From New York Newsday, Oct. 11, this harrowing report by staff writer John Riley from New Orleans’ devastated Lower Ninth Ward:
Six weeks after the storm, no neighborhood in this ravaged city faces longer odds than the financially impoverished but culturally rich Lower Ninth — and none better reflects the fault lines of race and class, nature and economics tangled together in the debate over New Orleans’ future.
Located on the east side of the breached Industrial Canal, it is one of the lowest-lying areas in the city — essentially, an old cypress swamp. It has flooded before, in 1965, during Hurricane Betsy, which took 81 lives. It is hemmed in by waterways and canals. Some scientists consider its topography hopeless, and warn that any attempts to raise it with fill would be equally hopeless because the underlying marsh would sink under the weight.
Hundreds of structures where its roughly 14,000 inhabitants lived have already been identified by the city as hazardous, and many more are overgrowing with mold. Scientists worry that it may have been inundated with toxic pollutants. More than 36 percent of its erstwhile residents live below the poverty line, leaving them with fewer resources to return and rebuild, and less leverage to hold out when insurers make settlement offers.
Mayor C. Ray Nagin has promised that any mass demolitions will follow consultations and development of a compensation formula, but he hasn’t been encouraging about the future. Unlike the rest of the city, he still hasn’t officially opened the Lower Ninth up for residents to come back, citing health and levee concerns.
“I don’t think it can ever be what it was, because it’s the lowest-lying area,” Nagin warned last week.
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson has been more direct. Predicting that New Orleans, which was 67 percent African-American before Katrina, will never again be as “black” as it was, Jackson told the Houston Chronicle after a recent meeting with Nagin, “I told him I think it would be a mistake to rebuild the Ninth Ward … I’m not sure what we do with it.”
Against the backdrop of a history of neglect, comments like that — and the delay in permitting re-entry — have triggered a sense of paranoia among those who lived there. Some speak darkly of long-standing efforts by the Army Corps of Engineers to take part of the neighborhood for an expansion of the Industrial Canal’s navigation locks. Others complain that there has been little talk of demolition and abandonment of similarly low-lying areas laid waste by Katrina — neighborhoods like Lakeview or Gentilly, that are whiter or better off.
See our last post on Katrina and its aftermath.