New Orleans; Feb. 21, 2006 – Nearly six months since Hurricane Katrinaâ€™s floodwaters rampaged through the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, the neighborhoodâ€™s profile is still shocking. Some homes are flattened into splinters, as if stepped on by a giant. Others are semi-intact, but transported by the water far from their foundations.
"My house is destroyed, and on the lot are two other houses â€“ one from three blocks down and one mystery house," said resident Diane Smith. "The houses are unrecognizable; you literally have to search for your house."
It is hard to imagine this area being inhabited again, but many Lower Ninth Ward residents are determined, despite obstacles imposed not only by natureâ€™s wrath, but by the government of the city they call home. For many, this was the only home they have known, and they cannot imagine themselves anywhere else.
Lower Ninth resident Kerwin LaFrance said he was "taken care of and welcomed everywhere" after the hurricane. But, he said, "there ainâ€™t no place like home. I wonâ€™t be satisfied until I come back here."
The landscape is blanketed in scrap wood, twisted metal, buckled shingle roofs, contorted chain-link fences and stray cinder blocks. Household debris, including stuffed animals, a piano, toilet seats and religious figurines serve as reminders of the people who once lived here.
Above it all looms the barge that breached the Industrial Canal levee. It still sits haphazardly where the receding floodwaters left it.
Residents are trapped in a Catch-22: reluctant to invest scarce time and money into rebuilding their homes, knowing the area might ultimately be condemned.
In spite of the colossal damage, many residents of the Lower Ninth value the neighborhood enough to save it. Many came from families that had been here for generations, with memories and social networks that could never be duplicated elsewhere in their lifetimes. In the face of proposals to turn the neighborhood into green space â€“ a park or golf course, as some rumors have it â€“ many residents are fighting to rebuild the area on their own and prove to the city that the Lower Ninth will rise again.
But they are up against a difficult deadline. According to a redevelopment plan released by the Bring New Orleans Back Commission in January, neighborhoods have to show repopulation viability, or else the city can use eminent-domain powers to buy out the whole area. According to the plan released on January 11, city officials will, by March 20, "complete identification of residents committed to return." For areas that do not have enough residents planning to come back, property acquisition is slated to begin on August 20
Other devastated areas including Gentilly, a low-income neighborhood northwest of the Lower Ninth, and Lakeview, a wealthier section near the cityâ€™s western boundary, face the same deadline. Residents have greeted the controversial plan with widespread anger and suspicion; even Mayor Ray Nagin expressed reservations about it. At public meetings and in interviews with The NewStandard, residents of the Lower Ninth Ward criticize the commission as stacked with business people who stand to gain from redeveloping the city to favor real-estate developers and the wealthy.
Many Lower Ninth Ward residents have never lived anywhere else and donâ€™t intend to.
The seventeen-member redevelopment commission â€“ handpicked by Nagin himself â€“ includes ten members who either own or run powerful businesses in New Orleans, half of which are real-estate developers, including Joe Canizaro, CEO of Columbus Properties and a key architect of the plan.
The idea that a neighborhoodâ€™s fate will be decided based on how many have returned by the deadline creates a Catch-22 for residents reluctant to invest scarce time and money into rebuilding their homes if they know the area might ultimately be condemned. And even for those determined to return, getting the resources together quickly enough might prove impossible.
To make matters more difficult, the planning commission recommended that the city halt granting building licenses for heavily flooded areas until the viability of the neighborhoods is determined.
Also hampering the process is the utility company, Entergy, the CEO of which is on the planning commission. Entergy has been slow to restore electricity to the Lower Ninth Ward and other damaged areas. There is also no working sewage service in most of the area.
It is still unclear how the commission will determine whether enough residents of an area are coming back to make it "viable." Drafts of the plan included a 50 percent quota, but the final version merely defines it as the "population needed to support facilities and services."
Additionally,it is uncertain how much homeowners would receive for their property under a forced buyout. Federal legislation has been introduced that would pay them 60 percent of pre-hurricane value, and the planning commission calls for the bill to be modified so that it compensates at 100 percent. Mayor Nagin has pledged additional federal block grants and FEMA money to complement the reimbursements, but residents are worried they wouldnâ€™t actually see the full amount.
