Efforts being made to rebuild after Katrina
As New Orleans authorities issued a mandatory evacuation order on
the morning of Aug. 28, 2005, just one day prior to Hurricane Katrina’s
landfall, Daphne Jones bundled her family and several suitcases
into the car and left her home in the 25th block of Delery Street
in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward.
The Jones family didn’t get far. With thousands of vehicles
clogging the highways, they sat in traffic for hours, eventually
finding refuge in a small town just north of New Orleans. But even
here, Katrina’s 120-mph winds knocked out power and water
for several days.
Evacuating once again, the family drove to Atlanta to stay with
Jones’ brother. With help from the community organizations,
the Red Cross, and church groups, second hand clothes replaced those
that had been left behind. New toys kept the grandchildren busy.
Donations helped pay for an apartment in Smyrna, just outside the
For three months, Jones was not able to freely return to her house.
Because of the extensive damage in the area, city officials determined
that residents’ entry into the neighborhood needed to be under
the strict supervision of Homeland Security Personnel. Until Dec.
1, the Lower Ninth Ward was under military curfew with National
Guard units patrolling the streets.
“I saw my house for the first time on Dec. 2.” Jones
recalled, stopping at a local volunteer center to look for supplies.
“It was awful. It was unbelievable the things that I’ve
seen. And the cleaning up, it was hard. It was really hard.
“They are saying that we got thirteen feet of water. It had
to be over twenty feet of water because we couldn’t see any
water lines or anything. The roof was completely covered, ceilings,
I mean everything.
“Dry fixtures, ceilings, the walls, the insulation, the dry
wall, everything had to be taken out. The only thing there left
is the floor and that might have to go. The frame and that has to
be cleaned. I was able to save it because it was new. But the house
was sitting in water for at least a month, just sitting there,”
Compared to many of her neighbors, Jones was fortunate to find her
home intact. A predominantly working class, African American neighborhood
with a high rate of homeownership, the Lower Ninth Ward suffered
the greatest devastation of the city’s sections. According
to local officials there are between 15,000 and 17,000 homes in
Storm surges from at least three levee breaches flooded the Lower
Ninth, knocking houses off their foundations. And as the levees
burst, an unsecured barge came into the neighborhood’s north
east section, flattening homes as it floated in Katrina’s,
and later, Hurricane Rita’s floodwaters.
Though clear of much of the mud and debris that once choked the
streets, this six-block section of the Lower Ninth seems as if it
has been left untouched for the past six months. Not far from the
barge, rusting cars are tossed in all directions, at times on top
of each other or wedged under leveled buildings. Molding clothing
and furniture line sidewalks. Tree branches and twisted fences cover
front stoops and naked building foundations.
In the rest of the Lower Ninth Ward, many homes are still standing,
though clearly in need of repair. Even in the daytime, the streets
are desolate, save the groups of volunteer work crews or the crowds
that arrive daily to tour the devastation. As New Orleans has lost
more than half of its population and shifted from a largely black
to a barely majority white city, the absence of many residents indicates
how this demographic change might have taken place.
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina and Rita, some city officials recommended
bulldozing parts of the Lower Ninth Ward. The idea remerged in a
January 2006 preliminary report from Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring
Back New Orleans Commission with plans to convert the lowest-lying
parts of the neighborhood into park space.
Homeowners protested this decision widely understood as a land grab
by wealthy and well-connected developers. After several rallies
and demonstrations, residents settled a class action lawsuit with
the city in January, blocking efforts to bulldoze homes without
proper notification of their owners. Several weeks ago, the area’s
councilwoman also promised that electricity and potable water would
soon be restored, making it possible to hook up temporary FEMA trailers.
Over the past month, Jones has turned her attention to working with
the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition
(PHRF) by passing out flyers and reconnecting with neighbors “to
let them know that if they come back that we can work together to
rebuild our neighborhood.”
The PHRF is a broad coalition of grassroots organizations committed
to having the relief, return and reconstruction process in New Orleans
led by those most affected by Hurricane Katrina. This coalition
came out of meetings first held in the late 1990s of cultural workers,
community activists and labor leaders under the umbrella of Community
Though working groups addressing issues of basic needs, media, government
accountability and other topics, PHRF has sought to mobilize and
inform newly returning residents. According to organizer Kanika
Taylor, PHRF is focusing on the Lower Ninth Ward because “we
believe that whatever happens in the Lower Ninth Ward can be a model
for the rest of Louisiana and the nation.”
“People need to rebuild and occupy their land. As long as
people are there occupying the land they are more accountable to
us when we are present,” said Taylor.
Rather than waiting on government authorities, Jones and others
with the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund have been working
to determine the future of the Lower Ninth Ward through a People’s
Reconstruction Plan. Weekly meetings bring residents together for
discussions and planning. This March, hundreds of African American
student volunteers will be working to rebuild damaged homes, jumpstarting
recovery in a neighborhood that has been largely neglected.
These efforts face a host of obstacles that go beyond the physical
condition of homes. Many homeowners are reluctant to return because
of fresh memories of their ill treatment during the city’s
evacuation and fears regarding the safety of the levees.
“My youngest daughter, she’s made up her mind that she’s
not coming back. My oldest daughter, she wanna come back but right
now she can’t because we don’t have any schools for
the kids and jobs,” Jones explained. “No housing. And
she’s not going to be able to afford things for too long because
she’s a single parent and the cost of living is ridiculous.”