Sunday, January 13, 2008

Within New Orleans the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina is still visible. Imagine the city as a bowl, with the areas of higher elevation (the rim of the bowl) closer to the Mississippi and the middle of the city actually a few feet below see level. In some neighborhoods like the French Quarter, if you are not looking for signs of Katrina, you might miss them. The French Quarter, home to the infamous Bourbon Street, was barely touched by flood waters because of its higher elevation. However, if you look closely you will see vacant, boarded-up businesses.

We took a self-guided driving tour designed for visitors to New Orleans who want to witness the effects of the Katrina as well as the rebuilding efforts. The tour contained narrative information explaining levees and why they failed, New Orleans history, stories behind the differing neighborhoods, the science underlying coastal erosion and restoration, and tales of heroism and help. The narrators, all civic leaders of New Orleans, included New Orleans musician Charmaine Neville, Women of the Storm founder Anne Milling, and King Milling, chairman of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Coastal Restoration.

While I found the tour and stories heartbreaking, I feel that the stories are ones that need to be heard. I came to New Orleans six months after Katrina as part of an alternative spring break for college students who volunteered gutting houses and working with grassroots organizations engaged in community organizing. Retracing my steps through neighborhoods like the lower 9th ward, I found that progress has been slow. Piles of debris have been removed and open fields of grass with cement patches where houses’ foundations once stood are the only reminders that this was once a neighborhood. There are occasional houses that residents are starting to rebuild with FEMA trailers parked outside and signs saying “roots run deep here” meaning the residents are planning to take charge of their neighborhood and rebuilding efforts. In another part of the lower 9th, there were multiple pink tents set up to represent the homes which were devastated, serving as symbols for the construction of new "green" eco-friendly homes that are supposed to go up in March. Organizations like Common Ground and the Make It Right Foundation are working in the 9th ward, supporting the community that was distinguished by the fact that more residents in the area owned their homes than in any other part of the city.

Photos to come this evening!

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