Friday, Aug. 27, 2010

New Orleans' Lower Ninth: Katrina's Forgotten Victim?

It never crossed Corey Robinson's mind to leave New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. Not even after Hurricane Katrina breached the city's levees in 2005, filling his home and every other on his street — Flood Street, it so happens — with fetid water that wallpapered every room with mold and wrecked the plumbing. A construction contractor, Robinson, 30, was determined to rebuild and keep his wife and four children in the community that he calls "our home, our habitat, our roots." "You just don't walk away from that," he says as he stands outside his rebuilt, newly painted and beautifully detailed historic shotgun house.

But Robinson is one of the Lower Ninth Ward's exceptions. Across Flood Street stand other lovely but abandoned and boarded-up houses, some still bearing the ominous X's on their facades that disaster officials used to indicate they were uninhabitable. On a blighted property next door, grass and weeds have grown taller than August corn. "We're giving the Lower Ninth another chance," says Robinson. "But you don't see too many of your neighbors anymore. It hurts a lot."

Five years after Katrina, the Lower Ninth remains a world of hurt. Predominantly African-American and working class, it was the district hardest hit by a storm whose biblical floods, it's now agreed, resulted largely from negligence on the part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that built and was supposed to maintain the surrounding levees. And yet, post-Katrina, the once thriving community is also the hardest hit by seeming government indifference. Only a fifth of the Lower Ninth's 20,000 residents have returned to live since 2005, in no small part because of inadequate reconstruction funding compared to aid that homeowners in other New Orleans neighborhoods have received, and because of the slow pace of long-promised infrastructure and other community development projects.

That casts a long shadow over any celebration of the Big Easy's revival. Even though New Orleans landmarks like the French Quarter may be humming again, Lower Ninth stalwarts insist that the city's comeback has to be measured by how fully their two-square-mile (3.3 sq km) pocket returns to life. "Until the Lower Ninth Ward is back on its feet, the New Orleans recovery has failed," says Patricia Jones, a resident and director of the Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association (NENA), a nonprofit working to restore the area.

To some, it's a miracle that the Lower Ninth, home to famous New Orleans musicians like Fats Domino, is still making any noise at all. Katrina, possibly the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, wrecked the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida, caused almost $100 billion in damage and killed 1,800 people. But one of its most enduring images is the Lower Ninth submerged by floodwaters — and the moonscape that was left when they finally subsided. Government officials strongly hinted that the community should not be rebuilt. The costs seemed too daunting and, just as important, "Lower" was an all too apt description of the area's below-sea-level geography — a tract surrounded by the Mississippi River, the Industrial Canal and Lake Borgne — making it vulnerable to future deluges.

But new and stronger levees are nearing completion. And a determined core of residents argues that abandoning the Lower Ninth would be an even bigger betrayal of blue-collar New Orleans than the one suffered at the hands of the Army Corps and then the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), whose notorious dysfunction exacerbated the catastrophe. "You get the feeling they're just waiting for all us so-called poor people to leave so they can turn the place into a resort area or something," says resident Henry Holmes, 76, who owns a popular local restaurant, Holmes One Stop. "But you can't have New Orleans without the Lower Ninth Ward. The neighborhood's going to come back eventually."

Advocates say the neighborhood isn't getting its proper share of resources to pull that off. Groups like the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center estimate that homeowners in predominantly black communities like the Lower Ninth have received substantially lower house-reconstruction grants from local, state and federal agencies than white Katrina victims have, even though it usually costs as much to rebuild a house in the Lower Ninth as it does in more upscale districts. Officials "are essentially telling these people to make bricks without straw," says Jones. At the same time, she argues, it's taking an unusually long time to get neighborhood nexuses like parks, schools and community centers re-established. The city's FEMA-funded replacement of one of the area's larger recreation centers is still in just the design phase more than a year after the project started, and the Lower Ninth has only one operating school.

Government officials deny any bias against the Lower Ninth, though they acknowledge things have moved more slowly than they'd hoped. Community leaders like Jones are hoping to expedite recovery under New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who in May replaced the controversial Ray Nagin, who'd been mayor since 2002 and whose administration was widely considered to be as feckless as FEMA.

Despite the desolate image the Lower Ninth has been saddled with since Katrina, there is certainly potential for rebirth. Its residents, contrary to media depiction, were not and are not just a destitute underclass; many are educated and middle class. The community is also home to some of the city's more prized historical homes and sites, which still draw tourist buses — although locals say they're tired of visitors ogling the post-Katrina blight as if it were part of the tour. Efforts like the one being led by actor Brad Pitt with Global Green and the Home Depot Foundation also prove the Lower Ninth can be fertile ground for solar-powered and other green housing.

All of which keeps Lower Ninthers like Robinson, whose family lived temporarily in Houston and Mississippi before returning, committed to their home. One of the last and hardest tasks of his $70,000 house reconstruction was removing the large red X that FEMA spray-painted by his front door after the 2005 storm. "I had to prime and paint, prime and paint I don't know how many times to get rid of that thing," he says. It will take that kind of sheer determination to save the Lower Ninth — and the kind of real help it deserved more of these past five years.