A walk through the ninth ward

By Anna Rockne

We crossed over the Canal Street Bridge into the Lower 9th Ward on a sunny 75 degree day during spring break and saw a memorial to the residents just over the bridge in the median. It read, “I am coming home,” but today, almost three years after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, most Lower 9th Ward residents have not come home.The residential blocks bordering the breached levee in this neighborhood are made up of empty lots and dilapidated houses the government still has not demolished. Each building says “TFW,” an abbreviation for “ten feet of water.”

Linda Jackson, the president of the Lower 9th Ward Homeowner’s Association, owns one of these empty lots.

“My house was on top of my neighbor’s car,” Jackson said. “He came over when they let us back into the neighborhood and he said, ‘you parked your roof on my car, you owe me.’ He’s a good guy. I’m better off than most people because I didn’t lose family.”

Jackson visited her property every day waiting for FEMA to come help her uncover any belongings she could salvage from within the crooked, sagging foundation.

“One day I came back and the whole thing was gone. I just cried,” she said.

On Flood Street, Jackson instructed a group of 50 volunteers to hack away at dead trees and four-foot high grass and weeds using donated tools. She asked us to fill the street with the brush and debris we removed to block coach buses from bringing tourists to gawk at the irony of the street name. After three hours we uncovered a concrete path and three steps that led to nothing. The city is charging the former homeowner $100 a month for having an overgrown lawn.

Jackson runs the non-profit Homeowner’s Association out of a concrete-block building donated by a neighboring church. She lobbies the city to assist residents who were displaced by the hurricane, many of whom do not have insurance. She also finds legal assistance for residents who were charged for work that contractors never completed.

FEMA has selectively reimbursed residents who have begun rebuilding, but many don’t have the money to get started. Thus far only around 2,000 of the 18,000 residents of the Lower 9th Ward have returned.

“If the city cared you’d be back home.” Linda tells her old neighbors. She refuses to abandon her neighborhood. “I’m not one to put up with crap. I don’t know how to . . . I’ve never done it before.”

The next day, we took Shirley Johnigan, a residence of the 9th Ward, out to dinner. Last year a group of Mac students put in a week of work on Johnigan’s house on the corner of New Orleans and Hope streets in St Bernard Parish; she moved in only three weeks ago. There are no visible water lines on the houses in this neighborhood because the water reached the tops of the roofs during the flooding.

A few days after Johnigan moved back home she got a call from the water company demanding $2,900 in past utility bills because she didn’t call to have her water turned off before evacuating. Although back in her home, she is forced to live without running water because she cannot afford the bill.

Johnigan asked us if we would to take the long way to the restaurant so we could do some “sight seeing.” We drove past the St. Bernard’s Projects, what was once one of the largest low-income housing complexes in the city. Johnigan ‘s grandmother raised her in these projects. Today the apartments are set for demolition.

“They said they’re going to make it into affordable housing, but that’s not correct. They’re not going to do that,” Johnigan said. “It’s a process of elimination of the poor.”

Some people think the disproportionate property damage and loss of life caused by severe flooding in poor, largely black neighborhoods was a conspiracy to “clean up” the city. However, Steve Nelson, Professor of Geology at Tulane University in New Orleans said the twenty levees that failed left more than just the poorest neighborhoods underwater. The only land that wasn’t underwater was at a higher elevation.

“Ultimately the Army Corps of Engineers was responsible for a hurricane protection plan that failed,” Nelson said.

The levee along the 17th Street Canal leaned under lateral water pressure because its steel roots were planted in a layer of weak clay. When the flooding began, it eroded the soil, releasing the layer of 4,000-year-old sand beneath it into the Gentilly neighborhood.

Had the Army Corps of Engineers built every levee to the height of 14 feet that Congress funded, rather than 12 feet, less than a quarter of the city would have flooded instead of the 80 percent that was under water, Nelson said.

According to a report published by the Army Corps of Engineers after Hurricane Katrina, the levees failed for reasons that could not have been anticipated. The Corps completed a study in 1985 that showed every potential failure that could occur if a major hurricane struck, published the results in a paper, and filed it away. It happened exactly as they anticipated, Nelson said. “It’s an attitude of complacency, it’s historical mistakes, it’s congressional mistakes.”

Brooke Hilzim ’10, a New Orleans native, blames the government for the city’s slow recovery from the disaster.

“[FEMA] is a really poorly run bureaucracy, and only those who had connections and knew which steps of the system to bypass were able to receive aid efficiently and many of those people still didn’t,” she said. “Financially it’s hard to live here, but culturally it’s hard to live anywhere else.