NEW ORLEANS—Three times in the past 40 years, hurricanes have flooded this city's Lower Ninth Ward. And three times, the generations of blacks who called it home have vowed to rebuild.
Federal officials and others have questioned the wisdom of rebuilding in this and other low-lying areas. They say New Orleans needs instead to renew the system of wetlands that protected the city against flooding in previous generations. That would mean allowing much of the Ninth Ward and other low-lying areas to return to marshland.
Ninth Ward residents say their neighborhood instead should be reconstructed to withstand storms.
"You get homesick," said Louise Brumfield, as she returned to the Lower Ninth Ward for the first time Thursday. "The people we've been seeing here, they are so happy to be back, even with it looking like this."
She and her sister, Tierza Gray, surveyed acres of houses blown off foundations or shattered into giant piles of pickup sticks.
"That's my house. It was once there," Gray said, pointing. "Now, it's across the street."
Her house had landed on top of a maroon Nissan.
"It looks like the `Wizard of Oz,''' Brumfield said. Their 16-year-old nephew, Paul Adams, donned a breathing mask, broke a window and crawled inside Gray's house. He retrieved a few family photos, the faces obscured beyond recognition by mold.
When they hear talk of bulldozing the Ninth Ward, they can't help but see it as racially and economically motivated. By reputation, the area was a crime-ridden, poor, black slum. In reality, they say, it was home to many working-class families like their own. Every Sunday, relatives from all over the city would flock to Gray's house in the Lower Ninth, go to church and spend the day eating and talking.
The sisters and others in the community have expressed suspicion that government officials may have intentionally broken the levee to flood the Ninth Ward to save wealthier parts of New Orleans. The Industrial Canal levee broke in about the same place during the one-two punch of hurricanes Katrina and Rita as it had in Hurricane Betsy in 1965, when the Lower Ninth also was devastated.
"Most of us down there believed the Army Corps of Engineers deliberately blew that levee (during Betsy)," said Henry Julien, a lawyer who grew up in the Ninth Ward but lives now in Uptown. With those rumors circulating, the Army Corps repeatedly has denied that the levees purposely were broken.
There was precedent though. In 1927, New Orleans city leaders made a deal with residents of St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. They broke a levee to flood those areas and save New Orleans, promising payment to residents of the parishes. City leaders later reneged on the promise.
That history resonates beyond the Ninth Ward. St. Bernard residents, who are mostly white and whose homes Katrina destroyed, also complain that they are being neglected while the world focuses on rebuilding New Orleans.
Craig Colten, geography professor at Louisiana State University, said the debate over the Lower Ninth has missed the real question.
"I don't think we should make any decisions based on race or class in rebuilding the Ninth Ward," he said. "I think we need to look at New Orleans as a whole and look at the lowest areas—the areas that would be hit the hardest in any future flood—and think about converting those to green spaces, to wetlands, to flood retention basins, so that waters can stand in those areas without damaging property in the future."
That includes looking at whether St. Bernard Parish should be rebuilt, he said.
But history makes class and race all but impossible to ignore, especially in the Lower Ninth.
After World War II, the Ninth Ward became a haven in racially divided New Orleans for black veterans who for the first time became homeowners. Norman Rockwell's famous painting of a young black girl escorted to school by federal marshals was inspired by 1960 school integration here. The Black Panthers in the 1960s and 1970s operated from the ward's Desire housing development, sometimes engaging in shootouts with local police.
Last month, federal Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson raised hackles when he said he didn't know whether the Ninth Ward should be rebuilt because of its precarious geography.
State Rep. Charmaine Marchand, who lives in the Lower Ninth and represents it in Baton Rouge, disagrees. She thinks the land and houses can be raised to protect the Lower Ninth from future storms.
"There is no debate," she said. "It's going to be rebuilt. There are people that have insurance that can rebuild their homes without the government. We have 54 percent home ownership down there."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051007 STORMS NINTH WARD
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