New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward stirs and rebuilds
Three years after Katrina obliterated the community, a coterie of volunteers, including actor Brad Pitt, begins to repopulate these modest streets.
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"It makes me feel so good to be back in my own home," says Gloria Mae Guy, a resident of the Lower Ninth Ward whose house of 28 years was washed away by a levee breach. "My home is where all my memories are, and I thank God for helping these folks who have helped me come back to where I belong."
For months after the floodwaters swept through, demolishing or rendering uninhabitable the Lower Ninth's homes, it wasn't clear that anyone belonged here. Politicians and planners urged the city to relocate residents to higher ground. Authorities kept homeowners out.
But an unlikely collection of volunteers, including actor Brad Pitt, architects, builders, nonprofit groups, and residents, began a recovery effort that could serve as an example for other areas of the Gulf Coast still struggling with rebuilding, they say.
"In the beginning, people were saying that no one would ever be coming back to the Lower Ninth Ward," says Patricia Jones, president of the Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association, an umbrella group of civic organizations. "We were the last part of the city to get our power and water back, over six months after Katrina. We were the last to get [federally funded] trailers, and the city tore down a lot of houses here they were not supposed to. But despite all that the Lower Ninth is back."
Well, maybe not back. But the neighborhood is stirring.
Of the Lower Ninth Ward's 14,000 residents who lived north of St. Claude Avenue, about 1,000 have returned, she estimates. Make It Right, a nonprofit community development corporation Mr. Pitt established in 2007, handed Ms. Guy the keys to her new home last month and is nearing completion on five other of the 150 homes it plans to build here. Other disaster-relief groups and churches have helped others rebuild. A local school is back in session – all due to a decentralized, bottom-up effort of volunteers from across the US and residents who became activists in rebuilding their neighborhood.
Originally opened in 2000 as a public school, the Martin Luther King Charter School was a community anchor and point of pride in the Lower Ninth when it was flooded by eight feet of water during Katrina. Following the hurricane, the New Orleans public school board saw no reason to reopen the school, since the community it served had been wiped out by the disaster.
The building moldered for over six months until March 2006, when hundreds of students from across the country volunteering during spring break joined local residents in cleaning out and gutting the buildings. Working with a hurricane relief group called Common Ground – and without the permission of the local school board – they dragged out copy machines, furniture, and mounds of textbooks soaked by floodwater as two police officers stood by. After reopening as a charter school at a temporary location in 2006, it returned to its Lower Ninth campus on Caffin Avenue in August 2007.
Along with the charter school and the US Defense Department's $200 million redevelopment of nearby Jackson Barracks, a National Guard base, the Make It Right houses are serving as catalysts for rebuilding the Lower Ninth, where, despite much progress, whole city blocks remain empty fields.