The View From Flood Street

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Mae Hagan walked out to Flood Street—a moonscape of cracked mud, debris and ghostly cars that drifted in on the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina—slipped the surgical mask off her face and turned back to look at her devastated home. "It's even worse in there than I thought it would be, and I can't find any pictures or memories," said Hagan, 40. "But I'm still going to rebuild. I was born and raised here. I ain't leavin'."

"Here" is New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, east of the French Quarter across the Industrial Canal. The Ninth was the community worst ravaged by the floods as high as rooftops that tore through the city's levees on August 29. It took six weeks for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to pump the fetid water out of the area, and Ninth Ward residents were finally allowed back into their neighborhoods Wednesday morning for temporary "look-and-leave" visits. But even as they resigned themselves to the fact that their homes, as they are now, are lost to them, most, like Hagan, dug in their heels on the controversial subject of whether the vulnerable, low-lying Ninth—surrounded by canals and the Mississippi River—should be allowed to rise from Katrina's muck. "How many times have they rebuilt Florida after something like this?" asked Hagan, a housekeeper for the nearby Jefferson Barracks that house the National Guard. "They're just gonna have to improve those levees, because we're stayin'."

What angers the Ninth Ward's more than 20,000 residents most, said Hagan's sister-in-law, Jeanette Hagan, is that while a third of the community does live below the poverty line, a myth has grown since Katrina that it "is full of nothing but drug-dealing, non-working poor black criminals, and so the place would be better off just getting bulldozed. Most of the people around here are hard-working middle-class people and homeowners." That same day members of New Orleans' City Council announced they would be seeking help from national development and realtor organizations to save the Ninth from the wrecking ball—or at least to make sure its homeowners get top-dollar compensation for their lost properties.

John Washington, 40, a resident of the Ninth's Holy Cross section who owns a print shop in downtown New Orleans, noted that some of the Crescent City's most prized historical homes and buildings sit in the Lower Ninth Ward. But Washington said he also knows that federal financial pressure may force local officials to abandon the revival of the ward, which also had to rebuild after a major hurricane four decades ago. "I worry that there are a lot of people in Washington who look at not rebuilding the Ninth Ward as some kind of good faith deposit by our government here," said Washington. "You know, it would be like the Louisiana politicians saying to them, 'See, you can trust us with all that money you're gonna be pouring in here."

Though New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has yet to announce the Ninth Ward's fate, the Bush Administration, including Housing Secretary Alphonso Jackson, has advised him that rebuilding it may be irresponsible in terms of both money and lives when the next catastrophe hits. And while Nagin did press for residents to be allowed back in to take a look at their homes this week—and has been vocally supportive of their property rights—he said little to encourage hope that the community has a future.

Even some residents feel it's time to let the Ninth die peacefully. Across Flood Street from Hagan's home, Dahlre Brown, 42, and her husband, Edward Brooks, 36, warily entered their house after driving in from Brookhaven, Miss., where they plan to settle permanently now. "The fact is," said Brown, watching Salvation Army and EPA vans cruise the block, "this is a crime-ridden area and not an especially good place to raise kids. Over in Brookhaven they've got a 15-mph speed limit for school zones. Here they'll run your kids over." Brown points inside her house, where "the mold covers so much it looks like we wallpapered it that way. Uh-uh, it won't be hard for me to leave this." As she got back into her rented car and drove away, it was evident that while the Ninth Ward may finally be dry, it may still get washed away—or bulldozed—for good.