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
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
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
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
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
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.