The residents of the
Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans were finally allowed to return home on
December 1, 2005. The neighborhood is home to nearly 20,000
African-American citizens and was devastated by the flooding during and
after Katrina. This was the very first time they were legally permitted
to visit their homes.
I spent the next day in the
Lower Ninth Ward under a big tent staffing a mobile medical clinic set
up alongside FEMA, the Red Cross, the EPA, and the Salvation Army.
I am here as a volunteer with Common Ground, a free collective medical
clinic in New Orleans set up by residents of New Orleans and staffed by
local and out of town volunteers. I am a Nurse Practitioner in
Philadelphia where I help coordinate a free medical clinic.
One road was open to let people into the neighborhood. People were met
by a military checkpoint in their cars. They had to show proof of
residency to be allowed past the checkpoint. Then they were required to
stop by the tent to speak with FEMA, the EPA, to get their "shots",
masks and booties.
Armed men in black fleece jackets and sunglasses who work for Blackwater
security, a mercenary group hired by the government, guarded the whole
area. Most are former special ops guys who usually do their thing in
developing countries. Blackwater was reported to be there to guard FEMA
workers from the residents.
The condition of the houses and roads was shocking. I have NEVER seen
such devastation. Every house had severe damage: roofs collapsed,
rotting wood, rooms broken off, water lines now over the roof. Trees
were down, debris was all over the small roads along with 2-3 inches of
dried brown sediment.
The homes on larger roads had truckloads of debris bulldozed on the
lawns to clear the street. Bicycles were in trees. Coolers were on
roofs. It took me a minute to realize that people were living on the
roofs, and the coolers were dragged up there to store food. Each house
was marked with a spray painted X and coded with number of people and
animals found and/or dead. Electrical wires were down, phone poles
Cars were all over, encrusted with mud. Many cars squashed in carports
or by trees and roofs.
The huge piles of debris looked like mounds of snow after a blizzard.
One church was completely squashed. It was about 4 feet high with only
the steeple left.
The only work done by the government in the Lower Ninth Ward in more
than 3 months was to move the mud and debris out of the main roads. No
water, power, people there. The people came and left empty handed. I
imagine many couldn't get into what was left of their houses. Home
ownership is reported to be around 85%. Mortgage payments are now due.
No decision has been made to raze the neighborhood versus trying to
repair it. In this part of New Orleans most people have lived in the
same neighborhood for generations.
We spoke to many people. Most seemed to be in shock. All were polite and
grateful. This neighborhood has flooded many times because of breeches
in the levee in the Industrial canal nearby.
The people were told a barge broke the canal. Several people related the
same story that early in the morning, they heard an explosion. Then the
water poured in -- before the rains came.
Many believe the levee was dynamited to drain the canal into the Lower
Ninth Ward rather than the wealthier neighborhoods. This is not
paranoia. The levees have been dynamited before for just that reason. In
the 1920s the levees were intentionally dynamited to save other areas of
New Orleans and many people still suspect the same thing happened in the
1960s when there were many unexplained levee breaks.
One neighborhood woman told me that her husband sent her and the
children to Mississippi while he stayed. He rescued people in his small
rowboat for 7 days. She had no contact with him and only found out he
was alive by seeing him in the boat on cable TV. She said, "I just wish
he had gotten some recognition, I wish someone had asked for his name."
The rest of New Orleans is in bad shape, too. Some parts are worse than
others. Some houses are spared between other destroyed homes. The
destruction seems almost random. In one park the workers are
faithfully mowing the golf course.
Some neighborhoods have gas, some electricity, some neither. Only about
one fourth of the stores and gas stations are open.
Everywhere else in New Orleans you can see people fixing roofs, clearing
debris, working hard to reclaim their homes. But not in the Lower Ninth
Ward which has been officially closed for three months and is guarded by
heavily armed army and police.
Three months after the floods and hurricane, all the shelters are
closed. People are coming back home and have nowhere to go. I heard
that at most one quarter of the residents are here, the rest are spread
out across the south and the country.
I write because the Red Cross has been saying to potential volunteers,
"We don't need you in New Orleans. Go to Pakistan."
My experiences in New Orleans say otherwise. I ask you to put New
Orleans and the people of the Gulf coast back in your hearts, back in
your prayers, and back on your solidarity and action list.
Mary Beth Appell is a nurse practitioner who co-coordinates a
free clinic, the House of Grace Catholic Worker in Philadelphia. This
report is based on the authorís experiences as a volunteer at Common
Ground, a New Orleans
grassroots relief effort.
She can be reached at:
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