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Can the Lower Ninth Ward ever recover from Katrina?

December 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, a debate now rages in the city; with so few residents returning to the Lower Ninth, does it even make sense to redevelop the community at all?
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JOHN CARLOS FREY:  Errol Joseph had lived his entire life in the lower ninth ward of New Orleans. He was raising his own family in the same house he grew up in.  In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina changed all that.

ERROL JOSEPH: This was our master bedroom … we had a utility room over here, and over here was like a storage and a pantry.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  Like all residents of the Lower Ninth Ward he and his wife and two kids were forced to evacuate. 

ERROL JOSEPH: We couldn’t get back into this area and you had the military police with the assault rifles telling’ that’s as far as you can go.  You couldn’t go in your house.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  So he moved with his family to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, before returning to a different New Orleans neighborhood, where he now rents.  Still this 63 –year-old contractor longs to return to the house he grew up in, but eight and a half years after the storm his house is still a shell of what it was. 

ERROL JOSEPH:  Sometimes I want to cry, but I’m all cried out.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  Joseph’s story is hardly atypical.  The Lower Ninth Ward had a population of 14,000 before the storm struck but now it’s only 3,000, according to the latest census. And though construction is under way on a new school, a fire station and a community center, most of the neighborhood looks much the way it did immediately after the storm surge sent a 20 foot wall of water into this community.  Today the community is still littered with destroyed homes, vacant lots and there are practically no grocery stores or other businesses here. 

ERROL JOSEPH:  We– as kids, we were here.  And now, there’s nobody down here.  But I want to be here.  I love this land. 

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  Though city officials declined our repeated requests to talk about the rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward, they sent us a document detailing how the city directed federal funds between 2010 and 2013.   More than $900,000 million dollars was allocated for the Lower Ninth Ward for infrastructure projects like road reconstruction, parks and recreational facilities, and the building of that community center and fire house.  It’s an amount similar to, and sometimes greater than, investments made in other neighborhoods where many more residents have returned.  Now, some question whether that money was worth it and if the Lower Ninth should be rebuilt at all.

9th Ward construction

MARK DAVIS: So I don’t think there’s any prospect of it becoming what it was.  The conditions just aren’t there. 

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  Mark Davis is the director of Tulane law school’s institute on water resources law and policy.  He’s helped shape policy that affects neighborhoods like the lower ninth ward. 

MARK DAVIS:  It’s not just a matter of moving back.  You have to actually reestablish the entire framework on which the community was built.  And when you– if you have no place to shop, how do you move there?  You know, you don’t have a hospital.  You have really one school.  The– things that actually become necessary to develop a neighborhood– and attract people back aren’t currently present.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  If the Lower Ninth Ward was built basically and solely on emotion and passion for restoring what was there, you are saying that that’s not sustainable.

MARK DAVIS:  No.  It’s not sustainable any more than my desire to be 25 again. 

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  Controversy over which New Orleans neighborhoods should and shouldn’t be rebuilt started just months after the storm, when in early 2006 what is known as a “green dot map” was unveiled by city hall.  The map had green dots on neighborhoods in low lying areas that urban planners thought should be considered for future parks instead of full scale redevelopment, infuriating residents of those areas.  The Ninth was one of those neighborhoods. 

While the map was scrapped amid the uproar, the message was clear… redevelopment should focus on areas with the best chance for recovery, Not neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth, which once had the highest percentage of black homeownership in the nation.

But there are those who are committed to rebuilding the lower ninth ward as it once was.  Laura Paul runs lowernine.org, a non-profit committed to rebuilding the homes of as many former residents as possible. 

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  What’s this place going to look like that would satisfy you?  I mean, what– what would be here where you finally say, “Okay, my work is done.”

LAURA PAUL: Our work will be done– when we stop getting calls from people saying, “I want to get back in my house.”  And that’s not happening yet // We have a lot of people who would love to get home and have no resources.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  With private donations and volunteer labor, Paul has restored over 60 homes, including 54-year-old Eula White’s, who moved back six years-ago.   Like many lower-ninth residents we talked to, White says she always knew she would come back…

EULA WHITE: I had an attitude about coming back.  I had an attitude.  And I think I really did.  I was, like, this is where I grew up at.  This is where I want to be.  And I’m determined I’m a going to get there.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  what I see when I come here are all of the empty lots.  I still see some houses that need repair.  I see abandoned buildings.  I see churches that are boarded up?

EULA WHITE:  And all of those things that you see are real.  But I see hope.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  Where?

EULA WHITE:  Whenever I see a lot that’s scraped down and getting’ ready to build a home I see hope.   And I’m not going to ever let anybody take my hope away from me.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  White says that her grown children, who have settled elsewhere in New Orleans, don’t understand why she’d return to a neighborhood that’s still in such bad shape.

