Some back, most still gone in Lower Ninth


by Bill Capo / Eyewitness News

Posted on August 27, 2010 at 5:38 PM

Updated Friday, Aug 27 at 11:12 PM

NEW ORLEANS - A drive through the Lower 9th Ward is still a sobering experience five years after Katrina. North of Claiborne Avenue, much of what was a densely populated area is now badly overgrown lots, with ruined houses sprinkled about, and from time to time you can spot homes that have been repaired or built from scratch.

"In five years I thought we would be further along than we are," said Bill Waiters, of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association. "Really, blight is what upsets me more than anything else."

The destruction was incredible when the levee failed and sent a tidal wave smashing through the community so thoroughly that population expert Greg Rigamer says only 6,000 of the original 18,000 homes in the Lower Nine are inhabited now.

"They're about one third back from where they were," Rigamer said.  "That is one of the most significant challenges that the city faces. That is a very difficlut area because of the extent of damage that occurred." 

Reverend Willie Calhoun is so proud of the house he and his wife designed and partly built themselves. 

"A lot of work, a tremendous amount of work, but it was work that was good." 

His neighborhood is littered with empty lots, but it is the residents that returned that made him want to be here. 

"Cause it's home. It's home...See I still got Miss Alvina across the street, I still got Miss Butler, Miss Feeney down the street. Miss Feeney is 87 years old." 

Eyewitness News last saw him two years ago, living in a trailer as he worked on the house, and worried about the wildlife in the area's overgrown lots.

"My wife and daughters, I'm scared for them to come out at night, because you don't know what is coming out of all this grass. You might see armadillos, because in my opinion, they are letting the comunity go to seed, go back to green space."

Green space, those two words that were first spoken in the months after Katrina, still infuriate residents and community leaders here, who worry that idea slowed the Lower 9 recovery.

"I always said it was a forgotten community, but now I'm asking, is it forgotten, or is it deliberate? Is it a deliberate attempt to turn this area into green space?" asked Dr. Doris Hicks. 

"That's what burned us more than anything else," fumed Bill Waiters.  "I guess that was our rallying call. Green space? Be a cold day in hell before we allow that to happen."   

"We're determined, so if there is any talk of green space, it will not be in my lifetime," said Dr. Hicks. 

Doris Hicks is principal of the Martin Luther King Charter School, which has become a centerpiece of community recovery. 

But they had to fight to get the school re-opened, with volunteers doing the gutting as police watched, and they remember the questions from officials about whether a school was needed in the Lower 9th Ward. 

"It was a struggle, it was a really huge struggle, but at the end of the day it was really worthwhile."  

Doris Hicks says the struggles are not over. The first challenge, funding to build a new wing for high school students who now attend classes in rusting second hand trailers. 

"Another challenge that we face is opening other schools in the Lower Ninth Ward. We have over 450 students on the waiting list," said Hicks.    

"Katrina, when we talk about it, we say, you know, I was here, I was there, we were misplaced, we were misplaced, but no one is actually still down about it," said King Sophomore William Williams, Junior.  

The band room that was ruined in the flood is now alive again with the upbeat music of students like William Williams who will never forget what they endured five years ago, but are looking ahead now. 

"Stronger, tougher, more confident. I think if another storm came, we would definitely be prepared."  

And there is a part of the Lower Nine that is booming, where the Make It Right Foundation started by actor Brad Pitt has raised $30 million, and completed fifty of the planned 150 homes, with 25 more energy efficient, green-designed houses set to be finished this year, and it is an architectural wonderland.

"We get some people who think it is great, some who hate it, but really what matters to us most is that families are coming home," said Taylor Royle of the Make It Right Foundation.   

"The utility bills will make you cry, my lowest one has been forty dollars," said Make It Righe Home Owner Ann Parfaite.  

Ann Parfaite loves not only the energy savings in her Make It Right home, but that she is back in the place she has called home since 1966. 

"Katrina took what I had, but I wasn't going to let her win."  

They say more residents are moving in, and expect the recovery here to continue, but the Lower Nine faces significant challenges. Blight is the number one problem.  

"If you own a piece of property in Orleans Parish, you should be held accountale for the upkeep of that property," stated Bill Waiters.   

This is the time of year when New Orleanians do not rest easy as they ponder any potential activity in the tropics. But those in the Lower Ninth Ward who were tested so cruelly five years ago, well many say they do not lose sleep over the thought of another hurricane.   

"But I think it is going to be the community that it was eventually," concluded Dois Hicks,  "I'm not sure that in five years it is going to be that way, but community, the residents will come back."  

"Even if we have another storm come through here, we're going to pick up the pieces, and do what we do," said Bill Waiters.