Friday, November 27, 2009

The Lower Ninth Ward-The City Below the Sea

While all of us have heard that the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, few of us have actually seen it. What most of us are not aware of is that it was not devastated, it was utterly destroyed. After the flood waters receded, many of the homes had floated completely off of their foundations and were not necessarily even on the lot where they had once stood. Those that were still left standing had been filled with water up to the roof lines, and between the thick layer of mud that was left behind and the mold that soon blossomed from every surface, they also had to be demolished. What was left for nearly as far as the eye can see in some areas was block after block of nothing but the remnants of the fronts steps and concrete foundations upon which they once stood. For the most part, these were poor people before Katrina came and took what little they had to begin with. Over four years later, little has been done to restore these neighborhoods, and many of the residents will never return. Most have found new lives in places like Houston, a city that opened its arms to the busloads of refugees that poured out of the city.

We were not quite sure what to expect when we arrived on one of the rare cool and sunny days when the humidity is not stifling. We were there to tour the handful of homes that are being constructed by Make it Right, a non-profit organization spearheaded by Brad Pitt, and dedicated to helping rebuild this neighborhood. We were also there to answer the question that many of us ask ourselves. Should it be rebuilt?

As most of us are aware, the city of New Orleans sits on land that is largely below sea level. The wisdom of rebuilding a city that lies in such a precarious position, particularly in light of the potential for rising sea levels and increased hurricane activity associated with global climate change, has of course been questioned. As we toured the area however, here and there in the homes that had managed to survive, and in those that had been rebuilt, one could feel the spirit of this poor but once proud neighborhood struggling to rise from the ruins. In front of one of the few remaining FEMA trailers, a handwritten plea to the President and the people of this country not to forget that this was once a place where people lived and worked and had babies and died, stood as a stark reminder of that. Below it another hand painted sign showing the spreading base of a large banyan tree proclaimed “Roots run deep here”.

And deep they are for many of the residents and former residents of this area. Beginning before 1000 BC when the Mississippian culture built mounds and earthworks in their communities along the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys, and continuing when the French explorers, fur trappers, and traders arrived in the area by the 1690s, some making settlements amid the Native American village of thatched huts along the bayou, this area has been continuously occupied by a variety of cultures for thousands of years. Indeed the white settlers who came here considered what eventually became New Orleans, the “city that had to be built” lying as it does at the confluence of the Gulf of Mexico and one of the most important trade routes in the world, the Mississippi River. Today, many of the residents are direct descendants of the natives, French, Spanish, and African American slaves who helped build this city and its unique blend of cultures. For many of them, generations of their families have lived and died here, buried in the above ground catacombs made familiar to my generation by the acid-trip graveyard scene in the iconic movie of the 60’s, Easy Rider.

What is astonishing is the amount of work it took to build this city below the sea, and the equally incredible effort it takes to keep that sea and the rivers that feed into it from reclaiming it. From the bottom of the Lower Ninth Ward, the dikes and levees that hold back these waters rise way above your head, while the water itself on a beautiful sunny day like this is mere feet from their tops. One can only imagine the sights and sounds when the fury of Katrina breached those levees and filled these neighborhoods like a bathtub without a drain. In many ways this is sacred ground, and the occasional cross or memorial to the nearly 2000 people that died there are a stark reminder of what happened that day.

I happened to be in Miami less than thirty days after Hurricane Andrew did its number on that city, and the damage was tremendous. However when I returned there again on business less than a year later, it was already becoming hard to tell that the storm had ever occurred. Because it was a fairly affluent and well-insured city, money poured into rebuilding Miami. In the more affluent areas of New Orleans like the Garden District, or the French Quarter, where money flowed to rebuild these areas like the whiskey flows to feed the tourists, there are virtually no signs of the damage. However, due to a combination of a lack of insurance, a federal government that has a damaged economy and two foreign wars on its hands, the fact that this was a poor neighborhood to begin with, and that the question of whether we should rebuild still remains, four years later almost nothing has been done to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward.

While it may seem odd and almost like shaking their fist at them, Make It Right has chosen to rebuild only a stones throw from those infamous levees. Using some of the latest in green building materials, and constructing them on stilts that would have protected them from even the highest water in the area, each of these brightly colored homes is unique, much like the people who live here. As we toured the neighborhood, these residents waved at us from the porches and yards of their newly constructed homes. Only fifteen of these homes have been built so far, but what is plainly clear is that they are not just rebuilding homes, but attempting to rebuild a community.

Should we rebuild this city? I guess that depends on who you ask. For the people we saw stubbornly rebuilding their homes there, I would have to say the answer is yes, yes we will.

To learn more CLICK HERE to visit our website.


  1. Opened the new Airstream Life magazine and had the pleasant surprise of seeing you both! Great article. Keep up the good work! -Andrea and Art Hamilton (Frontenac)

  2. I know this post was a long time ago, but I had not heard of Make it Right before now. I just went to their site and donated thanks to your blog - thank you for that.