April 24, 2006
Rough Draft Journal Article
Written for New Orleans Magazine
It is as if we are in a third world country, or a ghost town, with desolate streets and dilapidated buildings. I feel around for my glasses and quickly put them on. I can’t believe what I see when I peer out of the lightly tinted bus windows. I feel like we have been traveling for days not hours. There are rows among rows of cars covered in a white residue on the sides of the main roads. Road signs fallen or non-existent; buildings reduced to roofs held up by wooden beams. I looked to my professors for input but they simply tell me the worst is yet to come. My mind begins to race, filling with questions in anticipation of what the next two weeks has in store for me and the other student volunteers from Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia as we embark on a journey to help rebuild New Orleans. “Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee,” I am quickly interrupted by a high pitched squeal so loud that it makes my whole face flinch. It is one of my professors trying to use the loudspeaker on the bus to tell us that we are about to reach our destination. By the time he figures out how to use the loudspeaker, the bus has stopped at what seems to be an abandoned church parking lot that, in my best judgment, seems to have escaped the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. As I step off the bus it hits me. We are actually in New Orleans. There’s no turning back. I am overwhelmed with the images from the media of looters stealing things and the words of my father telling me to be careful of alligators and snakes. I wonder if I have gotten myself into something that I can’t handle. The only people I really know on the trip are my ex-boyfriend, of who I am not speaking to, two of his good friends, and two girls that live upstairs from me. But I didn’t sign up for this trip to make friends. I don’t think any of us did.
I signed up to spend two weeks in January rebuilding New Orleans. I did this because I remember sitting in a frat house the weekend before school started watching a football game, while news banners were reeling at the bottom of the screen telling us that a hurricane was predicted to strike the Gulf Coast early the next morning. It came and destroyed virtually all in its path and for weeks afterward, that same television screen was filled with images of people walking through oil filled waters up to their shoulders, people standing on their roofs desperate to be rescued; thousands of people crammed into the superdome in seek of food, of family members, of help. Of our help. My twenty-nine classmates, three professors, and I were here in this church parking lot for that very reason. Hurricane Katrina struck land on August 28th 2005, totally wiping out the city of New Orleans. Although the entire city was affected by the storm, the hardest hit area was the Lower Ninth Ward, found in the south eastern part of the city. It has been eight months since Katrina’s wrath but residents are still waiting for answers. Its residents were predominately lower class African Americans but the neighborhood was rich in culture and history, “a remarkable human community woven together by a network rich in family history, social connections, and proximity to relatives and friends” (Gratz). The community has what “many Americans wish they were a part of,” the residents realize the “importance of a close-knit community where everyone works together” (Frank). Katrina has devastated this community and it is quite possible that it will never be built as it once was. A rather controversial issue concerning the Lower Ninth Ward is whether the neighborhood should be rebuilt for its residents or whether it should be turned into the natural wetlands that existed before the development of the Ninth Ward to protect the rest of the city from future Hurricanes. As much as I would like for us to rebuild the Ward for these deserving residents, in doing so would only put them, as well as New Orleans as a whole, back into harm’s way. We need to come up with a solution that will relocate these families into higher standing ground and turn the area back into the wetlands once served to protect the city.
