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Fields of Destruction: New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward



NEW ORLEANS -- Imagine the worst disaster movie you've ever seen.

Deep Impact's vision of a tidal wave crashing into New York City. Planet of the Apes' post-apocalyptic Statue of Liberty buried in the sand.

Now imagine a place where scores of cars sit turned over on their roofs, large trees lie upended, their roots exposed to the baking sun, and the floors of kitchens sit isolated -- as if they were installed in the middle of a rubble field.

Welcome to New Orleans' lower Ninth Ward.

The Lower Nine, as locals call it, has a troubled history in the Crescent City. Largely devoid of grocery stores, banks or other instruments of social infrastructure, this was New Orleans' poorest region -- the most deprived area of a city known for its crushing poverty.

Walking through the area Thursday, Times photographer Willie Allen and I saw an area that seemed mostly untouched since the Industrial Canal levee breached five months ago. The infamous red barge, which broke through the canal wall and brought a torrent on floodwaters into the neighborhood, still sat atop two houses -- a small yellow school bus wedged beneath its western side.

Gwen Filosa, an energetic, 35-year-old Times Picayune staffer given the task of covering the Lower Nine post-Katrina, was actually a bit heartened as we drove past long blocks of debris, pulled from houses crushed by floodwaters like beer cans. Someone -- likely a group of young bohemian volunteers camped out in the neighborhood called Common Ground -- had been "mudding" the abandoned structures; pulling out furniture and debris, ostensibly so the Army Corps. of Engineers can cart it away like they are doing elsewhere in the city.

But there is little evidence any trash has been removed yet in this place -- despite the presence of scores of uniformed security officers Filosa derisively describes as "feds." A hardnosed news junkie who came to New Orleans to cover race and poverty, even she had to stop coming to this area, after visiting the site every day for weeks.

"You imagine your home pushed off its foundation and your personal stuff lying around everywhere," she said, gesturing to a nearby toy fire truck which has landed, improbably, on the hood of a Ford Crown Victoria half buried in sediment and debris. "Somebody's bedroom is laying right over there. To me, it just looks like a horrible graveyard."

You look across the horizon, devastated homes and piled-up cars stretched out far as the eye can see, and you wonder: How can this ever be righted? What trash dump is big enough to hold the contents of a neighborhood which once housed 14,000 people?

Watching a small crew of workers scurry across the canal, employng a crane and four backhoes to some mysterious purpose, you also wonder: Why are they rebuilding the levee behind this huge barge if they plan to remove it? And what could anyone do with this ground if they don't?

That is the question which continues to bedevil New Orleans. Some former residents of the Lower Nine -- poor folks who nevertheless owned their now-destroyed homes for generations -- want their neighborhood back. But who will pay the billions needed to clear and rebuild such worthless land?

And even as local politicians dither over a consultants' report which recommends shrinking the city's footprint to exclude this poor, black neighborhood (and the poor, mostly white neighborhood of St. Bernard's Parish just beyond the Lower Nine), these acres of destruction stand as silent testimony to the capricious power of Mother Nature.

"In the first month, this was a Media Circus -- cameras everywhere and National Guardsmen on every street," said Filosa, looking around at a space now occupied by a clump of workers and a small trickle of disaster tourists. "Now, I can't blame people for feeling a little neglected. I mean, who is going to do anything about this?"

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:35pm]


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