The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Some Neighborhoods Rebuild, But Part of Lower 9th Remains Off-limits

by Jessica Azulay

After traveling hundreds of miles to see their flood-ravaged homes, some New Orleans residents found themselves locked out of their neighborhood, which they say has been maligned and targeted by elites with ulterior motives.

Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans; Oct. 17, 2005 – As residents of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward trickled into their neighborhood this week at what they thought was the behest of city authorities, the National Guard set up checkpoints along Claiborne Avenue and blocked many from reaching their homes on the northern side of the heavily damaged area.

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Frustrated residents – many who had traveled hours last week to finally see what had become of their homes – milled from blocked intersection to blocked intersection, pleading with soldiers to let them through. For the most part, the guards stood their ground, telling angry flood survivors that the area was still too dangerous to enter.

But for many who waited over a month to see if there is anything of their former lives to salvage, to show insurance adjusters proof of damage, or simply to find closure so they can begin to rebuild their lives, the roadblocks symbolized just one more insult from a city they increasingly feel is trying to push them out.

checkpoint

[PHOTO: National Guard soldiers block streets and keep residents out of the northern part of the Lower Ninth Ward. © The NewStandard 2005.]

"I want somebody to explain to me, Mr. Mayor, or somebody who’s in control, what’s really going on," said Doretha Broomfield, a Lower Ninth Ward resident who drove from Cheneyville, Louisiana to inspect her home. "Why can’t we go see our property? I would love to have some closure… I know there’s nothing there, but I just want to stand there and look."

Residents expressed deep skepticism, fueled by suspicion that the government was using Katrina’s devastation to obliterate this historic neighborhood in the interest of industry.

Addressing Mayor C. Ray Nagin, she said: "I’ve been in that house at 2607 Tennessee [for] 38 years, Mr. Mayor, 38 years, I raised my kids in that house; my memories are there. I can’t go inside the building because it’s no longer there. I can’t collect memorabilia. There’s nothing there for me, but I do want to go in there. It’s my right. It’s my land."

soldier says no

[PHOTO: A soldier tells a Lower Ninth Ward resident that he cannot enter the area where his house is. © The NewStandard 2005.]

Ethel Mitchell, who drove 18 hours from North Carolina in order to show her flood-insurance adjuster her house, was also incensed. "I think it’s ridiculous that they announce all over the country that the Lower Ninth Ward is going to be open for inspection and then you come all these many miles and they won’t let you back in there just to view your house," she said. "It’s no different… than it is out here and they claim that it’s all toxic back there," she continued, pointing first to the areas that were open to traffic and then down the street past the National Guard checkpoint.

The rules and the reasons for denying people passage beyond Claiborne varied depending on which checkpoint soldiers were asked. Most were allowing insurance inspectors, contractors and government workers past the checkpoints, but denying residents and press.

It is this investment in the community by its own occupants, and resistance against projects like the Army Corps of Engineers’ Canal Expansion project, that residents believe makes it a target for mass removal.

Some soldiers told residents the area was toxic. Others said people could not enter because there was too much unstable debris. Still others said that the search for bodies had not concluded and that authorities did not want people finding the dead in their homes.

But residents expressed deep skepticism, fueled by suspicion that the government was using Katrina’s devastation to obliterate this historic neighborhood in the interest of industry.

"They are going to figure out a way how to get all these people out this area to open up that canal and build a bigger port in there, and this is their opportunity for them to do that," said Anthony Jones, Mitchell’s bother. "This is going to be an industry area; they’ve been trying [to make it so] for years."

Most Lower Ninth Ward residents who spoke to The NewStandard said they believed the levees had been intentionally destroyed – either by dynamite, barges or neglect – in order to divert flood waters from richer neighborhoods. Decades of hostility from the rest of the city and the memory that the government blew up a levee in 1927 to save parts of New Orleans at the expense of poorer areas contribute to the belief.

Lower Ninth Ward houses

[PHOTO: A street in the area of the Lower Ninth Ward that residents were allowed to enter. © The NewStandard 2005.]

Residents were also quick to counter what they saw as the unscrupulous media portrayal of their neighborhood as a high-crime, poverty-stricken area.

Tanya Harris, an organizer with national low-income advocacy group ACORN, whose house sat out of reach beyond the checkpoints, emphasized that her neighborhood was known for its high number of grassroots and civic organizations organizing to improve life for residents of the area.

The Lower Ninth Ward is also known as the seat of black home ownership in the area, with a 59 percent owner-occupancy rate. That rate far outstrips the owner-occupancy rate of Orleans Parish as a whole, which stands at just over 46 percent.

It is this investment in the community by its own occupants, and resistance against projects like the Army Corps of Engineers’ Canal Expansion project, that residents believe makes it a target for mass removal.

Destroyed apartments

[PHOTO: An apartment complex in the area of the Lower Ninth Ward that was accessible to residents. © The NewStandard 2005.]

"It’s bullshit; it’s double talk," said Harris of the excuses she’d heard all day from soldiers. She pointed out that the streets in the unrestricted area were not completely cleared of debris either and pointed down the apparently equally navigable streets visible on the other side of the checkpoints.

She also expressed doubt that the EPA had declared the area was toxic, as many of the soldiers claimed. Later, Colonel Jerry Sneed, who was on sight representing the Louisiana Department of Homeland Security, told The NewStandard that the EPA had told him it was safe for people to be there.

In fact, the EPA has said little about much of New Orleans and the actual toxicity levels in the Lower Ninth Ward are not yet fully known. But to Harris, Sneed’s statement confirmed her suspicions that soldiers were lying in order to keep her away from her home. Harris is adamant the she and others will live in their neighborhoods and take up their various struggles again.

"We had started so many different projects to boost the Lower Ninth," she said. "It’s like we had one step forward and this has brought us ten steps back, and it’s like, What do we do now?"

She continued: "I’m not prepared to give up; I’m not prepared to leave. People will return – just like they did before, they will return, I believe that wholeheartedly. I know I’m coming back, my family’s coming back. There’s no way that we’re going to leave the Lower Ninth."

In the end, some residents were able to convince police or other official personnel to drive them into the area to see their homes, but the lucky ones were a minority. Most languished in frustration.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Jessica Azulay is a staff journalist.

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