Post-Katrina Struggles Continue in the Lower Ninth Ward and Parts of West Bank New Orleans

(An earlier version of this blog was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the July 27, 2015 edition.)

In the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Rev. Charles Duplessis of Mount Nebo Bible Baptist Church says an estimate that less than half of that area's pre-Katrina population has returned looks accurate. "Just over 50 members of our congregation of 120 are back," he said from his Tennessee Street home, where services are being held until the Flood Street church is rebuilt.

The Lower Nine and three other city neighborhoods have less than 50 percent of their pre-storm residents, according to a study released in mid-July by The Data Center--formerly known as the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. The other three are the public housing sites B.W. Cooper, Florida Development and Iberville, all which were razed to build mixed-income housing. Seven more neighborhoods, including five across the river on the West Bank of New Orleans, lost households from June 2010 to June 2015. Those West Bank communities are Behrman, McDonogh, Old and New Aurora, English Turn and the U.S. Naval Support Area.

"The Lower Ninth's recovery in population is far less than other neighborhoods, and the only ones that are even close are those where public housing was demolished," M.A. Sheehan, House the 9 Program director at the Lower 9th Ward Homeownership Association, said last week. "Some of the responsibility falls on the city, which left the Lower Ninth behind from the very first days after the flood:" The area was last to have standing water pumped away. Tap water was shut off for a year in many spots to provide service elsewhere. "Utilities weren't fully restored for years," Sheehan said.

Problems multiplied. "Homeowners without water couldn't receive FEMA trailers," Sheehan said. "And without trailers, homeowners weren't present to supervise contractors, gut and repair, and begin rebuilding." What's more, displaced owners spent scarce resources on temporary housing. Many homes in the Lower Nine that could have been repaired were demolished, she said.

In response to Katrina and Rita in 2005, Federal Emergency Management Agency provided trailers and similar living units to 92,000 Louisiana families, with New Orleans getting the most. In pluses and minuses, those trailers provided shelter but many of them contained unsafe levels of formaldehyde. They were dubbed "toxic tin cans," and the last one exited the city in early 2012.

The state's Road Home rebuilding program, using federal money, paid less to owners in lower-income, African American neighborhoods than it did to those in wealthier, white areas, Sheehan said. Payouts were based on a home's pre-storm value. A house in an economically depressed area that had the same damage as one in a better area, and cost the same to rebuild, received less under the program. In 2011, the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development agreed to compensate homeowners who were paid less under Road Home for living in depressed neighborhoods. "The program did change its award formula," Sheehan said. "But it didn't account for the cost to homeowners of delays in receiving full funds."

To date, Louisiana's Road Home program has paid $9 billion to 130,000 homeowners and rental property owners to rebuild.

Rev. Duplessis said he and his wife were penalized by Road Home because they'd applied for flood insurance when their home was rebuilt just before Katrina struck but didn't have a policy yet. After Katrina, their home was rebuilt again, however, with help from the Mennonite Disaster Service and others. The couple overcame another setback when newly-installed Chinese drywall was seen as a health hazard and removed.

Duplessis noted that before Katrina, Lower Ninth home ownership was 62 percent, the highest in the city. In the last ten years, residents there have dealt with sub-par services, including poor roads, potholes and dark streets because of broken lights. "The city's working on these problems, and it's gradually expanding police protection and improving public transit service, but not fast enough," Duplessis said. "We still can't make groceries here. People travel far to get them, to Chalmette and even Metairie, which aren't in Orleans." Other parishes collect the tax revenue on those purchases. But he said the Lower Ninth is slated for a new CVS/pharmacy on North Claiborne Ave. at Forstall Street this year.

According to The Data Center, several New Orleans West Bank neighborhoods--Behrman, McDonogh, the U.S. Naval Support Area, Old and New Aurora and English Turn--lost households from 2010 to 2015. All of them, except English Turn are in Algiers. The Data Center arrived at its loss estimate by using 2014 U.S. Census data and a residential and business database from Valassis, a Michigan-based firm. Valassis gets a weekly address-management feed from the U.S. Postal Service.

Attorney Val Exnicios, chairman of the Algiers Neighborhood Presidents Council, doubts a statistically significant loss of households occurred in the five West Bank communities cited. "I've heard nothing about an outflux of homeowners from heads of the neighborhood associations in the ANPC," he said last week. The number of homes in his community of English Turn, just beyond Algiers, has held steady at around 600. But he said residents of subsidized apartment buildings that were battered by the 2005 hurricanes may have moved away.

David Wadleigh, a technology consultant and resident of Old Aurora East, said homeowners there have struggled with rebuilding costs, mortgage foreclosures and blight. When Road Home funds and insurance payouts after the 2005 hurricanes weren't enough for some people to rebuild, they left. "I lived within a block of four abandoned and blighted houses, each of which had been bought at tax auctions by investors who couldn't get insurance, ran out of money to renovate, or couldn't find a buyer," he said.

Wadleigh said that West Bank New Orleans didn't suffer from rising water after Katrina, but was heavily damaged by wind, rain and falling trees. "Roofs were ripped off and objects flew through windows," he said. "Residents were forbidden to return home for many weeks and far longer than people in neighboring Jefferson Parish. Homes were beset with mildew, mold and rotting food in the meantime." Wadleigh hopes to organize a neighborhood group in Old Aurora East and is a non-voting guest at ANPC meetings.

Cubie Charles, president of the Lower Algiers Neighborhood Civic Association, said people are moving from the East Bank to Lower Algiers, which isn't among the five West Bank communities cited by The Data Center for loss of households. Home prices and rents have risen faster on the East Bank than they have in Algiers.

As for the Lower Nine, "the city hasn't taken enough steps to help homeowners catch up with other neighborhoods," Sheehan said. "There may have been good reasons for leaving us for last. But people here shouldn't continue to make sacrifices for the rest of the city." Despite the area's challenges, homeowners are still returning. "We're working with nearly 100 families who want to get back into their homes," Sheehan said. "And in the last year, in a major sign of hope, the Lower Ninth's population grew by about 150 households."

New Orleans has surprised nearly everyone with its strides since late August 2005, when over 80 percent of the city was flooded. The combined, post-Katrina death toll here and in other areas exceeded 1,830 people. Ten years later, 40 out of 72 Orleans neighborhoods have recouped more than 90 percent of their populations, the Data Canter said in mid-July. Sixteen neighborhoods have more postal addresses that are active now than in early August 2005.

Asked if Lower Ninth Ward residents are concerned about rebuilding when storms remain a threat, Rev. Duplessis said yes. "We're better protected since the Army Corps rebuilt the levees but we know we have to evacuate if a Category 3 or higher is headed this way." end