Poor Still Stunned by Katrina; As Affluent Areas Rapidly Rebuild, the Lower Ninth Ward Stagnates

by Anna Badkhen
The San Francisco Chronicle
August 20, 2006

New Orleans

In a couple of months, no trace will remain of the floodwater that filled their living room a year ago, and Tom and Darlene Schnatz will move back into their stucco two-story house on oak-lined Canal Boulevard, in New Orleans’ upscale Lakeview district.

Troy Wilson will return to his house in New Orleans East even sooner, as will most of the families on his street, where construction workers are putting the finishing touches on houses restored after Hurricane Katrina flooded them with 6 feet of water. Ingrid Toruno and most of her neighbors in St. Bernard Parish, which was under 12 feet of water, also have almost rebuilt their homes.

But less than a mile west of Toruno’s nearly finished house, in the city’s poorest Lower Ninth Ward, which bore the brunt of Katrina’s devastation, no one is rebuilding the gutted frame of Albert Bass’ wooden home, or any houses around it.

“To think that it’s a year later and it still looks the same, it’s a nightmare,” said Bass, 45, an unemployed dental technician who has been trying to find resources to rebuild his family home since December.

In fact, little has changed in this almost entirely African American neighborhood. Twelve months after Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, putrid mounds of moldy Sheetrock line the streets of warped houses, and most of the neighborhood’s evacuated residents remain in exile.

A white wooden house that had floated over the sidewalk last August still sits in the middle of the street. Water still gushes out of a broken pipe that burst in the hurricane. Reeds grow in an empty two-story house that has somehow wrapped itself around a squashed Chevrolet sedan. A yellow ring of dried sludge 8 feet off the ground marks the level of Katrina’s floodwater on the white stucco wall of another house. Underneath the sludge, someone has spray-painted on the wall: “Baghdad.”

The disparities between New Orleans’ rich and poor, which became quickly apparent when Katrina struck last Aug. 29, now define the recovery efforts in the city. The excruciatingly slow recovery of the Lower Ninth Ward is representative of the hurdles the poor face throughout New Orleans, in such districts as Treme and Bywater, which Katrina also inundated, and where recovery is equally hard to discern.

“People who have resources, either insurance or personal wealth, they are rebuilding,” said Danae Columbus, a spokeswoman for the New Orleans City Council. “People who didn’t have good insurance and are poor—they’re in a box.”

Katrina destroyed or severely damaged approximately 125,000 properties in New Orleans. Since last September, the city has issued 70,000 building permits to residents seeking to rebuild. But the city’s reconstruction plan requires that neighborhoods manage their own rebuilding—an arrangement that local officials acknowledge is working better in some neighborhoods than others.

In the middle-class districts of Broadmoor, Lakeview and Eastover, the thumping of pneumatic nail guns and the buzzing of saws fill the air. Residents, who have been living in trailers set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are rebuilding their homes, community groups are devising blueprints for neighborhood revival, and local leaders are lobbying for state and city resources such as garbage cleanup.

“I think most of New Orleans is gonna come out stronger, it’s gonna come out much better than before the storm,” said Toruno, a 54-year-old housewife. “Everybody’s coming back, everybody’s doing something.”

But the few residents of the Lower Ninth Ward who remained here or have returned don’t feel that way. There is nightmarish garbage, in which thousands of rats scurry after sundown. Of about 6,000 families who lived in the Lower Ninth Ward before the hurricane, fewer than 200 have returned. The occasional groan of a house demolition interrupts the pall of silence hanging over the once-bustling neighborhood.

“A lot of people haven’t even been back to see their homes,” said Matt Sabin, a volunteer from San Francisco who is working with the grassroots organization Common Ground to help Lower Ninth Ward residents return and rebuild their homes.

Returning is crucial to reconstruction. But most of the neighborhood’s residents who were evacuated to other towns and states in the wake of Katrina do not have the means to return, residents and experts say. According to the estimates published by the Washington-based Brookings Institution this month, only 181,000 people now live in the city, well below the pre-Katrina population of 463,000.

Federal and state programs to assist homeowners with rebuilding have been slow to launch and have yet to give out money. Most residents who are rebuilding are using the money they received from their insurance companies. Last week, the Louisiana Recovery Authority began interviewing some of the 100,000 New Orleans residents who had applied for grants to rebuild, Columbus said.

“None of the rebuilding activity is gonna be as a result of government intervention at this point,” said Judson Mitchell, an attorney at the Law Clinic at Loyola University School of Law, which helps the city’s poorest residents. “It’s all grassroots, all residents rebuilding themselves.”

But few in the Lower Ninth Ward, where the median household income before the hurricane was $19,000 a year, had flood insurance or savings they could use to rebuild.

“Lower Ninth Ward residents have less access to resources, and it’s harder for them to come back,” Mitchell said.

Wilson, of New Orleans East, was more fortunate. He returned from evacuation in Houston in March to assess the hurricane damage to his three-bedroom house. He filed an insurance claim, got the money soon after he returned, and used it to pay off the mortgage and rebuild.

“I was really lucky with flood insurance,” said Wilson, 46, who installs indoor sprinklers for a living.

The Schnatzes of Lakeview, who had been evacuated to Beaumont, Texas, also are using insurance money to pay for repairs. Toruno, who is still waiting for her insurance money, is using her savings to pay for the renovations.

Some in the Lower Ninth Ward, on the other hand, say it may be better to build a new life wherever they were evacuated than try to return to their dilapidated neighborhood.

“I don’t even know if I can commit to a job here,” said Ernest Dorsey, a heavy equipment operator who was evacuated from the Lower Ninth Ward to the suburbs of Gulfport, Miss. Dorsey, who was visiting relatives in New Orleans last week , said he is considering staying there. His relatives, Joe and Denise Bienemy, live in a FEMA trailer next to the remnants of their mold-ridden house, which Joe Bienemy is trying to rebuild by himself.

“If I get here, get a job and they tell me I have to bulldoze the house—that’s ridiculous,” Dorsey said.

Even in better-off neighborhoods not everything is going smoothly. Fewer than half of New Orleans public schools are expected to reopen by September. Only three of 11 hospitals are operating.  Water pressure is low, and the city’s damaged plumbing system hemorrhages 85 million gallons of water a day. Streetlights don’t work in some neighborhoods; it is hard to find a working gas station.

“There’s very little in way of services,” said Schnatz, 63, a retired engineer who spends most of his afternoons sitting on a plastic chair and sipping sodas with his wife, Darlene, on the tiled porch of their Canal Boulevard house. The Home Depot in St. Bernard Parish is not fully stocked, and Toruno has to travel across New Orleans to buy essentials for her house.

Such problems are magnified in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Charity Hospital, which served the district, is closed. No restaurants, banks, well-stocked supermarkets or doctors’ offices have reopened in the district since the hurricane. To get across town to shop, eat or get medical attention is made harder by the fact that few here own a working automobile and just half of the city’s 46 bus routes are operating.

Power has been restored in most of the city, but in the Lower Ninth entire blocks are still without gas or electricity.

Bass, who applied for a trailer from FEMA in January, is still waiting. He sleeps under a mosquito net in his house, on a mattress in what once was his kitchen. He lights candles, and inchlong cockroaches skitter away from the light, clicking on the wooden floors. During the day, he helps at the Common Ground center five blocks away, cooking and lending tools to the few residents who are rebuilding. He cherishes the only two possessions that survived the hurricane: his dentistry kit and a large, wooden carving that depicts Don Quixote on horseback.

“Do you know the story of Don Quixote?” Bass asked. “I dream of this neighborhood coming back. I wanna see crews getting in and rebuilding.”

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