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A Shattered Community: New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward Remains a Solemn Katrina Memorial Despite Reconstruction

On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina left the city of New Orleans in ruin and turmoil. Due to a devastating storm surge, 80 percent of the city became submerged, resulting in a 53-day cleanup to drain a staggering 250 billion gallons of water.

According to the Data Center, an independent organization that provides statistical analysis of pertinent issues in southeastern Louisiana, 134,000 housing units suffered damage, and over 40 out of the city's 72 neighborhoods suffered catastrophic flooding. Across the Gulf Coast region, more than one million people were displaced.

Since that fateful day, no area of the city has had its struggle become more closely associated with Katrina's wrath than the Lower Ninth Ward. As a result of its location near a poorly designed shipping canal known as the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, which provided a direct route for the storm surge, and wall failures along the Industrial Canal, the neighborhood was overwhelmed by the massive wall of water.

A 'Harrowing' Experience

Robert Green, 60, a 48-year resident of the Lower Ninth, was one of many homeowners who suffered great loss as a result of Katrina.

As he recalled the "harrowing" ordeal, Green said his home had flooded up to the attic within five minutes, which forced him to scramble onto the rooftop along with his mother, three granddaughters, cousin and brother. The house was soon ripped off its foundation by the raging floodwaters and began floating down the street, during which time his 3-year-old granddaughter drowned.

Green found himself immersed in the rapidly rising floodwaters, fighting for survival and trying to keep his family together. Left stranded for seven hours out in the wind and rain, they had drifted to another rooftop before other residents, who had boats and launched impromptu rescue missions, came to their aid.

"It was neighbors helping neighbors first," Green said.

In addition to losing his home and granddaughter, Green said his mother drowned and was resuscitated, before later dying as a result of being out in the elements. He also very nearly had to get his right hand amputated after it became septic when a small cut became exposed to polluted floodwaters. It wasn't until four days after the storm, with travel assistance provided by his brother's company, Travel Centers of America, he was able to fly to Nashville for emergency care at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

The fact that Green and his family became stranded was the unfortunate outcome of an evacuation that would never materialize. One day earlier, they were packed and set to journey to Nashville, Tennessee, to ride out the storm with Green's brother.

They would never make it past Baton Rouge. The drive north, which is typically nearly two hours, turned into a maddening 14-hour crawl. The normal flow of traffic stopped, thanks to close to a million people taking to the interstate to flee as Katrina hurtled towards the coastline.

Instead, Green and his family had to return to New Orleans, as his mother was very ill and couldn't continue on the road. They headed directly towards the Superdome for refuge, but because his mother was so sick, and the stadium didn't have the necessary medical equipment to accommodate her, it left their home as the last resort.

The Struggle to Rebuild

Today, Green is back in his rebuilt home on Tennessee Street, after several years in a FEMA trailer, and he has been living there since July 2009. The house was rebuilt with the assistance of Brad Pitt's Make It Right foundation, one of many non-profits or community groups working to the restore the proud community. Yet, the struggle to return home for a large percentage of homeowners remains.

New Orleans lost more than half its population as a result of Katrina, 484,674 in April of 2000 versus 230,172 in July of 2006, but recent data indicates it has recovered substantially. More than half of New Orleans' 72 neighborhoods have regained over 90 percent of their occupied households before the storm, according to the Data Center. The U.S. Census Bureau said New Orleans is once again among one of the 50 most populous cities, ranking 50th with 384,320 residents.

However, the Lower Ninth Ward is one of four neighborhoods in the city, along with B.W. Cooper, Florida Development and Iberville with a current population less than half of what it was pre-Katrina, the Data Center reports. As of June of 2015, the Lower Ninth has recovered only 37 percent of its population.

There are numerous reasons for why the Lower Ninth Ward remains far behind in rebuilding and population. According to information provided by the Lower Ninth Ward Homeownership Association, only 700 of 1,435 families have made it home.

According to the Homeownership Association, delays in patching the levees left homes sitting in water until Oct. 12. Then, the group said water in the neighborhood was shut off to improve pressure for the rest of the city and residents couldn't begin rebuilding until water service was restored. Potable water was restored to part of the Lower Ninth in May of 2006, while it wasn't until later that October when full service was restored.

In 2008, a lawsuit was filed by housing advocates on behalf of several African-American homeowners against Louisiana's "Road Home" program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The suit alleged the formula that allocated grants to homeowners through Road Home, which paid out based on the pre-storm market value as opposed to what it would cost to rebuild, had a discriminatory impact of thousands of African-American homeowners. A settlement of $62 million was reached in 2011.

Jon Skvarka, executive director of Rebuilding Together New Orleans, said his group has helped complete 495 projects, ranging from home rehabilitations to simple modifications since 2005.

Skvarka said the group looks to rebuild organically, meaning the group only does work when neighborhood leaders request assistance. In one section of the Lower Ninth where they have worked, Skvarka said the Holy Cross neighborhood is doing "quite well" as housing prices have stabilized and grown and long-term homeowners are back.

"Population-wise, it's pretty close to what it was pre-Katrina," Skvarka said.

But above Claiborne Avenue, a major thoroughfare in the locale, it becomes noticeable that the recovery is taking longer, he said.

Signs of Optimism

The challenge of getting the neighborhood fully rebuilt and back to pre-Katrina status is an arduous one. However, there has been recent momentum in restoring quality of life to the community, with an increase of 150 households in the last year, the homeownership association said.

According to data released by the city of New Orleans, $500 million was invested in the community since Katrina, with the funds helping pave the way for capital projects such as a new community center, two new playgrounds and a new building for New Orleans Fire Department Engine 39 Fire Station.

A new high school is being constructed at a cost of $32.4 million and is scheduled to open this fall. Nearly $60 million was spent on infrastructure improvements and road repairs. A new CVS pharmacy, the first major retailer to commit to the Lower Ninth Ward since the storm, is also scheduled to open later this year.

As part of a $14.5 billion Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System, a 26-foot-high, 1.8-mile-long storm surge barrier is now in place to shield the neighborhood from future storm surges that arise from the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Borgne.

Prior to Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward was described as a vibrant, family-oriented neighborhood full of hard-working people. A decade later, that hasn't changed, according to Green.

"It's basically no different than it was before," Green said. "Only difference is the numbers of people. It's still a quiet neighborhood. It's still a community neighborhood. It's still a family-oriented neighborhood, and we're free and safe of crime."

"We don't have these issues that people think we do," he added.

His neighbors directly to the right and left of his house haven't returned yet, but in his smaller neighborhood in the northern section of the Lower Ninth, which sits just below the Industrial Canal, Green said his subsection of the community has had plenty of reconstruction thanks to Make it Right and the St. Bernard Project.

The Lower Ninth Ward Homeownership Association has secured $4 million in funding from Road Home and other supplemental funding: enough money to help 34 families come home. The group is still involved with up to 100 additional families and looking to assist in their return as well.

Citing Superstorm Sandy's damage along the East Coast in 2012, as the most recent example of what the Lower Ninth Ward went through, Green stressed his community is no different than any other productive American neighborhood.

"We [are] a thriving neighborhood and a thriving community and we're going to keep on moving forward," he said.

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