EULA WHITE:  They don’t understand.  They was, like, “There’s more to life than just the Lower Ninth Ward.”  I said, “Maybe for you.  But not for me.”  And that’s just how it is.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  But Professor Marc Davis says that Eula White’s children are emblematic of why so few residents have actually returned. 

MARK DAVIS:  It is too long for many people.  I think when you’re settled somewhere, your kids are in school, you have found a new doctor, you are– you are eight years older, it makes it that much harder to pick up and come back. 

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  The neighborhood continues to have a high crime rate and some worry it might not be safe from another big storm either. 

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  But would you say that the Lower Ninth Ward is now safe?

MARK DAVIS:  I think it’s safer.  And I think that’s the most you can say nearly any place that I can imagine, here or elsewhere.  There is not a community where you don’t live at risk.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  But other neighborhoods in New Orleans are thriving in a way that the lower 9th ward hasn’t.  Terri north is CEO of Providence Community Housing, a non-profit associated with the Catholic Church that is helping to rebuild homes in Treme.  Providence Community housing has built 517 new homes there and Treme now has an occupancy rate of more than 60%, compared to 30% in the Lower Ninth Ward. 

9th Ward destruction

TERRI NORTH: It is a fully populated neighborhood.  It is not like what you saw in the Ninth Ward or in other places that– where, you know, small percentages of people weren’t able to return and rebuild. 

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  While Treme and the Lower Ninth Ward have received similar amounts of money from the government during the past four years, Treme, which borders the city’s famed tourist destinations, like the French Quarter, has benefited from private investment.   The Lower Ninth Ward, on the edge of the city, hasn’t. 

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Is it worth finding resources to reinvest in the Lower Ninth Ward?  Is it worth bringing that kind of community back like it used to be?

TERRI NORTH:  No.  I mean, you know, just being honest with you– when it comes down to it, when you’re trying to attract business and private investment, it’s dollars and cents.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  Do you think that the Lower Ninth Ward will ever look like Tremé? 

TERRI NORTH:  I’m afraid not.  I’m afraid not.  I wish it would. I wish it would, but I’m afraid not.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  But for those who want to return to the lower ninth ward, despite all its problems,  Errol Joseph’s says his story is a cautionary tale.

ERROL JOSEPH:  I get mad.  I wake up in the middle of the night just mad.  I don’t have no recourse that I can go to complain or appeal this thing to.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  Joseph, a contractor by trade, says he couldn’t get a permit to rebuild until 2009, only to be told then by state inspectors that he didn’t have the right paper work.  He insists he did.  Now he’s says he’s waiting for yet another inspection on his home while the newly constructed frame of the house he built is starting to rot away and supplies sit in storage.

ERROL JOSEPH:  I’ve got windows– vinyl windows.  I don’t know if they’re going to be warped.  I’ve got ceramic tile.  I don’t worry about that.  I’ve got Brazilian floors.  I’ve got paint.  I’ve got insulation.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: You’re ready to go?

ERROL JOSEPH:  I’ve been ready to go.  I’ve got all kind of plumbing fixtures, cabinets.  And my frame rotted out. 

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  Joseph and many other residents here feel that the Lower Ninth Ward was left out of the massive efforts underway to rebuild New Orleans…  and that they were even discriminated against, while white communities and neighborhoods around the historic French Quarter were rebuilt. 

JOHN CARLOS FREY: You said 98% or 99% Black?

ERROL JOSEPH:  Yeah.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  Is that a part of it?

ERROL JOSEPH:  Well, I think Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder could see that.  They—can see it—

They can see what’s going’ on, and both of those people are blind.  They can see what’s going on if it’s all black. 

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  In October 2010 a judge did rule that a federally funded housing program designed to assist homeowners affected by Katrina discriminated against black homeowners in low income neighborhoods, like the lower ninth ward.  That’s because the payouts were based on home values.  Errol Joseph says that meant many people like him didn’t get nearly enough to cover the cost of rebuilding. 

JOHN CARLOS FREY: I got to ask you why you even keep doing’ it?  I mean, are you going to finish this house?

ERROL JOSEPH: I don’t even know.  You know, it’s better things to die for than nothing’. 

You know, I don’t have my neighbors whereby I can holler at this one, holler at that one.  Here, the girl on the corner, her mother died.  Six months later, her dad died. 

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  You’re pointing to a bunch of empty lots, you realize–

ERROL JOSEPH: That’s right.  That’s right.  You don’t know where all of these people are.  This– this was a thriving community.

JOHN CARLOS FREY:  But you say you’ve done all of this work and gone through all of this pain and suffering because this is your home?

ERROL JOSEPH: This is my home.  There’s a difference between house and home.  I hear people all the time saying I built a home.  You can’t build a home.  This home has to grow with love, heart, feelings.