Rebuilding From Ruin in New Orleans

A decade has just passed: on Aug 29, 2005, one of the deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States tore through the Greater New Orleans area. Katrina’s storm surge caused the city’s already dilapidated levees to breach, thus submerging nearly 80 percent of its urban neighborhoods.

In the wake of the natural disaster, those who chose not to evacuate withered on rooftops in the scalding summer heat as they waited to be saved from the floodwater that had drowned their streets. Others sought shelter in the Louisiana Superdome and endlessly listened for further instruction.

Over the course of the week, the total fatalities caused by Katrina continued to rise; the final Louisiana death toll accounts for nearly 1,000 casualties, according to The Data Center. All the while, the rest of the country watched events unfold across various media outlets.

In the 10 years since Hurricane Katrina, reports on the post-storm state of New Orleans appear only on the notable anniversary. However, the city’s natives still live with the irreparable damage every day.

Although approximately 90 percent of residents have returned to the city they consider home, that percentage appears shockingly lower in one specific area of New Orleans: the Lower Ninth Ward.

Due to the Ninth Ward’s proximity to the Industrial Canal–a shipping canal that connects the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartain–the neighborhood suffered from the storm more than most. Compared to the high return rate in other areas of New Orleans, only 37 percent of the Ninth Ward’s residents have returned to their homes.

After the flood, some homeowners decided not to rebuild; rather, they relinquished their property over to the state and relocated. Others, however, felt a strong urge to restore their estates and construct them back to livable conditions. Despite the fervent desire to make the Ninth Ward habitable, economic obstacles hindered the process. In addition, the monetary restraints grew increasingly complicated, as unjust racial ramifications interplayed with the financial facets.

The Road Home–the state’s rebuilding program that promised to reconstruct homes or provide the funds for affected occupants to purchase new ones–proved to be discriminatory against African-Americans. The Federal Court ruled that homes in predominantly black neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward were valued unfairly in relation to homes in predominantly white neighborhoods.

The federal funds allocated for restoration in low-income, minority neighborhoods, failed to pay for the full cost of repairs. Rather than provide grants for the estimated cost of repair damage, the relief program based aid on the value of property prior to the hurricane.

Photo courtesy of Bart Everson.

According to the Data Center’s demographic statistics, over 98 percent of the Lower Ninth Ward’s population consisted of “Blacks and African-Americans” in 2000. To this day, the area has received the least amount of aid in New Orleans.

As a consequence of the government’s inaction, volunteer-based organizations began to form and respond to the disaster. Lowernine.org, a nonprofit organization committed to the recovery of the Lower Ninth Ward, is among the several agencies working daily to bring families home.

As specified on the organization’s website, “Lowernine.org has fully rebuilt [75] homes and has completed smaller repair and renovation projects on hundreds more in the Lower Ninth Ward.”

John Tappen volunteered with the nonprofit for a week in the spring of 2013 and then returned that summer for a longer stay. If he hadn’t known better, Tappen could have easily assumed the hurricane had hit land only a few years before he had made his way to the district. Eight years and all the untouched wreckage left him in shock.

“So many homes were either damaged, abandoned, or completely gone,” Tappen explains. “It felt like [I was] living in a much more immediate aftermath than I actually was.”

Like so many others who were physically detached from Louisiana at the time of Katrina, Tappen tells BTR that the lasting effects of the storm horrifyingly linger even after all these years.

“The significance of Katrina isn’t lost on anyone who spends time in [the Ninth Ward], because signs of its impact are still everywhere a decade later,” notes Tappen. “When you enter the Ninth Ward, you’re immediately forced to reckon with the long-term effects of [the storm] and how devastating it was.”

Despite the efforts of Lowernine.org and other similar organizations, the neighborhood is still in need of much more work. So many of its residents waited an entire decade to return to their homes. According to FEMA, others will be expected to wait another 10 years. The projected date for the full restoration of this still-devastated neighborhood can be anticipated by 2025.

Featured photo courtesy of Infrogmation of New Orleans.

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