Stillness in the Ninth Ward - Still
By Kelly Hayes-Raitt
There was nothing alive but the mold that marbled the walls and ceilings. No rats or roaches, just the intimate detritus of people's lives: An upturned tricycle, intact figurines, a porn DVD.
Standing outside, I could smell the mold. "Imagine an entire city smelling like that. That's what it was like right after Katrina," Oscar Brown turned from the abandoned housing project. Front porches were tattooed with spraypainted symbols indicating the date each home was searched and the initials of the unit of the National Guard that conducted the search - and the number of bodies discovered inside.
Brown toured 19 masters' students from the Cal Turner Program for Moral Leadership at Nashville's Vanderbilt University and me through New Orleans' Ninth Ward in preparation for our week of assisting with cleanup and rebuilding.
He pointed out the former police station, now closed and abandoned, mentioning that the National Guard's last day securing the Ninth Ward was three days ago. Louisiana can no longer afford their services, said Brown. We saw no patrolling police during our five-hour tour.
Gone are small stores owned by members of the community. "We need businesses. We need banks," said Marcia Peterson of the Divine Street Ministries, for whom Brown works. "There's no internet here. This is the only part of the City that has not rebuilt its basic services. When I moved back, I had to rethink and replan my life around when services are available."
Indeed, as we drive throughout the Upper and Lower Ninth Ward, we see no neighborhood restaurants or bars, no shoe repair shops or dry cleaners, no little convenience marts. Only one grocery store remains, although we hear reports of a second opening "soon."
"My wife and I just had a daughter," Brown says in response to a question about access to health care. "The nearest was 45 minutes away." Mortality rates in the Ninth Ward have tripled since Katrina, says Peterson. "They had to create a whole new section of the newspaper to deal with the obituaries."
Hurricane Katrina hit August 28, 2005, displacing tens of thousands of people. Three and a half years later, less than half have returned home.
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.