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Video: Lower 9th Ward, 5 years after Katrina

By// Jerry Bembry

NEW ORLEANS — In the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans there’s a house that sits vacant in the 2600 block of Andry Street, partly hidden by what’s left of the King Solomon Church.

Noticing the front door of the house was open and obviously abandoned, I walked in, following a worn carpet up the stairs to an apartment on the second floor. It was completely devastated: an overturned table, a broken lamp and clothing scattered on the floors.

What was left of the walls were covered in mold, and, standing in what once was someone’s home I knew this was the last place I would have wanted to be when the levees along the Industrial Canal — about 10 blocks away — collapsed, leaving this entire neighborhood under water.

That the Lower 9th Ward was the most devastated part of New Orleans is not a surprise — it’s located at one of the lowest points of the city, near the mouth of the Mississippi River. What’s shocking is that, five years after Katrina, the Lower 9th Ward still sits as a virtual wasteland, with some abandoned homes virtually untouched since the floods in 2005.

Visting New Orleans five years after Hurricane Katrina (Aug. 29, 2005), I expected to see remnants of the storm and flooding that left an estimated 1,800 people dead. While the French Quarter was spared much serious damage and continues to thrive, you don’t have to drive far to see a city struggling to return to normalcy.

Drive through the Dillard area in New Orleans east — three miles north of the French Quarter — and you can feel a sense of recovery. Some homes are still abandoned following the flooding that was caused by a breech in the nearby London Avenue Canal that is used for pumping water into Lake Pontchartrain. But many of the  homeowners have returned and are rebuilding.

“We had water up to here,” says Ruston Henry, as he points to the top of the wall of the first level of his home in the Dillard neighborhood. Henry fled with his family to Texas as Katrina approached, but says “But this is my home, and this is where I want to be.”

While most of the Lower 9th Ward is still a virtual ghost town, there are some signs of life. Just a block east of the Industrial Canal — on land where homes were knocked off their foundations after the levee collapsed — actor Brad Pitt — through the Make it Right Foundation — has led an effort to build new, green homes for residents who would like to return.

The 50 homes that have been finished look more like contemporary beach homes rather than the simple structures that made up the community before the flooding. Not only are the homes built “green” (all have solar panels on the roof), but they also have features designed to help weather future storms.

All the homes have ceiling hatches that will help families reach a secure area of a roof, and all sit on guideposts that elevate the house up to eight feet — and, using new technology, rise to 12 feet in the event of flooding. Fourteen families have moved into those new homes. Dozens more houses are under construction, so the rebuilding process is gaining some traction.

The return of its people, the opportunity to live a better life — that’s what I expected more of in the 9th ward, five years after Katrina. On a sign in front of one of the reconstructed homes, a resident wrote under the drawing of a base of a tree: “ROOTS RUN DEEP HERE”.

What I didn’t expect were the hundreds of homes that have been simply abandoned, with minimal effort to remove the blight. Of the 14,008 people who lived in the Lower 9th Ward in 2000, over 9,000 decided not to return. Even with the new levee wall in place, and the offer of new, spectacular homes, there are too many reminders of what happened five years ago.

Maybe the best way to build for the future and make the Lower 9th Ward a community again, is to remove the remnants of the horrific recent past.

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Jerry Bembry is a freelance writer and video producer who worked for a decade at ESPN The Magazine. Jerry’s ESPN.com story on former NBA star Jalen Rose was named the best feature story of 2007 by the Professional Basketball Writers Association.