Scars of Katrina mark New Orleans neighborhood

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Joel McNally
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
— Robert Green lives out of two small FEMA trailers jammed together on a small plot of land in the Lower Ninth Ward. The one-story home where his bed-ridden, elderly mother lived in August 2005, is no longer there.

Neither is his mother. Neither is his 3-year-old granddaughter, who was staying with them the night the levee broke.

It was about 4 a.m. and pitch dark when Robert’s brother raised the alarm there was water in the house. By the time they alerted everyone else, their mother’s bed was floating and so was the mattress on which his three granddaughters were sleeping.

They had five minutes to get everyone into the attic, and still the water was rising. They had another five minutes to kick a hole in the ceiling and get seven people, including a sick, elderly woman and three children, onto the roof.

That’s when the house next door hit theirs and sent it careening in the churning current down what previously had been their street. With the house breaking up beneath their feet, they lost their mother and 3-year-old Shanai before the night was over.

The water is gone now. So are most of the people in this part of the Lower Ninth. The abandoned houses that remain bear the warning label “TFW” for Toxic Flood Water. Many also bear a number, signifying the number of bodies found inside. The media emphasized the poverty in the Lower Nine, but this actually was a working-class neighborhood with an extremely high rate of home ownership. Families lived here for generations because it was one of few neighborhoods in New Orleans where blacks were permitted to live.

Robert Green’s trailer is now on the edge of those bright pink housing parts that actor Brad Pitt has scattered across an expanse of the Lower Ninth to mark the area where he plans to finance specially designed modular homes to replace those ravaged beyond reclamation. Green will receive the first of the 150 houses Pitt plans to build in the area to start.

When Pitt and Angelina Jolie moved to New Orleans, they spurned attempts by community power brokers to lure them into investing in neighborhoods easier to reclaim. Instead, they’re putting millions of dollars where it’s needed most, in the Lower Ninth.

Malik Rahim, the founder of a guerrilla organizing project in the lower Ninth called Common Ground Collective, battles the city’s reluctance to commit resources to the Lower Nine. When Common Ground recruited desperately needed doctors to aid residents immediately after Katrina, the first volunteer doctors who showed up were turned away by troops at gunpoint.

But Rahim and his partner, Sharon Johnson, persevered. They established a free medical clinic that still provides the only medical attention many Lower Ninth residents have ever received for the physical and mental scars of Katrina. With nothing but active hostility from government, Common Ground in the past two years has brought more than 15,000 volunteers to New Orleans and distributed millions of dollars in donated food and necessities.

As memories of the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina dim, many forget it never did hit New Orleans. Katrina veered off toward Mississippi. The devastation in the Lower Ninth was caused by a breach in a levee inadequately built by man.

There’s so much distrust of all levels of government that many residents swear they heard explosions, that the levee was blown up to sacrifice the Lower Ninth to protect other neighborhoods the city valued more.

But Jarvis DeBerry, a columnist for the New Orleans Times Picayune, quotes an engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as saying it would have been totally unnecessary to blow up the levee. There was no way it was ever going to protect those living in the Lower Nine.

As we sat talking with Robert Green outside his trailer, tour buses were constantly driving through the barren area, offering paying customers a Magical Misery Tour in air-conditioned comfort. Even after all he’s lost, Green still smiles and waves.

“You don’t know who’s on those buses,” he says. “Maybe somebody will be moved to come back and help.”

Last updated: 11:21 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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