued by housing built by actor Brad Pitt and his Make It Right foundation.
City Councilman Ernest Charbonnet, who represents the neighborhood, says residents complain that the tour vehicles are blocking streets and damaging the roads. They also are weary of being gawked at.
Charbonnet said city officials didn't enforce the ordinance unless someone filed a formal complaint, an infrequent occurrence as a daily parade of buses, vans and shuttles packed with camera-wielding tourists trouped by the Pitt houses and the home of rock 'n' roll star Fats Domino.
That changed in recent weeks when complaints prompted officials to stop and fine operators.
"We're fed up and tired of them coming through the neighborhood like we're some sideshow," said Vanessa Gueringer, a lifelong Lower 9th Ward resident.
"After all the suffering we have been through, we deserve more respect than this," she said. "We don't need those big buses coming through here tearing it up."
Lynn Wolken, a veteran guide who belongs to the Tour Guides Association of Greater New Orleans, said many fellow guides weren't aware of the ordinance or knew it existed but wasn't being enforced.
Yet she said no warning had been issued from the city's Taxicab Bureau, which regulates tour companies.
"A warning would have been nice," she said.
She noted that about 30 companies ply the neighborhood, charging tourists about $25 apiece.
Charbonnet said that he believes there's room for compromise. He plans to gather tour guides and residents together Friday to begin discussing possible changes to the ordinance, proposals such as limiting bus sizes and requiring a single route to protect streets and the privacy of the residents.
"I feel confident that we will come up with a plan that will work for everybody," he said.
For now, many tour companies have halted tours of the neighborhood.
Ducote said that his company still takes visitors elsewhere in the rebuilding city, including to the Musicians Village, a post-Katrina effort launched near the Lower 9th Ward by entertainers Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis.
Meanwhile, not all Lower 9th residents oppose the tour buses.
Some, like Sidney Williams, say they enjoy waving to tourists and selling homemade treats such as pralines, a popular New Orleans candy, as the buses wend through the neighborhood.
But the buses can be an inconvenience, some say.
"They just stop in the middle of the street, and you have to go around them," said Jadii Joseph, who lives in one of the Make It Right homes.
Wolken said that she doesn't need the Lower 9th to show evidence of 2005 destruction. Tour buses are permitted in other areas bouncing back from Katrina. "But everybody wants to see the Lower 9th Ward," she said. "It's the most popular."
Kelly Schulz, spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the Katrina tours kept the tour companies in business in the storm's aftermath when travel to the city plummeted.
"These tours are important," Schulz said. "People come to New Orleans from all over the world, and they want to see the Lower 9th Ward just like visitors to New York want to see the site of the World Trade Centers. It's human nature. It's curiosity. We certainly need to be respectful and not cause more suffering, but seeing these areas in person brings needed attention."
Of the 75 largest U.S. cities in the first quarter of 2012, Toledo recorded the highest rate for homeowner vacancies, at 5.6 percent. However, in three of the past four quarters listed by the Census Bureau, that rate has hovered between 3 and 3.6 percent, significantly bringing down the city’s 12 month average, and its overall ranking in this list. Regardless, the 3.8 percent 12 month average still ranks Toledo as the fifth highest in the country for homeowner vacancies alone.
It’s no secret that the Florida real estate market has seen better times — and the situation in Tampa appears to be getting worse. In May, RealtyTrac reported that foreclosure activity in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area rose by nearly 111 percent from May 2011, with one home in every 304 in foreclosure. The rental vacancy market has been following this downward trend, with the rental vacancy rate going up or remaining flat every quarter since the beginning of 2011.
Houston is home to the nation’s third-highest rental vacancy rate over the past 12 months, standing at 15.5 percent. The city hit a three-year high for rental vacancies in 2009, when the rate rose to 18.4 percent in the third quarter of that year, according to Census Bureau data. However, Houston’s homeowner vacancy rate has been recovering, dropping below the average for the 75 largest cities for the past three quarters to as low as 1.1 percent at the end of 2011.
Atlanta’s average homeowner vacancy rate is the third-highest among major U.S. cities, standing at 4.2 percent. Fortunately for Atlanta, the rate has been dropping since early 2011, when it stood at 5.4 percent. The trend for rental vacancies has been worse for Atlanta, however, rising from 9.4 percent in the third quarter of 2011 to 12.4 percent in the first quarter of 2012.
Over the past five years, the Las Vegas housing market has experienced one of the country’s most dramatic boom-and-bust cycles. The city continues to feel the pain. At the end of 2011, Las Vegas ranked second in the country for gross vacancy rates, at 16 percent, and currently has an unemployment rate of 11.8 percent.
In the past 12 months, Las Vegas’ rental vacancy rates have dropped from a high of 13.2 percent in the third quarter of 2011 to a low of 11 percent in the first quarter of 2012, the most recent number available. Although Las Vegas remains one of the most vacant U.S. cities, homeowner vacancies are a bright spot, dropping from 5.5 percent over the past year to 2.3 percent in the most recent quarter.
With a rental vacancy rate of 15.1 percent, Virginia's capital ranks fourth among all major U.S. cities for empty rentals over the past year, with the first quarter of 2012 showing a 19 percent rental vacancy rate. However, Richmond’s homeowner vacancy rate ranks only 27th among the country’s 75 largest metro areas, and stands just 0.2 percent higher than the average for large metro areas.
Detroit was one of the hardest hit cities in the recession, and with an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent as of May, it's little wonder that its 16.9 percent rental vacancy rate is the second highest in the country. Surprisingly, though, the homeowner vacancy rate remains below the 75 largest metro area's average of 2.18 percent. According to the Census Bureau, at the end of 2011, Detroit had a gross vacancy rate of 12.2 percent, a level the city has virtually maintained since 2006.
Memphis's proportion of vacant homes, both owned and rentals, puts it third overall, thanks to an average rental vacancy rate of 15 percent that is the fifth highest in the nation and the 3.1 percent homeowner vacancy rate that ranks 13th.
The good news is that Dayton's homeowner vacancy rate has been trending downward since its peak in the third quarter of 2011, when it stood at 6.5 percent.
However, even this improving number gives Dayton the distinction of having the highest average homeowner vacancy rate in the country, according to the Census Data. And Dayton’s average rental vacancy rate, at 11.3 percent, is higher than the 75 city average of 9.2 percent. The Census Bureau calculations put Dayton’s gross vacancy rate at 16.9 percent, more than 6 percent above the large city average, and the highest in the country.
The emptiest city in the United States is Orlando, Fla. The 12-month average for rental vacancies stands at a staggering 18.8 percent, while in the first quarter of 2012 this number was 22 percent, highest in the nation. Florida's third largest city also has an above-average homeowner vacancy rate, but this metric has been rising during the past two quarters, according to Census Bureau data.
Despite its housing woes, Orlando has been able to avoid the financial woes of other cities, such as Harrisburg, Pa., and San Bernardino and Stockton, Calif. According to Orlando’s most recent annual report, the city has more than $125 million of cash in its general fund and over $1.1 billion in total assets (including nearly an additional $300 million in cash and cash equivalents in other funds), compared with just under $600 million in total listed liabilities.