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.

Bill Sasser
Rebuilding: Robert Green sits on all that's left of his destroyed home in the Lower Ninth Ward.
Bill Sasser
On the Rise: Volunteers of a local Baptist church built Gerty LeBlanc's new home (left) in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. Brad Pitt's nonprofit built Melba Legget-Barnes's home (right).

Three years after hurricane Katrina, a New Orleans neighborhood devastated by the disaster has had an improbable homecoming.

"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.

"There's still a ton of work to do, but it's a huge success that the Lower Ninth is still the Lower Ninth – that the people who lived there before are coming home to live there again," says Brandon Darby, a cofounder of Common Ground, which set up free kitchens, a legal clinic, a health clinic, and a homeless shelter, and helped residents gut their houses in the months after Katrina.

In November 2005, Mr. Darby became perhaps the first person to return to the Lower Ninth after the flood. While the area was still under martial law and still closed to residents, he signed a lease on a flooded-out home a block from the massive levee breach and set up a headquarters for Common Ground.

"At the time, the authorities were not letting residents return, and there was talk that the Lower Ninth would not be allowed to rebuild," says Darby. "Now, most of that property is back in the hands of private owners, and eminent domain has not been used on a large scale. Common Ground's concept was that it could be rebuilt regardless of how much help the government offered, with the idea that volunteers and community groups could adopt a block, a street, a family."

That kind of decentralized redevelopment is exactly what has happened, notes Darby, an outcome that has critics.

"My view was and is that the most vulnerable neighborhoods in New Orleans should have been relocated to higher ground," says Craig Colten, a geography professor at Louisiana State University.

As patchwork redevelopment continues across New Orleans, Dr. Colten believes an opportunity was missed to rebuild a smaller but safer city. He notes, however, that the Lower Ninth will be protected by a surge protection barrier being built by the Army Corps of Engineers at the juncture of the Intercoastal Waterway and the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet canal, while the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority is undertaking efforts to rebuild the wetlands east of the city that will serve as a natural defense against hurricanes.

From the beginning, Lower Ninth residents insisted to Make It Right planners that they should be part of rebuilding their community and have given their input during monthly meetings throughout the process. A job-training program in construction skills will put some of them to work building the houses.

Pitt attended nearly all of the early meetings, Guy says. "He was there – sometimes him and his old lady [Angelina Jolie], too, and all their kids," she recalls.

Guy's new two-story home, which stands on her original lot on Tennessee Street, resembles a traditional New Orleans shotgun house, but stands eight feet off the ground for flood protection and incorporates such "green" building technology as rooftop solar panels and energy-efficient appliances. To be eligible for Make It Right, residents must have owned their own home in the neighborhood before Katrina made landfall. With the average house costing between $100,000 and $174,000, most homeowners are contributing insurance payments on their previous homes, federal grants received through the Road Home program, and savings. Make It Right also offers forgivable loans of as much as $100,000 for residents whose own funds fall short.

Guy looks forward to spending the holidays in her own home for the first time since Katrina and is already planning her vegetable garden. "I used to have okra, squash, cauliflower, sweet potatoes – you name it. And next spring I'll be planting them again."

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