In Ninth Ward, thoughts of leaving - for good

A permanent exodus from the district would alter the face of New Orleans.

Robert Lewis has a typical story, as typical as stories get in New Orleans these days.

Since hurricane Katrina forced his family from the city's Lower Ninth Ward, they've been living in Jackson, Miss. He has a good job, and his daughter loves her new school and friends. "She's making straight A's," says a proud Mr. Lewis.

Back in the Ninth Ward for the first time since the storm, Lewis surveys his ruined home, and feels a wave of uncertainty about returning. "It's not like we can do much with it," he says.

If enough people from this poor, mostly black district feel the same hesitation, and opt not to come back, their exodus will produce nothing less than a wholesale change to the character of New Orleans. The sudden loss of so many African-Americans, say scholars, would be a distressing event that would dilute the richness of the black contribution to the city.

It's too early to predict what will happen to this unfortunate piece of land. Bulldozers will take care of most of the buildings when work begins in coming weeks. But what of the people who lived in the Lower Ninth Ward for generations?

The neighborhood has been so tightly knit for so long that many expected a mass return and a refusal to leave rotting homes. Surprisingly, a fair number say they won't return.

That trend seems to be holding true citywide. In a recent Gallup poll of 1,150 evacuees who applied for aid from the American Red Cross, nearly 40 percent say they don't plan to return.

Ari Kelman, a New Orleans scholar, says he doesn't put much stock in early polls such as these - especially with people who have just been through terrifying experiences. "But even if some of what we're hearing is true," he says, "New Orleans is going to be an entirely different place."

Nowhere will that be more apparent that here in the Lower Ninth Ward. Originally a cypress swamp, this area is the breeding ground for much of what makes New Orleans famous: its music, food, and Mardi Gras Indians. Though more than one-third of its residents live below the poverty line, a large majority own their homes.

Officials have publicly questioned the wisdom of rebuilding certain areas of the city - particularly those that were most devastated by the flooding, such as the Lower Ninth Ward.

One is Alphonso Jackson, secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, who also estimated that it will be years before the city's half-million population returns, if ever. Of those who return, Mr. Jackson told the Houston Chronicle during a stop there this month, just 35 to 40 percent will be black. Before hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was 67 percent African-American and 28 percent white.

"New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again," said Jackson, an African-American.

Irma Mercadel is one of those who says she's leaving New Orleans for good. Living in the same Lower Ninth Ward home for 43 years, Ms. Mercadel came back with a rented moving truck, expecting to retrieve furniture and other belongings from the second floor.

But the only things in the back of the truck were a few clothes, some mud- covered photos, and an old chandelier. The water had reached to the roof and soaked the insides for five weeks. Mold has taken over and ceilings are down.

"Once I close the door, I'm not coming back," says Mercadel. Her daughter, Yolanda, adds: "I don't think the Lower Ninth Ward should be rebuilt. And even if they do something with the levees, that will take 5 to 10 years, and what will happen to the people in the meantime? They will relocate to other areas."

Several blocks away, Cleo Claiborne is surveying his home. His wife wanted their antique bed, but they couldn't even get the doors open. The lock was jammed and furniture was blocking the front door.

"To be honest, I don't think a lot of people want to come back," he says, adding his name to the list. "They're afraid. I mean, they might have to tear down every house in the Ninth Ward. It's going to take a lot for this neighborhood to come back."

Russell Kellogg Jr. says he doesn't feel safe here anymore. His family's home is in a part of the Ninth Ward that isn't open to residents yet because the ground's toxicity is so high. He saw their home once before the National Guard set up barricades, but he recovered only water-stained photos.

"I'm conflicted. My family's been here for so long, this is home. But I don't feel safe, and if the offer is to buy people out, I believe we will sell," he says.

Even if the levees are rebuilt higher and stronger, it would take a lot for Mr. Kellogg to believe that the area is safe.

"It may not be a wealthy community. You look around and see a lot of shotgun shacks on small lots, but there are a lot of homeowners here. A lot of people here worked hard jobs to have these homes. And if they are allowed to return, this can't be the most vulnerable area anymore. It has to be the safest."

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