I was admiring the cushiness of my cool bicycle seat in the humid New Orleans sun, when our guide asked if anyone had suggested that we wear bulletproof vests along with our bike helmets.
“No,” I said. “I guess we’re brave…or stupid. We didn’t really ask anyone their opinion before the ride.”
“I was told not to go into the Lower Ninth Ward,” our Welch bike-mate, Aron, confessed.
Vacations can be curiosity quests that provide powerful insights when we ignite the right type of courage and adventure. Although curiosity quests can take us places that others deem strange or dangerous, novelty that inspires powerful insights can be found even in our own familiar cities and neighborhoods. That’s the premise of my GoLocalPDX column, In Plain Sight. Sometimes it’s harder to find what’s novel and inspiring in the familiar, so these traveling curiosity quests certainly make it easier…and I love New Orleans.
I was devastated by what I saw during Hurricane Katrina—fellow Americans struggling for their lives on a massive scale. After hurricane Katrina, from my pedestal in Portland I had negatively judged the decision to rebuild homes and live in areas, like the Lower Ninth Ward, that are below water levels and prone to hurricane and flooding destruction. I was an experienced real estate professional, and I thought I understood. Nine years later I wanted to see for myself how allowing criticism and judgment to creep ahead of my curiosity may have created ill-formed opinions.
Here’s just a tiny bit of what I learned when we hopped on our bikes (neither donning nor needing bulletproof vests) and followed our curiosity through the streets of charming New Orleans, across the St. Claude Bridge, and to the still mostly desolate Lower Ninth Ward…nine long years after Katrina’s destructive visit.
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, over 90% of the Lower Ninth Ward population was African American and the neighborhood enjoyed one of the highest percentages of African American home ownership in the entire country. Hurricane Katrina wiped the Lower Ninth off the map. Nine years post-Katrina, there are still blocks and blocks of vacant lots with weeds flirting with lonely foundation remnants. Total occupancy in the Lower Ninth hovers below 30%. There is little to no infrastructure (stores & services) to entice folks back and little to no money to sufficiently rebuild. We saw a few rotting frames of houses that appeared to be stuck in permit-hell. Enough homes have been rebuilt that it would have taken me a good 56 minutes to count them all. As we rode by, the friendly residents smiled and waved.
I was curious why we were told the Lower Ninth Ward was dangerous and yet I couldn’t help but think that race was a factor. It felt friendly, safe and frustrating.
Although many Lower Ninth residents had lived in their homes for generations, many did not have deeds. This was one of the numerous challenges that caused bureaucratic hang-ups when it came to rebuilding efforts and federal reimbursements. When federal payments were finally made, the money was divided among family members, many of whom had no intention of ever returning to the Lower Ninth and many others who had never lived there. This rarely left enough money for the actual residents to return and rebuild.
Flood insurance is very expensive, tricky and hard to obtain. It seemed highly doubtful that a single home in the Lower Ninth had flood insurance.
The Lower Ninth is separated from the French Quarter and other “hipper” sections of town by a cool, old bridge. It is 7 miles to the nearest grocery store. Cycling around the quiet, abandoned streets with the cicadas singing on top of their tymbals, it felt rural. Contrasted with the resurgence of Treme, an area that also suffered heavy hurricane damage and shares a similar demographic, I wondered if being contiguous to the French Quarter made Treme’s resurgence more likely, or if there are other factors to unearth and learn from.
Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation has built nearly 100 of the proposed 150 homes. The first homes were completed in 2008, and are contemporary, eco-friendly and not without controversy. The houses look jazzy and funky on their 7-foot stilts. They are congregated around a few blocks and have forced utilities and services like garbage collection, police patrols and streetlights to return to those areas. Unfortunately the services have not spread as much beyond the few blocks of the Make It Right homes. They feel lonely in a vast expanse of abandonment.
The modern houses looked nothing like the rest of the traditional homes in the Lower Ninth. This may mean that they will one day be revered as iconic or reviled as moronic. My bet and hope is for the former.
Public pressure has resulted in nearly 50 million dollars invested to rebuild streets—often with nobody living on them. Many question whether this is the right thing to do when other highly populated streets elsewhere in the city are riddled with potholes. Residents understand that without these investments, there will be no chance for the resurgence of the Lower Ninth to ever occur.
It was no secret that lucrative no-bid contracts were awarded by the government to large, private contractors to lead the clean up efforts post Katrina. These contractors did not hire local people to rebuild their own community. There was still a lot of frustration among residents over having had to watch outsiders take advantage of their tragedy. Residents were shut out in more ways than one. When I noticed that there appeared to be no public housing, I was told that all was closed after Katrina…and has never re-opened.
