NEW ORLEANS — When she still had her baby teeth, the old folks warned Selina Pritchett never to go over the wall. It stood tall and gray and sturdy across the street from the cozy little house her grandfather built. It seemed like it ran forever in both directions.
She always wondered what was on the other side. When she got big enough to climb, and when no one was looking, she struggled her way up and over and saw what it was they didn't want her to see.
On Tuesday afternoon, as Hurricane Isaac pressed into New Orleans, bringing huge gusts of wind and driving diagonal rain, Selina Pritchett, 23, now with a baby of her own, looked at the wall and wondered what was happening on the other side.
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In the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the lowest-lying neighborhoods in New Orleans, which geographer Peirce Lewis called an "inevitable city on an impossible site," the water is held back by a series of levees. And on the western edge, along Jourdan Avenue, where Selina Pritchett was born and raised, the Industrial Canal levee was the dividing line between wet and dry. Until it wasn't.
Seven years ago today, Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans and that wall Pritchett climbed breached in two places.
The water rushed into the bathtub, flooding homes and drowning some of those who stayed behind, and it deposited a barge atop the house Pritchett's grandfather built after Hurricane Betsy, one of 4,000 Lower-Ninth homes destroyed.
She watched it happen on television in Greenville, Miss., where she had fled in a '99 Nissan minivan with three dogs, her aunt, her daddy, her pregnant cousin and three children.
"That moment, it felt like every memory that you had, whether it was of your favorite toothbrush or a speck of dust you were supposed to clean, it was gone. It was crumbled," she said. "Everything your grandparents had worked for, everything your parents had worked for, your history … gone."
The family stayed with a Good Samaritan, a woman they call Miss Ann. She made them feel at home. But outside New Orleans, things were different.
"I never knew how broke we actually were until we moved away and realized that people didn't play outside," Pritchett said. "We always played outside."
They came back to the neighborhood at the end of September, when the water had retreated and the bodies had been pulled from houses. Nothing was left, not her doll house or her baby blanket, not the quilt made from patches of her ancestors' clothes.
"You couldn't tell which street you were on, where you were at," she said. "Even if you knew the place like the back of your hand."
In the intervening years, everything changed. In a place where you knew your neighbors, many didn't return. Officials repaired the levee but left the 2.25-square-mile neighborhood in a sort of limbo, questioning whether a smaller post-Katrina population justified rebuilding in flood-prone neighborhoods.
Two years after Katrina, Brad Pitt came to town. He toured the city and promised residents he would help. He founded an organization called Make It Right which began building safe, green homes. One went up at 1815 Jourdan Avenue, atop the patch where Selina Pritchett's family lived. The home sits on tall concrete stilts. For Pritchett, between the floor and the ground there exists a sense of safety.
The new homes seem out of place here, among vacant and dilapidated houses. And the abandoned plots between them have become a kind of wilderness where weeds grow six feet high in the fertile soil along the banks of the Mississippi, hiding everything from tires to burned-out cars to criminal activity.
To make matters worse, tour operators began running buses through the Lower Ninth Ward. It's not unusual for camera-wielding tourists to roll through and snap photographs of Pritchett sitting on her new front porch or hauling groceries out of the car.
"It made you feel like you were an animal in a zoo," Pritchett said.
But she can't bring herself to leave. Hurricane Betsy didn't chase them off. Hurricane Katrina didn't either. This is the only place she knows.
"If I have to restart, I'd rather do it here," she said, "where my history is."
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As Hurricane Isaac encroached, some of her neighbors left. Others decided to stay. Pritchett covered windows with a protective tarp and packed a bag, in case. There was still time, she told herself.
"I'm not going to say it can't get bad, because it can," she said. "But if it gets bad, I have common sense enough to leave."
She watched Scooby-Doo on television, flicking back occasionally to catch updates on the weather. The meteorologists were saying that the Category 1 hurricane was bringing heavy rain and high winds and a storm surge, and that people in low-lying areas should seek higher ground.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.