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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 the 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.
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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 no matter where you wereof whoever’s house you were at lunch time is where you went to eat.”