Reclaiming Their Story: A Reflection on New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward

By Lindsey Habenicht, Project Assistant, Project on Family Homelessness and Seattle University Strategic Communications senior

Editor’s Note: Lindsey recently went to New Orleans for a spring-break service trip. We asked her to reflect on how her experience relates to the work we do on our project. She found a city still struggling to recover but filled with people who are amazingly resilient. Here is her report.

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A home in the Lower Ninth Ward with markings from after Katrina, reading “Don’t demolish.” Many of the houses in this neighborhood still wear spray-painted messages and markings from the initial rescue efforts. Photo by Lindsey Habenicht.

When I saw the Lower Ninth Ward for the first time, I immediately noticed the water marks that were eight feet high or above on some of the buildings, and the spray-painted markings on many houses. Those markings told, among other things, the number of victims – dead or alive – found inside the structure, or made a plea to leave the home as is.

Then, I noticed the empty lots that – instead of houses – held weeds and tall grass. The sadness I felt was inconsolable. I was angry and shocked. Compared to the rest of the city that we saw, the Lower Ninth Ward looked like no-man’s land.

However, when I looked at the newly-built school across from the house we were working on, I was briefly met by the illusion that the community was back on its feet. I noticed how the rays of sun peeked over the roof and how the sound of children’s laughter echoed in the still air. But when I looked at the land on either side, I noticed that the doors were still closed, lots were still empty, and there was no one else around.

History of the Lower Ninth Ward

The crumbling levees, the utter devastation and displacement of an entire neighborhood, the media coverage of the storm and the humanitarian crisis that followed. Though I was only 11 years old at the time Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, I will never forget the images of people trapped on their rooftops and waving to the world for help through a television screen, or the families completely abandoned, boating through the streets with all that was left and leaving behind the lives they once knew.

I will never forget the aching in my heart when I realized that so many people would not get to go home when the storm passed. However, it never crossed my mind that, 10 years later, so many of those people would still be without a home. Today, the region continues to struggle to recover from the storm and overcome the social challenges that pervade.

This March – long after Hurricane Katrina’s initial blow crippled the city’s most vulnerable population in one sweep – I was given the opportunity to visit the Lower Ninth Ward to help build and move families home, to witness the neighborhood in its current state, to hear resident stories, and now, to testify to the unbelievable.

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Me (right) with a team member outside the house we worked on in the Lower Ninth Ward. We spent our five days sanding and mudding the walls inside.

Katrina – in all its destruction – amplified the disparities that separate Americans by race and class, revealing the stark effect that the city’s flooding had on poor, minority households and the neighborhoods in which they were concentrated. Despite the city’s appeal in areas like the French Quarter, New Orleans exemplified the painful patterns of segregation by race and income.

On the same day that the levees broke, the Census Bureau released a report on poverty in the nation, finding that Orleans Parish had a poverty rate of 23.2 percent, seventh highest among 290 large U.S. cities.

However, these economic hardships were not shared equally: African-American residents in New Orleans made up 84 percent of the population below the poverty line, and were highly concentrated in neighborhoods of extreme poverty, where the poverty rate exceeded 40 percent.

That said, Hurricane Katrina impacted African-American and poor people in the most harmful ways; they bore the brunt of the devastation because, for the most part, they lived in the more flood-prone sections of the city, such as the Lower Ninth Ward. According to a study of residents unable to evacuate during the storm, 93 percent were African-American, and 76 percent had children with them.

Perpetuating Hurt in “Recovery”

After Katrina, the Bush administration immediately cut $71 million in federal social service funding to New Orleans with the rationale that the city had lost residents.

However, the need for social services increased after the storm as the city also saw steep job losses, widespread depression along with other illness, and an increase in domestic violence. The Living Museum, a community-run research hub in the Lower Ninth Ward, links the lack of social services after Katrina to skyrocketing homelessness. While the high of more than 11,000 people homeless after the storm was reduced to 1,703 as of last summer, the local New Orleans newspaper, the Times-Picayune, reports that the city still has one of the highest per-capita rates of homelessness in the nation, with 46.9 per 10,000 people experiencing homelessness.

