Ten years after Hurricane Katrina brought New Orleans to its knees and left an emotional footprint across the United States as people witnessed how the U.S. government failed to respond promptly, a predominantly African-American community of the city still struggles to define what their post-Katrina life would be.
“Just because of the name Lower Ninth Ward, it doesn’t mean we are lower than anyone else. It just means we are far along from Mississippi River,” said African-American girl Lee Gardner. “We are people too, (and) we have feeling too.”
Gardner was among some 10,000 former residents of Lower Ninth Ward who had to abandon their houses after breach of the adjacent Industrial Canal Levee on Aug. 29, 2005 destroyed every single house in the area.
Most residents never came back and for those who did come back, havoc of the killer storm continued to dog them even as the rest parts of the city had already pulled itself together.
Ever since the summer of 2005, the Lower Ninth Ward has become a dumping ground for unwanted things. Wild grass up to adult height prevails in the area, among which the wreckages of abandoned houses stand ominously.
On the facade of many houses, deaths are still marked along with other information from home search in the wake of the disaster. “The government searched for dead bodies and possible gas leak. And then they just left,” a local guide told Xinhua.
Bouncing along the fractured streets, driving past each overgrown crossroads was hard for a new comer since the vision was completed blocked.
“Don’t worry. No one would be lingering at the corners. You actually have to be really lucky to spot something alive here,” said the guide.
There used to be over 14,000 residents in Lower Ninth Ward, and now the number was around 3,000. By comparison, the overall population of New Orleans was about 85 percent of its pre-storm level.
“They (former Lower Ninth Ward residents) don’t want to come back. There’s no home here,” said 17-year-old Gardner whose family left for other part of the city in 2014.
“They (the government) got money to fix everybody else’s potholes and everybody else’s houses. But when it comes to the Lower Ward, there is always a problem,” said Gardner.
In 2010, shortly after Mitch Landrieu took office as mayor of New Orleans, the local authorities announced its construction projects in Lower Ninth Ward, including an appropriation of 60 million U.S. dollars for street repair. However, little sign of road construction was seen as of 2015.
“The federal response to this disaster was just writing checks and sending money. There was never a federal plan for this,” said Tom Pepper, operation director of Common Ground Relief, a community advocacy group formed after Hurricane Katrina to help rebuild New Orleans.
“It took a very long time (for the federal money to flow locally). It was nearly two and half years before the mayor said we will not spend any money down the Lower Ninth Ward until this new surge protection system is built,” said Pepper. “You should have told everybody a year and half ago, so people could plan.”
Eventually, the first batch of federal dollars were spent in Lower Ninth Ward, with 99 percent of population being African American, in 2012, seven years after the disaster that killed at least 1,700 and displaced tens of thousands.
According to Pepper, so far only a park and a community center had been built and the construction of a new school will be finished next year.
“There have been a lot of impediments to recovery, including federally funded recovery program which was found to be discriminatory in courts of law in 2011,” said Laura Paul, executive director of Lowernine.org, a small volunteer group that has so far helped 75 families to rebuild their houses in the area.
The recovery program Paul referred to was called Road Home, a federal program to offer financial help for Hurricane Katrina victims to rebuild or sell houses severely damaged.
According to official data, till September 2012, the program had disbursed a total of 9 billion dollars with an average cash grant of 68,983 dollars for each qualified applicants. However, for most Lower Ninth Ward applicants, they either were turned down or received less than 1,000 dollars as funds for rebuilding their houses.
According to regulations, the Road Home program meted out grants to people based on either the pre-hurricane value of their homes or the estimated cost of rebuilding, whichever was less.
Under that formula, the African-American community with wooden houses that could date back 100 years ago in the Lower Ninth Ward was likely to receive far less than someone with literally the same house in a wealthier neighborhood, said Pepper.
A group of homeowners on behalf of a potential group of about 20,000 African-American homeowners in 2008 sued the federal government and the State of Louisiana for discrimination in the Road Home program.
Judge Henry Kennedy of Federal District Court in August 2010 ruled that the plaintiffs would be “likely to succeed” in making the case for discrimination and a settlement was later reached in 2011 that would see distribution of another 62 million dollars to those who said their Road Home payments fell significantly short of the cost of rebuilding.
“I believe firmly that people in this community were treated very poorly, not only by their government, but by their general contractors and their insurance providers, and their mortgage lenders, and any number of other institutions, entities and individuals,” said Paul. “It’s been a very very slow, and very very painful recovery.”
From the perspective of an outsider who just moved to New Orleans, Eliza Fields, teacher of Gardner, said that Lower Ninth Ward’s unusual odyssey to rebuild may have come from a prevailing opinion that African-American communities like the one in Lower Ninth Ward do not warrant effort to rebuild.
“(People believed that) this wasn’t really a good neighborhood to begin with, and there weren’t many families. It will fall into decay anyway, so why should it be rebuilt? Who cares?” said Fields. “It’s my own perception, living in the city about how people see here.”
Though 80 percent of New Orleans was inundated in 2005, the city’s top officials, including former mayor Clarence Nagin and the city’s homeland security director Terry Ebbert, appeared to single out the Lower Ninth Ward to indicate no chance for the area to recover.
“…nothing out there can be saved at all,” Ebbert was reportedly quoted as saying.
“Actually (if there were three worst affected areas) Lower Ninth would probably be the best off,” said Pepper.
The feeling of being abandoned by the rest of the city prevailed in Lower Ninth Ward and the long-term perception of being victimized by a system that run odds against them made a rumor prevailing among the locals.
During the 1965 strike by Hurricane Betsy, many residents in Lower Ninth Ward believed that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers intentionally exploded the Industrial Canal Levee to flood the area in order to spare the white neighborhoods.
“I think that that rumor speaks to a larger truth, which is that people in this neighborhood and neighborhoods like this — I would argue probably around the country — don’t trust their government,” said Paul. “They don’t feel respected and well treated by their government. I think that is true.” Enditem