The Lower Ninth Ward was originally a cypress swamp that later became the home to African Americans and immigrants who were previously laborers in Ireland, Germany, and Italy. These immigrants moved here because it was an inexpensive location for them to settle. Because the land originally served as a swamp for runoff from the Mississippi River, it had a very poor drainage problem. Because of this, the area developed very slowly. A series of canals were built around the ward in 1910 and were completed in 1923, fixing the draining problem, but also causing the area to be entirely isolated from the rest of the city (Greater New Orleans Community Data Center). With time the Lower Ninth Ward grew and according to a 2002 census, before Katrina the population was 14,008 with about 98% being African American. The current population has yet to be determined. The average household income was less than half of the United States’ average income at $27,499 and as much as 36% of the population lived in poverty. Many of the homes, however, were handed down through family members and therefore mortgage free for the residents. Cars were not a necessity because friends and family members usually lived down the street from one another as the Ward was only a two mile stretch of land. Resident of the area, Betty Lewis lives in the Ward with twelve of her aunts and uncles and nineteen of their children. She describes the community as a place where “You couldn’t get in trouble without someone telling your mom,” and that “in front of whoever’s house you were at at lunch time is where you went to eat” (Gratz). The people that live in the Ninth Ward may have been poverty stricken but they were wealthy in ways that many people do not understand. For instance, many jazz musicians including Fats Domino come from the area and chose to move back after experiencing wealth and fame. This shows how much people love the area and are not forced or constrained to it but choose to live there (Gratz). To residents, the community is as cultural and historic a district as the French Quarter. However, because the community is almost entirely African American, the affluent fail to recognize its significance. My twenty-nine classmates and I got the privilege of seeing this firsthand. When the bus door finally opened in the church parking lot, we began our journey. We made our way through the big doors of the Gretna United Methodist Church and were introduced to a brown haired woman with a great warmth about her. Her name was Lisa* and gave us a tour of the church and showed us to the room that we would be sleeping in. She told us they were blessed in that the only room damaged by the storm was the one we were staying in, but that they had it fully redone so that mission groups like ourselves could stay and help in the efforts to rebuild the city. The two weeks ahead turned out to be something that I had never imagined I would be a part of in my entire life. I knew we were going to be working on people’s houses that had been destroyed by Katrina, but had no idea that we would be rebuilding their homes, throwing away all of their memories while hearing their remarkable stories and touching their lives just as they were touching ours. These twenty-nine classmates and three professors that I used to call strangers, I soon learned to call family. We spent our days waking up to the mixed sound of phone alarms going off and to the clang of one of our professors banging a metal pot above our air mattresses at about 7:00 in the morning. We stumbled out of bed sore and exhausted from the day before. We put on our work boots, stocked our tool belts, and made sure not to forget our respirator masks and safety goggles that were ever so important during the course of the day. We were eager to get the chance to help the families that had fallen victim to Katrina. Our initial arrival at each house was often the most intense. Intense with appreciation from the homeowner that they were finally getting help, with images of waterlogged moldy walls and saturated belongings, and most of all with our own overwhelming emotions for these innocent families that did not deserve such devastation. The inside of their houses looked the way boats do when they have sunk and are later washed up on to shore. Everything was misplaced and rusted. Refrigerators were turned on their sides and water still filled bowls and glasses in kitchen cabinets. Mold had covered everything from the floor to the ceiling and a putrid smell surrounded us as if to push us away. Dark green water lines clearly marked the walls often as high as ten to twelve feet from the ground. Pictures hanging on the walls were faded and the colors all ran together. Beautiful white wedding dresses, now green and brown, their necklines rusted from where they once hung on metal hangers. Photo albums now clumps of paper and color residue. The treasured memories of others, exposed and ravaged by stagnant pools of soupy waste. This was often the hardest part, taking wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of possessions outside and throwing them into a pile that eventually reached well over ten feet in height. Our safety goggles shielded us not only from debris, but hid the tears that fell for these families. Flashes of my own life kept popping up in my head. I couldn’t imagine everything I owned sitting in a pile in front of my house waiting to be scooped up and thrown into huge garbage trucks. We worked for hours emptying out the houses, ripping up carpet and linoleum and tearing down walls and remnants of insulation leaving only the concrete floor and wooden beams that stood beneath it all. As we emptied out their homes of the evidence of their lives, the families stood strong and their appreciation and optimistic attitudes were an inspiration to us all. The first family that we met, Tonya* and Jerry* were working members of the community. Jerry is a sheriff and Tonya a nurse. They resided in an area just outside of the Lower Ninth Ward and had bought their house a year and a half ago as their retirement home. When Katrina hit, Tonya was notified at work that a levee had breeched and that the area was flooding. She picked up her three children and they waded through the water to her car, which was parked on a high level in the parking garage at her work. She carried her son on her back and they left with nothing but the clothes on their back. For four days she could not get in contact with her husband, and didn’t even know if he was alive. Since he is a sheriff in the area he stayed to help the city and make sure as many people were being helped as possible. Everything in their house was destroyed but they say it will always be their home. When we asked how they felt they said,
“We haven’t had the time to consume it just yet, said
Jeffrey. We are taking it one day at a time and staying
close to the Lord along the way. What doesn’t kill you
makes you stronger, and the hurricane has made our
family much closer. We are no longer looking in the
rear view mirror but ahead, through the windshield. It’s
a beginning and we are excited about it. It’s really not
depressing at all, it’s a journey to a better future and a
start for rebuilding.” They told us that their home was our home if we were ever in New Orleans again. Tonya, who was quiet at first, started telling us she wanted to have a bigger kitchen and the husband showed us where he was going to make the family room bigger. The way that they could go through so much and yet still feel so blessed made my classmates and I realize that we were doing more than rebuilding houses; we were giving people a new a chance and rebuilding lives.
