African American News and Genealogy

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Monday, October 24, 2005

KATRINA'S AFTERMATH: Flooded 9th Ward to evolve or vanish

Oct. 24, 2005, 1:35AM By THOMAS KOROSECCopyright 2005 Houston Chronicle NEW ORLEANS - Harry Williams kicked in the front door of his hulking white clapboard house on St. Maurice Avenue, then shielded his nose from the stench. "It's bad, man," said Williams, surveying the upside-down furniture that had blocked the entry, the moldy walls and his big-screen TV, which was still holding water. "There's nothing to save in here" The 34-year-old grocery manager returned to the Lower 9th Ward last week to "look and leave," as the authorities call it. The predominantly black, working class and poor neighborhood suffered some of the worst damage when Hurricane Katrina swamped the city and Rita doused it again. Houses were knocked off foundations. Cars floated onto rooftops. A layer of gray mud settled on the abandoned beauty shops, the collapsed storefront churches, the dead shrubbery and lawns. Eight weeks after the deluge, the neighborhood is all but deserted and parts remain off limits as the search for bodies goes on. Four decades ago, after the waters of Hurricane Betsy poured in and killed 81 people, residents rebuilt the ward's shotgun houses and "doubles," with their distinctive front porches painted pink, purple or tropical blue. This time, federal officials, academics and others question the wisdom of trying to rebuild once more. They say the ward and other low-lying areas should be returned to their original state as marshland, to act as hurricane buffers protecting a smaller city occupying only the higher ground. Rich in history The debate, which touches nerves of race and class, rankles those who see the ward as an integral part of the city's history and soul. "You can't have the city as we know it without the 9th Ward," said state Rep. Charmaine Marchand, who has no doubt the area will begin to rebuild once power is restored in three to six months. "People all over the city come from there. It's in the style of cooking and the way people talk" The region's heaviest accent, a second cousin to Brooklynese, sprang from the working-class Italians, Irish, Germans and freed slaves who began inhabiting the former cypress swamp in the 1870s, historians say. In the 1960s and with the advent of school desegregation, whites fled "the Lower Nine" The neighborhood, a low bowl of land on the city's eastern end, is bordered by the Mississippi River, the parish line, a set of railroad tracks and the Industrial Canal, which separates it from the rest of the 9th Ward. It is home to rhythm and blues legend Antoine "Fats" Domino, jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, 100 churches and 20,000 people, about a third living below the poverty line. On Wednesday, Mayor C. Ray Nagin declared his support for rebuilding the hard-hit ward, but he expressed doubt whether the levee along the Industrial Canal is safe enough to allow people to move back. Last month, Alphonso Jackson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, told the Houston Chronicle that he counseled Nagin that it would be "a mistake" to rebuild the area. "I said I'm not sure what we do with it," Jackson said. A 17-member commission appointed by the mayor is expected to address the question in a broad rebuilding plan scheduled to be completed by year's end. State officials also will have their say. Flood zone proposed Craig Colten, a geography professor at Louisiana State University who has written extensively about the city's struggle with its watery location, is a proponent of letting the Lower 9th Ward — as well as the adjacent, predominantly white St. Bernard Parish located downstream — become part of a natural flood zone. "Regardless of class or the value of the property, the lowest areas should be devoted to safer, saner practices of flood control," he said. "These would be green spaces and flood-retention bases, so waters can collect in those areas" Rather than place residents of the Lower 9th back in harm's way, he said, officials should think about moving them, as a community, to higher and less vulnerable ground. "The Cajuns uprooted from Canada and moved as a group to Louisiana. Vietnamese communities have reassembled after moving much farther. There is precedent for doing this," Colten said. Pam Dashiell, president of Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, said she is not surprised some people want to erase the ward from the street map. "The Lower 9th has always seemed to be a stepchild of New Orleans. It didn't get the same services. It's isolated because it's on the other side of the drawbridges," she said. "It's easier to write us off than some middle-class community with more resources and more voice" In a city rife with crime, much of it drug- and gang-related, the ward was perceived as the most dangerous neighborhood of all, she said. In the month before Katrina, five men were shot to death in the ward in separate incidents, according to newspaper accounts. "We had a lot of people in the community working on the problems," said Dashiell, who wants to see the levees around the ward strengthened to withstand the most severe hurricanes. There was crime, she said, but there also was one of the highest rates of homeownership in the city: 59 percent, according to the 2000 federal census. "These are some of the greatest people, families who will want and need to return, and frankly, the city needs us" John Scully, a real estate agent and landlord with 15 houses in the area, said he expects people will face steep financial hurdles as they contemplate moving back. He carried no flood insurance on several shotgun houses he owns in the ward and he suspects most of his neighbors were also uninsured. "If you were financing, the bank insisted you have flood insurance," he said. "If the house was in your family for years and you didn't have a note, nobody forced you buy it and you probably didn't have the money to afford it" As he took his first quick tour of a house on Burgundy Street that fetched $600 a month for each of its two units, he concluded, "This is a total loss. It'll have to be torn down" About half of his tenants worked in hotels, restaurants or other low-wage jobs. The rest were on Social Security or received public assistance. "Nobody has called me yet asking about coming back," he said. Jeff Roesel, principal planner of the New Orleans Regional Planning Commission, said local officials he has talked to seem loath to "tear up their maps" and radically reshape the city. "A lot will depend on who is willing to return," he said. "Neighborhoods will be rebuilt by the people who come back" The Lower 9th Ward had a high percentage of residents who have lived there most of their lives. It had cohesive families living in their homes. "I think they're coming back," Roesel said. "And I think it would be great for the city" Williams, the St. Maurice Avenue homeowner, said he wants to return, although he doesn't see an easy path. "This is my home, and if the city gets up and running again, I will come back," he said. His extended family, numbering more than 150 with the names Williams, Davis, Baptiste and Pierre, all lived in the Lower 9th or in neighborhoods just across the canal. Scattered family Several died when their house on Jourdan Avenue, just blocks from the levee break, was inundated, he said. The rest escaped to Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Las Vegas and New Mexico. The supermarket chain for which Williams worked asked him to stay in New Orleans, but, with nowhere to live, he found another grocery job in Alexandria, La., and signed a six-month apartment lease. "I'll be there for a while," he said. Detrell Williams, his brother, moved to Alexandria two years ago. "There's a lot of bad, a lot of bad that goes on around here," Detrell Williams, said as he helped move dry furniture and a prized basketball card collection from the second floor of the family home. His son, 12-year-old Detrell Wright, rode out the hurricane with his mother in a New Orleans hotel, then spent two days on the Claiborne Avenue Bridge waiting to be rescued. "I don't want to come back. It's dangerous," said the younger Detrell, a seventh-grader. "I saw 10 people dead. They were shot, drowned" Williams' aunt, 63-year-old Mary Davis, left town before the storm with only three days of clothing because she remembered they returned in five after Betsy blew through in 1965. This time, with her house on North Galvez in ruins, she said she is too tired to rebuild. "That's for when you're young," she said.


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