A Personal Account:
In the winter of 2009 I took off for New Orleans to do relief work for three months. While I had never seen this city pre-Katrina, it was immediately obvious that some communities were struggling with great difficulty to rebuild. Three and a half years after one of the worst disasters the United States had ever seen, great numbers of buildings throughout New Orleans remained abandoned. The neighborhood I stayed in, the Lower 9th Ward, was greatly devoid of people having only one operating school and minimal amenities. My block consisted of only 2 rebuilt homes (appart from my own), probably 15 abandoned homes but mostly overgrown lots where houses had been demolished. Prior to Hurricane Katrina 15,000 people made the Lower 9th their home. Today 5,500 live there. Hundreds lost their lives and many families choose not yet to return to this scared neighborhood. As I walked through crumbling streets I was hit was a deep sense of apprehension, seeing the remnants of a once vibrant community now in ruins. As I began my exploration of this still hurting city, this feeling would only grow revealing to me the depth and complexity of issues in post-Katrina New Orleans.
The Human Impact:
The obvious impact of a disaster such as hurricane Katrina was the destruction of entire communities and livelihoods. A major question today is why families are choosing not to come back and rebuild. The Lower 9th, a neighborhood below sealevel, was hard hit when the levee broke along the industrial canal. Many families were forced to hide in attics during the storm and then wait on their rooftops for days for help to arrive. Many of the community members I spoke with told me terrible stories of dispair during that time. In addition to seeing thier home destroyed, stories of exposure, trying to survive on little food and water, and witnessing family members and neighbors die revealed a great deal of post-tramatic stress.
One man, Smitty, whose house I worked on said while giving us a tour of L9: “A lot of people think, what for? What do we have to come back to? So I can be the only person on my block? So I can deal with filling out all the paper work and getting the insurance company to approve every little detail while I rebuild? There’s no community here, no security. No, a lot of people think it’s better just to tear it down and move on in life. Start somewhere new that wont just get flooded again. Those people who are moving back are mostly old people like me who don’t know any other way. Those people are coming back to die in the community they grew up in.”
Environmental and Health Concerns:
The major problem with rebuilding homes that were flooded is black mold. All houses are considered toxic until they have been gutted down to the siding and studs.
Here are some photos of the gutting process:
Another problem is the quality of soil in L9. Most of these homes were built using asbestos. As they flooded, this asbestos got into the water and then leeched into the soil. Given the magnitude of this flood, it is likely the soil is contaminated with a multitude of other chemicals as well. One man told me his body broke out in lesions after swimming in flood water. Soil quality is so bad that residents cannot even have gardens as it is considered toxic. This undoubtedly has concerning implications to the surrounding ecosystems.
While the outlook appears bleak for this community, reconstruction is happening. While a slow process New Orleans has seen a surge of grass roots organizing inorder to reconstruct not only the homes families but also the community that once existed there. Organizations such as Common Ground Relief, Lower 9, and NOLA Urban Farmers Coalition work directly with community members to provide sustainable support socially, economically, environmentally and even provide legal advise. When I returned to the L9th last summer I could see their efforts had in fact caused change for the better. More people were returning to reconstruct their homes, businesses were reopening, and even the reclamation of a community park. I even got to see some progress on homes I did work on.