Published on Wednesday, December 7, 2005 by CommonDreams.org
Report from the Devastated Front Lines of the Lower Ninth Ward - New Orleans
by Mary Beth Appell
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 Practictioner 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.
The whole area was guarded by armed men in black fleece jackets and sunglasses who work for Blackwater security, a mercenary group hired by the government. Most are former special op's 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 snapped.
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 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 author's experiences as a volunteer at Common Ground, a New Orleans community-based grassroots relief effort www.commongroundrelief.org. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.