The Living Museum also reports that cuts to social services after Katrina caused the number of mental health professionals to dwindle from 350 to only 25 in the whole city. The effects of these shortages continue to linger, as there is still a shortage of facilities and mental health professionals.

Rates of serious mental health disorders have significantly increased since the storm, and one-in-five children who experienced Katrina have serious emotional disturbance as a result. This is not surprising. According to our in-house expert, Perry Firth, because of “the very nature of the developing brain, and how it processes stress and trauma, most children living in chronic toxic stress will experience a detrimental change in how their brain works…the child’s stress response system becomes very sensitive.” You can read more about the impact of crises on children’s emotional health here.

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Infographic on how poverty and poor housing affect child health, created by Krista Kent and Perry Firth. We are seeing this in New Orleans.

Mass closure of public housing was yet another example of disaster profiteering after Katrina, making the rich richer and the poor poorer. After the storm, local officials quickly voted to demolish the “big four” public housing complexes – which made up 75 percent of the city’s public housing – despite the fact that the buildings sustained minimal damage. Redevelopment of the “big four” housing projects now costs $400,000 per new apartment.

Not unique to New Orleans, the opportunity for “mixed-income communities” is noted as the primary force of this demolition. While it has appeared to accomplish the goal of decentralizing poverty in the area, the Times-Picayune newspaper reported that the shift away from public housing and toward voucher programs – which is intended to give people greater choice where they live – has fallen short, pushing people further into suburban areas far from where they work.

Lack of low-income housing couldn’t have come at a worse time for poor New Orleans residents, as average rent has increased 40 percent in the city since Katrina.

Many of the individuals we spoke with said that the increasing costs of homeownership and the closure of minimally damaged public housing has made it difficult for people to return to their home city. Not only that, but the rising housing costs drew people to the Ninth Ward from other neighborhoods, displacing long-term residents altogether. For this reason, residents launched a “Where is Your Neighbor?” campaign, painting the slogan on abandoned homes and community buildings, to bring attention to the fact that their neighborhood had changed dramatically.

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An example of “Where is your neighbor?” led by community leader Ward “Mack” McClendon. Photo courtesy of Lower 9th Ward Village.

Additionally, the Living Museum noted that only one of seven public schools has reopened in the Lower Ninth Ward, essentially eliminating public education. Nearly nine-in-ten white students in New Orleans attend private schools – one of the highest percentages in a major U.S. city – and the city has more charter schools than any other city in the country.

According to experts at the Lower 9th Ward Living Museum, privatization of the city’s schools has created a tiered system of schools that steers a minority of students, including virtually all of the city’s white students, into a set of selective, higher-performing schools and another group, including most of the city’s students of color, into a group of lower-performing schools.

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The Lower 9th Ward Living Museum, which sits at the center of the neighborhood. Photo by Seattle U student Shaniah Bivens.

When we make plans to “recover” with the intent of building on top of the lives of low-income families, we perpetuate a cycle of inequality. What will it take to focus on the well-being of an entire community, and not just the pieces of the community with privilege?

The obvious aspects of race and class that play into who we help, and how quickly, continue to create harm. The systems in place continue to oppress those in vulnerable situations, to the point that it is nearly impossible to break the cycle of their poverty.

A Slow Journey Through Reality

With 80 percent of the city flooded and affordable housing essentially non-existent after the hurricane, homelessness grew exponentially. At its peak, an estimated 11,619 people were living in abandoned buildings. Today, that number has dropped to 2,000, but even more people than that are living in blighted buildings, “homeless” in their own homes and unable to deal with necessary repairs and their costs.

The Ninth Ward still reflects the images we saw on the news 10 years ago: completely unlivable in so many ways, demolished houses, empty lots. The neighborhood has been rebuilt at a slower rate than any other part of the city, while neighborhoods with more affluent, white residents which experienced less damage were rebuilt more quickly, and received more federal funds.

