Aug 27, 2010

Doubts over bid to protect New Orleans from more ...

It never crossed Corey Robinson's mind to leave New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. Not even after Hurricane Katrina breached the city's levees in 2005, filling his home and every other on his street — Flood Street, it so happens — with fetid water that wallpapered every room with mold and wrecked the plumbing. A construction contractor, Robinson, 30, was determined to rebuild and keep his wife and four children in the community that he calls "our home, our habitat, our roots." "You just don't walk away from that," he says as he stands outside his rebuilt, newly painted and beautifully detailed historic shotgun house.

But Robinson is one of the Lower Ninth Ward's exceptions. Across Flood Street stand other lovely but abandoned and boarded-up houses, some still bearing the ominous X's on their facades that disaster officials used to indicate they were uninhabitable. On a blighted property next door, grass and weeds have grown taller than August corn. "We're giving the Lower Ninth another chance," says Robinson. "But you don't see too many of your neighbors anymore. It hurts a lot."

Five years after Katrina, the Lower Ninth remains a world of hurt. Predominantly African-American and working class, it was the district hardest hit by a storm whose biblical floods, it's now agreed, resulted largely from negligence on the part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that built and was supposed to maintain the surrounding levees. And yet, post-Katrina, the once thriving community is also the hardest hit by seeming government indifference. Only a fifth of the Lower Ninth's 20,000 residents have returned to live since 2005, in no small part because of inadequate reconstruction funding compared to aid that homeowners in other New Orleans neighborhoods have received, and because of the slow pace of long-promised infrastructure and other community development projects.

That casts a long shadow over any celebration of the Big Easy's revival. Even though New Orleans landmarks like the French Quarter may be humming again, Lower Ninth stalwarts insist that the city's comeback has to be measured by how fully their two-square-mile (3.3 sq km) pocket returns to life. "Until the Lower Ninth Ward is back on its feet, the New Orleans recovery has failed," says Patricia Jones, a resident and director of the Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association (NENA), a nonprofit working to restore the area.

To some, it's a miracle that the Lower Ninth, home to famous New Orleans musicians like Fats Domino, is still making any noise at all. Katrina, possibly the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, wrecked the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida, caused almost $100 billion in damage and killed 1,800 people. But one of its most enduring images is the Lower Ninth submerged by floodwaters — and the moonscape that was left when they finally subsided. Government officials strongly hinted that the community should not be rebuilt. The costs seemed too daunting and, just as important, "Lower" was an all too apt description of the area's below-sea-level geography — a tract surrounded by the Mississippi River, the Industrial Canal and Lake Borgne — making it vulnerable to future deluges.

But new and stronger levees are nearing completion. And a determined core of residents argues that abandoning the Lower Ninth would be an even bigger betrayal of blue-collar New Orleans than the one suffered at the hands of the Army Corps and then the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), whose notorious dysfunction exacerbated the catastrophe. "You get the feeling they're just waiting for all us so-called poor people to leave so they can turn the place into a resort area or something," says resident Henry Holmes, 76, who owns a popular local restaurant, Holmes One Stop. "But you can't have New Orleans without the Lower Ninth Ward. The neighborhood's going to come back eventually."

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