March 16, 2006– Vol. 41, No. 31

Efforts being made to rebuild after Katrina

Toussaint Losier

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 city.

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,” Jones said.

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 this area.

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 Labor United.

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.”



Back to Top

Editorial Roving CameraNews NotesNews DigestCommunity Calendar
Arts & EntertainmentBoston ScenesBillboard
Contact UsSubscribeLinksAdvertisingEditorial ArchivesStory Archives
Young ProfessionalsJOBS