It's Not About a Hurricane

I spent six mid-April days in New Orleans, working with a group called Common Ground. I lived in a Catholic school with 100 or so other volunteers and went out each day to the Lower Ninth Ward to help residents gut their houses; to find, listen to, and talk to those few who were able to get back to see their properties; and to prepare a bunkhouse for residents to sleep in while they made their houses habitable.

Coming from the airport, I was shocked to see miles and miles of boarded-up businesses and restaurants, and huge, deserted residential areas—even where none of the buildings looked badly damaged. Outside the city’s business center and the French Quarter, the infrastructure and most of the people were simply gone. There was nowhere to eat, purchase tools or construction materials, find a telephone, or use an ATM.

Orange writing appeared on almost every building: "TFW," meaning toxic flood water had been in the building, with a date of inspection, usually in mid-September 2005. "0L/0D" would indicate that no one, living or dead, had been found in the building. Often, however, on a badly damaged Ninth Ward building, the lettering said, "NE," not entered. During my time there, several bodies were found and removed, seven months after the flood had crashed over the levees from the industrial canal.

I was bewildered to see that so little progress had been made in seven months. What was going on here? Comparisons with the autumn of 2001 came to mind: New York City police and firefighters were on the job 24 hours a day until every scrap of debris from the Twin Towers had been sifted and sorted and moved. Thousands filed by to pay their respects and leave flowers. Certainly no one would have expected building owners to clean out, gut, and "detox" their own properties without benefit of repaired sewers and electricity, and with the threat of properties being razed after a certain date if the required work was not complete.

As the week went on, I began to sense that the governments, from local to state to federal, were playing a waiting game. If these houses sit here long enough; if the residents managed to get jobs and housing elsewhere; if breaks in the sewer lines prevented them from repairing their bathrooms; if the summer came and there was still no dependable electricity; if most schools were still closed—well, then the former residents just might go away. The 100-plus-year-old neighborhood, beloved to several generations of African American extended families, but recently rife with poverty and family breakdown, could be quietly razed and left to sink.

My monthly meeting has been giving a lot of energy to the issue of racism among Friends and in our communities. As I sat in the airport on the way home, I looked back a few months on the assumption I had made, based on media reports, that the Lower Ninth Ward was probably not "worth" saving. I knew I had found a place to plug in to the meeting’s discussion.