"There might not be a house here. But this is still someoneâ€™s home." --Common Ground organizer Brandon Darby
Yesterday, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco proposed a plan to give up to $150,000 in federal funds to devastated homeowners throughout the state in the form of grants and loans. But it is unclear whether people in the Lower Ninth Ward would qualify for the proposed program designed to help people rebuild. While the plan does not yet exclude any areas from receiving the money, Blanco said that "safety decisions" made at the parish level would "dictate areas where funding through [the] program will not be permitted."
Blanco also proposed to offer money to state residents who choose to rebuild or relocate elsewhere in Louisiana.
But many Lower Ninth residents have never lived anywhere else and donâ€™t intend to.
"They keep saying your people arenâ€™t coming back, your people arenâ€™t coming back," said State Representative Charmaine Marchand at a February 11 Lower Ninth Ward homeownersâ€™ meeting, where about 200 residents and community leaders vowed to prove "them" wrong. Speakers urged neighbors not to lose faith in the area and discussed ways to start rebuilding themselves, even without the cityâ€™s help.
"There are people outside New Orleans who say they went to the Lower Ninth and didnâ€™t hear a bird chirp or a child playing," Marchand said. "Well that doesnâ€™t mean weâ€™re not coming back. We need to tell them loud and clear. Weâ€™re strong-willed people. When we decide to do something, we do it."
Earlier this month, about 60 Lower Ninth residents protested during a visit by state legislators organized by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco. The protesters denounced what they consider the exploitation of their misery by tour groups and politicians seeking federal money without genuine commitment to help residents return.
Meanwhile, residents have already had some success with a lawsuit against the city to stop the demolitions of homes before owners are notified. Originally, red stickers placed on homes by inspectors were considered fair notification, even for owners who remained evacuated. According to a January 13 settlement, the city must mail notification to the last available address; publish notices in the paper and on a city website developed for the purpose, and take other measures before demolishing a house. Many residents say their homes were slated for demolition even though they could be rehabilitated.
"Youâ€™d find out your house was supposed to be demolished, and there was no clear process for appealing," said Greta Gladney, one of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, who founded a nonprofit organization called Renaissance pre-Katrina to work on education issues. "I didnâ€™t want them to just bulldoze my house with no recourse. It turned out it shouldnâ€™t have been stickered in the first place."
Havan Bell, 43, a lifelong resident of the Lower Ninth Ward, said his house received one of the notorious red stickers even though, according to him, it would only cost about $20,000 to repair it. With the mortgage already paid off, he didnâ€™t want to lose the brick building.
"There was 12 feet of water in it, but other than that thereâ€™s nothing wrong with it," he said. "They should be able to see that. Itâ€™s on a slab, it didnâ€™t lose one brick or one shingle."
Ishmael Muhammad, the attorney who filed the lawsuit, said he sees the demolitions as part of a campaign to kick people out of the neighborhood. "Weâ€™re saying if they take away a home, they canâ€™t do anything else until theyâ€™ve replaced it with a trailer on the property," he told TNS.
LaFrance, an ironworker now employed in landscaping, has vowed to start a training program for unemployed young men in the area.
"I want to teach them everything I know," he said, "construction, cement, electricity, landscaping, ironwork. That way we can rebuild this instead of having others come in to do it. We can make opportunities out of this; we have to take advantage of them."
The activist group Common Ground, an organization of mostly out-of-state volunteers, has established a house, painted bright blue with a few flowers in the yard, near the barge in the Lower Ninth Ward. Organizers have been living in the house, donated temporarily by a resident, since January to help put a stake down in the community. Signs in the yard say "Eminent Domain for Who?" "People Live Here" and "Welcome Home Lower Ninth Ward Residents." Meetings of residents are held there regularly.
"There might not be a house here," said Common Ground organizer Brandon Darby, gesturing at a rubble-strewn lot. "But this is still someoneâ€™s home. It wouldnâ€™t take much to get in a trailer, hook it up to a generator. Those are things people here could do."
Denna Trufant, who lost her uncle to the hurricaneâ€™s aftermath as he swam to rescue neighbors, recounted that her grandfather had built many of the houses in the Lower Ninth Ward.
Trufant was shocked by the wreckage, but they said residents should be allowed to return.
"Theyâ€™re trying to make a casino or something here," she speculated, "but this is a place with so much history. They donâ€™t want people coming back here. They have no shame."