“Right to Return”

Tavis visits residents fighting to rebuild their lives in the show New Orleans: Two Years After Katrina.

How should the Lower 9th Ward be rebuilt? in January 2006, Oscar-winning filmmaker Jonathan Demme filmed in and around New Orleans, chronicling the lives of dozens of people — each of whom has their own unique story. The result is a documentary on the pioneering individuals and families who have chosen to exercise their self-granted “right to return” to their devastated homes and rebuild their lives following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.


Of the 17 Wards in New Orleans, Louisiana, the 9th Ward is probably the most famous in name. It consists of two distinct neighborhoods, Holy Cross, and the Lower Ninth Ward, called by some, The Lower 9th.

The area has produced well known figures such as: rock-and-roll legend Fats Domino; rapper Lil Wayne; internationally known trumpeter, vocalist and bandleader Kermit Ruffins; NFL star Marshall Faulk and performance poet, dramatist, fiction writer and music critic Kalamu ya Salaam.

The Lower 9th was among the very last of the New Orleans’ neighborhoods to be developed — between 1910 and 1920, the city finally installed adequate drainage systems. The area’s working-class residents were activists in the fight for civil rights and, with the expertise of the NAACP legal team, the area’s school desegregation movement made New Orleans the first deep-South school district to open its all-white doors to black children.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were not the first storms to devastate the area. In September 1965, Hurricane Betsy took 81 lives and plunged 80% of the Lower 9th under water. Many believe this disaster was the beginning of the neighborhood’s downward turn. Longtime residents and businesses moved out. Just as in the Katrina and Rita aftermaths, some said there wasn’t sufficient financial assistance and other support to revitalize the area.

As a result of the passage of the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act in 1966, an assistance program was initiated to rebuild facilities and health and welfare services. Through the Model Cities program, the area’s employment increased and revitalization occurred. However, prior to the 2005 hurricanes, only a few of the agencies that helped spur the renewal remained.

Tavis accompanied Demme to New Orleans to visit with some of these courageous people who are central to the culture of the Big Easy.

About “Right to Return”

Filmmaker Jonathan Demme talks about his decision to film a documentary on post-Katrina New Orleans. You can watch the entire five-part series of “Right to Return” below.

Right to Return Part 1: Hurricane Winter

“It looks like King Kong stepped on a lot of the houses.”
-Lawrence Gaspar, New Orleans resident

Right to Return Part 2: Guardians of the Flame

“They told me I should go to Houston. New Orleans is my home. Why shouldn’t I come back here?”
-Cherice Harrison-Nelson, New Orleans educator and resident

Right to Return Part 3: Holy Cross Summer

“All the neighborhoods for New Orleanians are in shambles, still.”
-Kyrah Julian, New Orleans resident

Right to Return Part 4: I’m Back

“Some people say they’re not coming back. They just don’t trust the levee system anymore. But I’m back.”
-James Gibson, Minister

Right to Return Part 5: Sixteen Months Gone

“The government refuses to even acknowledge the work we are doing.”
-Malik Rahim, Founder, Common Ground

Last modified: August 27, 2012 at 7:26 pm