Other families had stories even more tragic. One woman, Sharon lost far more than her home and her possessions. Her mother died from brain trauma in a car accident trying to evacuate. Her husband was already suffering from congested heart failure and colon cancer and is now diagnosed with malignant bone cancer and will more than likely die soon. They didn’t have full flood insurance or full homeowners insurance and therefore didn’t receive enough money to repair their home because they had to spend their savings on funeral arrangements for her mother.
“I just don’t know what we’re gonna do. We’ve lived here
all our life, and my family, they’re all gone; all scattered all
over. I don’t know where they are. It’s so devastating, you
lose so much. I’m gonna lose my husband as well and I lost
my mother, my house, my neighbor, my neighborhood,
everything.” Hurricane Katrina affected Sharon in a way that none of us could truly understand. Her life is not turned upside down and on top of everything she has to worry about whether or not she is going to be able to keep her house. “It’s overwhelming, you try and get help but everyone tells
you something different. What are we gonna do, where are
we gonna live? I know there are others who have stories
harder and sadder than mine. I am just disappointed in my
government. I’ve never asked my government for anything.
I’m a good citizen, I pay my taxes. They are not giving us any
help with the levees. The best they said they could do by June
is make them withstand the same strength as they did before
Katrina, that’s not good enough. That’s my story, I don’t know
what that is and where it leads us but that’s it.” Her story highlighted the sad truth that not everyone had the same support system after the storm and some were affected far more than others. Some people faced things far worse than we had anticipated. All the residents want are answers. Why can no one give them to them? The people who want to preserve the culture and history of New Orleans think that rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward is necessary. This group consists primarily of the homeowners and people who are actually a part of the community. Many of the residents see the city’s desire to bulldoze their homes as a racial tactic, as “ethnic cleansing” (Klein) which would force out much of the culture that has been instilled in the area out. The residents believe this because in 1927 the levees were purposely destroyed as a way to save the wealthier neighborhoods from flooding (Azulay). The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 had a similar impact on the area of New Oreans as Katrina has. The city decided that the only way they could save the city was by flooding the southern areas because it was mostly rural and poor (Slivka). There was false speculation among the homeowners in the Lower Ninth that the levees were destroyed again to save the wealthier areas. They think that the government is purposely trying to shut them out of the reconstruction process because many families are disbursed around the country and have no way of coming back to be a part of the process (Chen)
Those opposed to reconstruction, including myself, see the issue much differently. We argue that rebuilding the area is unsafe and a waste of money. Officials dealing with the matter say that they are keeping the residents best interests and opinions in mind. The director of Homeland Security, Terry Ebbert, said that most houses in the Lower Ninth Ward “will not be able to be restored” and other officials say that “it would be a mistake to rebuild the Ninth Ward”. It is said to be a mistake because the area is very prone to flooding again in the near future. The Lower Ninth was devastated by Hurricane Betsy forty years ago. This shows that putting money into rebuilding is pointless because another hurricane is likely to destroy it again (Connolly). Russel Henderson, who formed the Rebuilding Louisiana Coalition says “It would be negligent homicide to put people in the Lower Ninth… If you put people back in there, they’re going to die”. A geography professor at LSU states that putting homes in the Lower Ninth back for sale would be to “put them back in harm’s way” (Connolly).
The city claims that the houses are simply unsalvageable and have to be torn down for safety reasons (Chen). Others say that the cost of levees capable of withstanding another category 5 strength hurricane would cost too much, with estimates at over 32 billion dollars (Death of an American City). The United States government, however, had no problem with spending money on the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. When that was devastated by terrorists in 2001 seven different plans were created for the site. They chose the design to best represent the twin towers and refer to it as the “Freedom Tower”, the tallest building in the world at 1,776 feet. The skyscraper itself will cost $1.5 billion dollars (Johnson and Ross). This shows how money is no object when rebuilding situations concerning the wealthy and affluent, yet when it comes to rebuilding areas concerning the poor it is matters immensely. We need to use the money that it would take to rebuild the community and find ways to relocate these families into different areas. They should have the biggest voice in the matter since it is they who had lost everything and are having to leave it and start somewhere else. It is clear that building houses on stilts and meeting other such requirements is a costly matter. We need to delegate these funds in a timely matter to ensure these families a place to live when hurricane season comes around again.
