Hope but concern in Lower 9th Ward – 12 years post-Katrina

REBECCA SANTANA | 4/24/2017, 8:48 a.m.
Judging by the empty lots, it’s hard to imagine the Lower 9th Ward before Hurricane Katrina – a bustling neighborhood ...
Students and faculty from Northwestern University and the University of Illinois work on a home in the Lower 9th Ward that was being built by Habitat for Humanity, in New Orleans, March 23. A major rebuilding effort with the help of Habitat for Humanity, is underway in the New Orleans neighborhood decimated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Officials and some residents hope the houses planned for the Lower 9th Ward will bring in new residents and spur economic development, but others have concerns. Gerald Herbert

NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Judging by the empty lots, it’s hard to imagine the Lower 9th Ward before Hurricane Katrina – a bustling neighborhood where African American residents knew their neighbors, built their homes with their own hands and shopped at Black-owned stores along St. Claude Avenue.

Katrina largely put an end to all that, nearly wiping the community from the map in 2005. Nearly 12 years later, even as other neighborhoods in the city have bounced back, the hurricane’s destruction here is still evident. Overgrown lots where houses used to be serve as dumping grounds for tires and abandoned furniture. Raccoons and possums have been spotted in the tall grass and bushes.

The neighborhood is “the only area (in the city) where you can still see Katrina,” said Burnell Cotlon, owner of the Lower 9th Ward Market, one of the few post-Katrina commercial additions to the neighborhood. “It breaks my heart. We need to make the Lower 9th Ward catch up with the rest of the city.”

The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority has launched an effort to do just that.

Under the government-run agency’s auspices, four developers will convert 175 properties into single-family houses and duplexes, mostly as rentals aimed at bringing people back into the community. One developer, Habitat for Humanity, began construction in February on the first of its properties.

Officials and some residents are hopeful the project will mark a turning point for the Lower 9th Ward.

“It will make us whole again,” said longtime resident Ronald Lewis. “These empty lots and empty houses need to be filled.”

But some have concerns. They fear rentals aren’t the best fit for an area that was once a bastion of African American homeownership. They also worry about the quality of the new housing and say not enough effort has been made to bring back residents forced out by the storm. Others say they weren’t included in the planning process.

Willie Calhoun, a lifelong resident and a reverend at one of the neighborhood churches, wishes the developers were building more homes for sale. His parents built their home in the Lower 9th Ward in the 1950s and his brother still lives there. Fortunately, the family was able to rebuild after the house took on about 20 feet of water during Katrina. But Calhoun is acutely aware that others did not have the means to rebuild, and he says he is “concerned now about where is the community headed.”

“Will there ever be any semblance of what was once there?” he asked.

Laura Paul heads lowernine.org, a nonprofit group that works with families who fled during Katrina and now want to return home. She agrees with Calhoun: Instead of facilitating rental units, Paul said, the Authority should be doing everything it can to help the original property owners move back into homes in the neighborhood, perhaps with financial incentives like those being offered to the developers.

“Those properties used to belong to my clients,” she said.

Redevelopment authority officials say they had no preference for rental units or houses for sale when they put their proposal out to bid. It was the developers who made that choice, they said – a reflection of market dynamics and the city’s stark need for more rentals after housing prices skyrocketed in Katrina’s wake.