The leaders of the Mardi Gras rally wisely decided to build a day off into the action packed schedule. Most of our fellow campers planned to do laundry, clean their rigs, and take a nap. We were glad to have this time to visit the Lower Ninth Ward on our bikes, since this was not on the touring schedule. We found a bike tour on the web and this seemed a much better way to see and understand what is going on in this heavily damaged spot than to hang out of a bus or car window. And we ended up being the only two folks on the tour, which made it even better. We loved having the guide to ourselves.
For those who have forgotten the details, the Lower Ninth was a two square mile area bordered by the shipping canal. The levees in this area breached a day after Katrina had gone by and massive amounts of water flooded quickly into the neighborhood and reached depths of sixteen feet. Hurricane Rita reflooded the area two weeks later and this poor neighborhood had the greatest loss of life in the city. It also had a high percentage of retired folks who had worked hard all their lives and finally owned their low priced homes here. Some could not flee because they no longer drove and the funds they have received from the relief agencies are not enough to rebuild their homes. Some lost the paperwork needed to prove that they had owned homes there at all. Only about 15% of the residents of the Lower Ninth have returned.
A disaster like this had never happened around here and there is plenty of blame to go around for why it was not handled better. The biggest villain according to the folks we talked to today, was the Army Corps of Engineers which did not build the levees as specified. Because there is no bedrock here, pilings have to be sunk thirty feet down and in the area of the levee breach this was not done. A large barge was illegally parked in the shipping canal and when it was swept through the levee break it made the hole 300 feet wide and it was impossible to sand bag.
People felt safe living here because they had been assured that the levees could not break. It was nice to see a number of church groups and young people on volunteer trips, working in the Ninth five years after Katrina. Some groups who came to help had preconceived notions of what needed to be done. An environmental group built five beautiful homes with the latest and greatest in green - solar panels, water recycling, special insulation, etc. All five of these homes stand finished but empty. They are much too expensive, even with subsidies, for any of the previous residents to purchase. Another section of new homes is built by an organization called "Make It Right." Famous names in architecture and architecture students have volunteered their time and innovative designs for free and these were occupied. In most cases if we saw a newly built home, it was paid for by the owner someway somehow. It is no longer possible to get mortgages for the Lower Ninth.
What made this tour more special was that it included meetings with two community leaders. Both were grandfathers who expected to have a leisurely retirement and were working harder than ever. One of them bought a building that he had planned to store his antique car collection in and converted it into a community center. (The antique cars had all floated away.) His plan of attack is to work on assessing what people still need and locating resources. He was quite critical of charitable organizations who come to town with projects already in mind. The other man had convinced a number of volunteers from various universities to rebuild his home and he opened a museum in his back yard with artifacts from his role in the Indian krewes and artifacts related to the storm. He had numerous photos and old costumes and could have talked all day. NPR fans probably heard a lot from him in the early days of Katrina since he was a regular interview for over a year.
We learned a lot today, but many questions remain. How can we do a better job of responding to huge natural disasters, especially once we are past handing out water and food? Does it make sense to rebuild in vulnerable areas? Can the Lower Ninth ever become the community it was when so few people can or have returned? Might its residents have better lives in their new locations? Can we anticipate the ramifications of dams, canals, and the rerouting of rivers or does Mother Nature always have her way in the end?