Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Oh my, Nola, Part 2: The Lower 9 and Chalmette

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? I miss it, each night and day the longer I stay away. Miss the moss covered vines, the tall sugar pines where mocking birds used to sing....

The Lower 9th Ward is the neighborhood in the city of New Orleans that was worst hit by Hurricane Katrina and the levee burst that came with her. As Christina, one of the Americorps volunteers we had the chance to work with, said, "The city came through the storm fine. It was when the levee broke that we had problems."
There was a barge moored in the levee canal during the hurricane. It came loose from its mooring during the storm and it smashed through the levee, sending millions and millions of gallons of water though the levee wall and into the neighborhood below.

It is illegal to leave boats, barges, and other vessels in the levees. They can pass though, but they are not supposed to sit there, especially not during a hurricane. This is a law that is not enforced. When we were visiting with some folks in the Lower 9 last Thursday (March 19, 2009), there was a tugboat parked in the levee. We could see it over the wall. One is left to wonder what would have happened here if that barge had not been in the levee in Augiust 2005.
The Lower 9 was not the land of gang bangers and murderers that I understood it to be before we got there. The Lower 9 had the highest percentage of black homeowners (owned their homes outright, no mortgage) in the country before Katrina. It was a tight neighborhood where families lived for generations. Even the kids who left NOLA came back to the Lower 9 to raise their kids and to take care of their aging parents. It was a poor neighborhood, but they were working poor who took care of their homes.

This is Mr. Eugene Johnson (above, in front of his rebuilt house). He and his wife, Helen, rode out the storm in their home. He got 5 feet of water in his house when the levee broke. His wife stayed in the attic because she can't swim. Mr. Johnson told us about what he saw when the levee broke: "I was watching out the window and a house up on the corner comes floating down the street, like it had a rudder on it. It didn't hit a telephone pole or nothin'."

Mr. Johnson lives on the west side of S. Claiborne St., which seems to be the dividing line between really bad and devastating on the Lower 9.

This is a photo Scott took from the top of a levee in the Lower 9: You can see the foundations of the houses that were either wrecked then torn down or simply floated away, lifted right off of their concrete foundations. You can see that out of the over one thousand houses that were here how few of them have been rebuilt. In this part of the lower 9, the houses were covered in up to 20 feet of water.

This is Mr. Robert Green, Sr. (left, next to Christina from Americorps). When he told us about his experience, he said the water was rising so fast that they had 5 minutes to get the family from the first floor to the attic then 5 minutes to get through the roof before the house was filled with water. In the struggle and confusion, his elderly mother and his 3 year old granddaughter drowned. You can read the entire story here.

Part of the memorial (outside of Mr. Greene's trailer) to Mrs. Green and Shanai Green. Those are Shanai's shoes under the wreaths on the right hand side.

The Chalmette section of St. Bernard Parish borders the Lower 9 and is also right next to the levee. We saw a townhouse development that has been gutted and has weeds 4 feet high growing in the cracks of the driveways and sidewalks. There are seashells on the doorsteps. The Gulf of Mexico is an hour away. The storm surge deposited these seashells and others like it as a far away as downtown New Orleans, maybe further.

There are grocery stores and churches and schools that have not reopened because the people have not returned to rebuild.

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