Damage caused by hurricane Katrina was man-made. It may be more accurately called an engineering catastrophe. Fishermen and other folks had been shouting about the deterioration, poor quality and lack of maintenance of the levees for decades. The levees were supposed to be designed to withstand hurricanes far more severe than Katrina. They were not. Suggesting that residents should not live in The Lower Ninth Ward and rely on these levees would be far more like suggesting people don’t rely on bridges than suggesting that folks shouldn’t live in Malibu.
Oil and gas companies built their pipelines and degraded the integrity of the wetlands. This caused land to sink. The Mississippi River Gulf Canal, that brings ships from the Gulf of Mexico to the New Orleans Industrial Port, ruined the natural buffer along the north end of the Lower Ninth Ward.
There were a lot of very convincing and seemingly well-researched causes shared about the devastation from Katrina and far-too-slow rebuilding post-Katrina. Racism and politics infected every cause far more than nature.
Resident Ronald Lewis
Ronald Lewis was born and raised in the Lower Ninth Ward. We visited with him at his House of Dance and Feathers Museum that he built behind his house on Tupelo Street where he has lived for over 30 years. The museum is based on the culture of Mardi Gras Indians, Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs and Skull & Bones Gangs and was incorporated a few months before the forced evacuation caused by Katrina. In his haste to evacuate (his evacuation was not at gunpoint but some were), Ronald packed as much as he could, but most of his collections were destroyed. He shared exciting stories of growing up in such a positive and culturally rich neighborhood. He shared tragic stories of returning nearly two years after Katrina to his neighborhood destroyed and the stench of decaying bodies still present.
Ronald is one of many dynamic individuals leading the charge for rebuilding The Lower Ninth Ward.
When I inquired about all the Jewish stuff in the House of Dance and Feathers museum, Ronald’s eyes lit up as he informed me that he is a founding member of Krew Du Jieux, a Mardi Gras parade organization that embraces satire and self-deprecation in a multi-cultural attempt to eradicate anti-Semitism. After Katrina, Krewe du Jieux marched as Wandering Jews.
The tiny museum, behind Ronald’s home, felt like a hodge-podge of unlabeled, strategic layering of gifts exchanged, oral histories shared, and objects suggesting connections between people and times. Ronald answered all my many questions with his sparkle of optimism tempered with pragmatism fueled by tragedy and frustration. He explained that the rebuilding efforts were not fairly shared and distributed, and he provided plenty of proof that the government sacrificed the Lower Ninth for more affluent areas of the city.
By the time George Bush complimented Brownie on the “heckuva job” he had done as head of FEMA, the aftermath of Katrina had displaced over 10,000 residents from their homes in the Lower Ninth Ward. Over 1800 people in New Orleans died, mostly as a result of drowning.
The French Quarter suffered very little damage during Katrina which is understandable since it’s on significantly higher ground than the Lower Ninth. Many residents believe that the government blasted levees that protect the Lower Ninth Ward from flooding in order to save the French Quarter from flooding. They point to controversial evidence that the Army Corp of Engineers conducted similar levee-blasting activities in 1965 during Hurricane Betsy.
Post-Katrina Federal social funding was cut due, in part, to a reduction in population because of Katrina. Curious.
Katrina caused over $130 billion in damage. The levees were rebuilt after Katrina costing approximately $14 billion dollars. I wondered what it is about humans that make us addicted to the wishful thinking that causes avoidable regret.
Even before Katrina everyone in the neighborhood stored an axe in their attic. These axes saved lives as the residents were able to chop a hole in their roofs to scurry up ahead of the rising water. Like many of his neighbors, Fats Domino, legendary Rhythm and Blues artist (and one of my late-mom’s favorites) was rescued from atop his roof. Many people were stranded on their rooftops for days.
Nine years later many homes and remnants of homes still have X markings on the siding. These were urban search and rescue markings that were made during hurricane Katrina. An X inside a square meant “Dangerous. Do Not Enter.” An X with writing around it meant that the search of the home was completed. The time and date of the search and the team conducting the search were indicated in many of the markings. The numbers indicated victims removed or bodies left behind.
There are still many people who think that rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward is a bad idea. Perhaps they’re right. Given all the hours I had been glued to the television nine years ago, I thought that I understood the situation. I assumed there were political and economic factors that perhaps I did not understand, but that didn’t stop me from forming my opinion about the absurdity of rebuilding areas that would just keep getting destroyed. By the time my opinion was set, I could find a lot of evidence to support my position and I was on to solving the next huge problem from in front of my high-def screen.
I was amazed at how wrong my perception was prior to elevating curiosity above criticism. I usually am.