Environmentalists also have an opinion on whether or not to rebuild. Rather than rebuilding these people want to restore the natural wetlands that used to be in its place. Louisiana has “the highest rate of coastal land loss in North America. An area the size of the Wembley stadium is lost to the sea every 20 minutes” (Lambourne). This has been a problem for environmentalists for a while and Katrina only made it worse. Before the canal and levee systems were put around the Mississippi River, sediments were brought down to replenish the land. When the levees and damns were built it blocked the sediments from falling, which led to an extremely high rate of subsidence. Because most of the city is below sea level, the sediments are needed to build the land back up and if the Lower Ninth is bulldozed, the land will have a chance to repair itself and start protecting the city again. Geologist Professor, Shea Penland says “If you want New Orleans back… you’re going to have to bring the land back that protects the city from the raves of hurricanes. If we don’t incorporate that then the city will be faced with extinction”. According to Penland, sacrificing the Lower Ninth Ward would be saving the rest of the city. In order to protect New Orleans from a category 5 hurricane, this barrier system would have to stretch from Mississippi to Texas which, although time consuming, would guarantee the city’s survival (Lambourne).
Interestingly, some locals of the area do not want to stay there anymore. Many homeowners feel as though they have been betrayed by their own city. They “don’t have any use for New Orleans” and “don’t trust New Orleans anymore” (Harden). These people suggest that things could be done, such as providing compensation for property owners in order to achieve a median between all parties (Connolly). Joan Howard, a resident of The Lower Ninth Ward says “I know they are going to have to tear my house down…but I believe it’s only right that they build me another house—if I decide to go back. I know it’s like a war zone down there, mister. Everything is destroyed. But I got the flood insurance” (Harden). There are many other residents that feel the same way as Joan. They realize that their homes are going to have to be destroyed but they just want to know that they are going to be given a different house when the time comes. Lolita Glass, who also grew up in the Lower Ninth said “This is a natural disaster, it’s nobody’s fault” but “you’re not giving us anything. What we rightfully deserve as citizens of this country is the same protection we give to other countries” (Connolly). In the instance of September 11th, all victims were given adequate compensation so why can’t we provide the same to those victims of the hurricane? They are angered that the Mayor pleaded for the city to return home, however, gave them no place to stay when they did find the means to come back (Azulay).
Visiting New Orleans for two weeks and rebuilding the city has made me change perspective on the people who live there as well as for the government. These families, although they might not be the wealthiest, deserve the chance to rebuild. Although building in the same area that they used to live in is an impossible task, they need to be given funds to build new homes on higher ground. The city should be changed into a mixed array of all income levels, rather than be sanctioned off according to socio-economic status.
Before the trip I valued things that could be taken away in the blink of an eye. I bought pink gloves and a matching pink hammer as I prepared for this trip into the unknown. I was nervous at the fact we were going to be getting really dirty while we were there. I thought that because the families that we were going to help lived in lower income areas they would be lazy and unappreciative. What I learned in New Orleans was much more than the destructive nature of nature, more than the incredible fortitude of the human spirit, and more than anything I had ever expected to gain from these two weeks. All of my inhibitions were wrong. My pink hammer turned grey as much of my skin and hair did every day, and I loved it. The families that we helped were families that would live on my street, not the lazy or unappreciative characters that I saw on the evening news. I went into this trip thinking I was going to be helping other people when the reality of it is that they helped me. They gave me what I needed to realize that everyone in this country is the same and deserves the same chances as everyone else. My twenty-nine classmates, three professors, and I left, not only as a family with each other, but with an extended family that is proud to call their home, New Orleans.
* * *
After being back home for over two months I have realized just how big of a role my trip to New Orleans plays in my life. I no longer look at myself as someone who only watches things get done. I do them. I no longer look at the news and become disinterested with things happening in poverty stricken areas because in order for the world to continue to grow, we all have to help each other. It shouldn’t matter what color our skin is, what our yearly income is, or how many square feet our houses are. This trip helped me, as well as many of my classmates realize this and the experience is something I will never forget. I will strive to help these families rebuild their lives in other areas of the city. Too much time has passed with no action being taken. In order to protect these people in the future we need to start now. We need to restore the natural wetlands that are so crucial in protecting the city and we need to house these displaced residents that are giving up their community to save the city as a whole.