We saw history repeat itself at the hands of Hurricane Sandy in New York state, where a majority of the buildings that were in ruins were summer homes in a wealthy community and recovery efforts were completed rapidly.

But in the Ninth Ward, a decade after the floods, there is still no sign of full recovery. However, that’s not to say that there are no signs of progress: a high school is opening soon in the neighborhood, a drugstore is on the way, and the city recently invested in a new community center, with a health clinic and indoor pool.

Moving Forward, Coming Home

When I asked people I met, “Why do you come back here when there’s nothing left?” residents replied simply, “It’s home.”

My friends and family – most unaware that the city is still in dire need of funds and recovery assistance – often questioned why, 10 years later, I’d be going to help rebuild homes. But it was never a question for me. Standing there, struck by both the power of the community and the overwhelming pain that persists, I was able to acknowledge that, while the vastness of their suffering is something that I cannot know, I can walk alongside them and listen to their stories. For me, this wasn’t about rebuilding houses. It was about helping people rebuild their lives and bring back a bit of normalcy – a lesson I will never forget.

In hearing the narratives of community members and witnessing the healing power of places like the Living Museum as they aid in helping residents reclaim their experiences, the notion of what it means to be “home” became heavier and heavier to me. For many in the Lower Ninth, home is not a structure; it’s the soil they stand on, and who stands with them. “Home” is a connection so deep that it cannot be washed away, not matter how high the water.

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A home in the Lower Ninth Ward with markings from after Katrina, reading “Don’t demolish.” Many of the houses in this neighborhood still wear spray-painted messages and markings from the initial rescue efforts. Photo by Lindsey Habenicht.

Because I am an advocate, this trip reinforced the importance of storytelling as a medium to raise awareness and incite change. However, this trip also taught me that they are not always my stories to tell. More often than not, we need to call on those in the community if we are going to make an impact. We need to give space for residents to find their own center, and grow from it.

Most importantly, we need to listen to them. We need to just listen and observe things as they are. We need the community to come forward and tell us how we can help, not assume we know what they need. We need to hear their stories – stories that paint a sobering picture of families unhoused and unable to afford to move home, jobs lost, and children unable to attend school – and the truths that they have reclaimed. These stories unite community members in their determination to be heard in spite of their circumstances and their voices, when supported, are louder and more powerful than voices from the outside.

A Community of Resilience

I returned from my trip overwhelmed. The experience was an emotional roller-coaster, and I say this because it truly held descending lows and abundant goodness. The lows consisted of seeing, or rather not seeing, the Lower Ninth Ward as it once stood. There was an eeriness that invaded the silence.

Moments of grace, however, were met by musicians on every corner, and artists from the Lower Ninth reclaiming their story through unique and colorful depictions of their experiences, sometimes painted on wood from houses that had been devastated in the hurricane. I was amazed to see people – people who had lost so much – finding joy in simply being.

Experiences like these irreversibly alter our perspectives, and to share in these experiences means to willingly welcome the risk of being changed by the people we meet and their stories. In the end, we take so much more than we give.

To the residents of the Lower Ninth: Thank you for your truth. Thank you for your strength in the face of such adversity. Thank you for your story.

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The Seattle U team on its last day working in the Lower Ninth Ward. I am in the second row, on the right.

What You Can Do

In all things, do what you can to avoid claiming a single story as truth. Dig into understanding, and explore multiple narratives. Listening plays a critical role in informing the steps we take to advocate, and ensures that our intention is reflected in our impact. Here are some actionable steps you can take:

  1. Read this narrative of Hurricane Katrina by a street paper vendor who was relocated to Washington, D.C. after the flood.
  2. Listen to this story on The Moth by the Lower Ninth Ward community leader, Mack McClendon. (You can hear more stories from The Moth, recorded in Seattle through our “Home: Lost and Found” project, here.)
  3. Think about how displacement or disaster affects families in our own communities. Vote for policies that help build and maintain housing for low-income residents.

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