Locked Out of the Lower Ninth Ward
By Kelly Hayes-Raitt
"People in the Lower Ninth Ward know more about climate change and what it can do than [people] anywhere," said Pam Dashiell, fighting a cold, "and they know it on an intrinsic level." The co-director of the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Engagement and Development said the communities of the Lower Ninth Ward have a goal of being carbon neutral by 2030.
"We have more solar here than in any other part of the City. There were 17,000 people here, pre-levee breaks. We are projecting 15,000 prosperous, environmentally conscious, forward-looking people [will return]."
It's been proven that global warming contributes to the Gulf of Mexico's increasingly aggressive and frequent hurricanes. New Orleans' environmental vulnerability is compounded by the debris and toxics that collect when 40% of America between Denver and the Appalachians, plus parts of Canada, drain down the Mississippi River and land in New Orleans.
Additionally, coastal Louisiana has lost 340 square miles of land during the last decade - an area the size of New York City. More than 100,000 miles of oil field canals have ruined the integrity of the marsh by allowing salt water intrusion, which further pollutes and destabilizes the fertile land and erodes the natural buffers that protect communities from rising water.
The New Orleans delta rivals the world's largest and most significant. "It's on a scale with the Amazon, the Nile and the Mekong Deltas," says Darryl Malek-Wiley proudly.
Darryl is Sierra Club's regional representative for environmental justice. A retired carpenter with a snowy beard framing his weathery white face, he has worked in the Lower Ninth Ward for 17 years. He proudly tours our group through Holy Cross (www.HelpHolyCross.org), an historical neighborhood that had never flooded before Hurricane Katrina. For 4 days, Holy Cross was buried in 6 feet of water after a 19 foot tidal wave breached the levees we now stand on, Darryl says.
Even after the water subsided, "most folks couldn't get back in until January," almost 5 months later, Darryl shakes his head. "The roads and bridges were blocked." For the first 6 weeks, "only military, medical and media personnel were allowed in." Darryl shows off a laminated press pass that instantly made him a correspondent for Sierra Magazine and allowed him early access back to his neighborhood and his home.
Not until April 2006 - 31 months after the hurricane - "was anyone allowed to stay overnight in the Lower Ninth! How do you rebuild a neighborhood that's been underwater when people aren't allowed to come back?" Even now, 3½ years later, only half the population is back.
Compounding the challenges is the historical designation of the neighborhood, a designation bestowed by both state and federal agencies. "How do we build a sustainable neighborhood in an historic neighborhood?" Darryl asked.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency's response was to award contracts to private companies to build trailers. They cost $400,00 each to build, transport and dispose of, says Darryl, who was preparing to testify the next day at a government hearing about the health affects of formaldehyde in the trailers. "If they had just given folks $200,000, they'd have their homes back."
Prior to Katrina and the predictable breaks in the levees, the Lower Ninth Ward had one of the country's highest rates of homeownership, as well as the country's second largest housing project.
Nevertheless, the neighborhood is being rebuilt - with private funds - with more solar and geothermal technologies than any other part of New Orleans. The international organization created by former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, Global Green (www.GlobalGreen.org), is building 5 homes and an 18-unit apartment building that will be awarded in a lottery to teachers or first responders who had lived in the neighborhood before the levees broke. The homes, plus a community center, bank and coffee shop, employ local contractors to build the environmentally efficient buildings, according to Global Green's Ruben Aronin.
A few blocks away sits a series of elevated angular homes built by the Make It Right Foundation (www.MakeItRightNOLA.org). Founded and funded by Brad Pitt after a chance encounter with Global Green's president, the Foundation is building 150 environmentally sustainable homes in a 12-block area that was devastated by the flooding. Built by local labor, 85% of the products in the home can be recycled or reused, according to a representative who toured our group and asked that his name not be used. The other 15% can be landfilled without creating a toxic hazard. The modern homes and the lots will be owned by families who had lived in the area prior to Katrina.
The residents of both the Global Green and Make It Right homes will get free workshops on sustainable living to further diminish their environmental footprints.
But, the challenges continue. In 2005, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality changed its rules to allow anything from flooded homes (including toxics such as bleaches, paints and chemically treated wood) to be disposed in unlined landfills - in an area with a water table so high even bodies aren't buried underground.
Kelly Hayes-Raitt is a Santa Monica (CA)-based author writing a book about refugees. Her recent travels have taken her to Syria, the Philippines, Lebanon and Iraq. She blogs at www.PeacePATHFoundation.org.