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10 years after Katrina, New Orleans ward struggling to rebuild and draw people back

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Big Easy, some sections of New Orleans are rebuilt and thriving, while others, like the Lower 9th Ward, resemble the land time forgot.

A decade after Katrina, some sections of the Big Easy are thriving, others not so much

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      A child's toy sits in the street alongside a discarded mattress and a mound of debris. The pile stands in front of a boarded-up house with an overgrown lawn of waist-high grass.

      Welcome to the corner of the aptly named Flood and Dauphine Streets in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward where scenes like this are all too familiar even now, 10 years after the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina.

      The official mood in New Orleans is one of jubilation as this 10th anniversary of Katrina approaches. Current Mayor Mitch Landrieu declared back in the spring that the city is "no longer recovering, no longer rebuilding."

      New Orleans has grown since Katrina but is still smaller than before the storm. Estimated population in 2014 was 384,320 compared to 494,294 in 2005. Last year, the city climbed back into the nation's 50 most populous cities for the first time since Katrina.

      But the rebuild has been very uneven, particularly in the historically black sections like the Lower 9th Ward.

      Some lots here, full streets even, have benefited from charitable or grant-infused rebuilding programs. The newly constructed properties are easy to spot by their pastel colours and modern solar designs.

      They stand in stark contrast to the abandoned houses, vacant lots and concrete stairs to nowhere that still litter the area by the hundreds. Some entire streets have only a single occupied home.

      Still, for both the city and state of Louisiana, which together own thousands of these flooded and abandoned lots, maintenance costs alone are in the millions, giving them motivation to try to draw people back in to the Lower 9th Ward.

      Harry Sims, 62, walks past a blighted building which was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in the Lower 9th Ward 10 years earlier. Sims runs a boxing club in the neighbourhood to keep kids out of trouble. (Max Becherer/AP)

      That wasn't always the case. After Katrina struck New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, the city was not keen to rebuild the Lower 9th.

      With its elevation about four metres lower than that of the French Quarter, coupled with the geological evidence the city was sinking, rebuilding seemed both unsafe and ill-advised.

      The initial recommendation to turn the area into park and grasslands fueled the fears of longtime, primarily black residents that Katrina would be used to clear out the poor black population to make way for a richer whiter one.

      The displaced residents of the historical community, which included the likes of legendary musician Fats Domino, pushed back, refusing to accept the loss of their community.

      A point of pride: home ownership in the Lower 9th Ward pre-Katrina was the highest in the city at over 60 per cent.

      Downtown New Orleans on Aug. 30, 2005 and a decade later, July 29, 2015. New Orleans has grown since Katrina but is still smaller than before the storm. (David J. Phillip/AP)

      "Most of our families either came out of the cotton fields, out of the Mississippi Delta or right outside of New Orleans in sugarcane country," explains community activist Ronald Lewis.

      "They migrated to New Orleans for that better life."

      He likens this migration of former slaves to that of European immigrants to Ellis Island.

      "We all had the same dream and this little 9th Ward was built by those people.

      "When you see all these homes that is owned by families, it sort of amazes people. They say 'Oh, you mean that many black people own homes?' You know, because that's what they saying in the undertone."

      30% of what it was

      Still, even with the united goal to rebuild and repopulate the Lower 9th Ward, nothing is simple in a city known as The Big Easy.

      Terry Vincent, now in his 50s, works as a truck driver and has lived in the Lower 9th for close to 40 years. He did not evacuate during Katrina and eventually took refuge with friends, first on a rooftop and, later when that was no longer viable, in a tree.

      For two days he hung on before being rescued. "It still look like it [Katrina] was last year, it's still pretty messed up back there. It's 30 per cent of what it was," says Vincent.

      In terms of population recovery his estimates may not be far off. The 2000 U.S. Census put the Lower 9th Ward at just over 14,000 residents, and the 2010 figures have it at only 3,000.

      That's just fine with Vincent. "It's a whole lot better because we got rid of a lot of people, a lot of problems went too," he says.

      "Before Katrina, it was a couple of years before that it was really bad. It was almost time for people like me to get out from down here."

      He's not exaggerating. In the 10-year period leading up to Katrina, the homicide rate per capita in the Lower 9th Ward was 10 times that of New York City.

      What's also changed since 2005 is the ethnic diversity of the Lower 9th.  

      Reliable 2015 stats are hard to come by, but essentially the black population decreased while the white population more than tripled with Hispanics close on their heels.

      These are still relatively small numbers, but to Vincent the change is not insignificant, "It reminds me of how it was when we move down here in the 70s," he says, "there was a mixture of people, black and white."

      Most of our families either came out of the cotton fields or sugarcane country, says Lower 9th Ward community activist Ronald Lewis, who operates The House of Dance and Feathers, a small museum behind his house. (Colette Kennedy/CBC)

      Still, getting more of the displaced residents to return to the area is proving difficult.

      Many, who want to come back, don't have the funds to return. What would they find anyway?

      Even access to basic services for current residents is iffy.

      CVS/pharmacy broke ground for a new store on Aug. 21, with plans to open it in January. The mayor's office said CVS is the first major retailer to commit to a project in the neighbourhood since Hurricane Katrina.

      The nearest Wal-Mart is just outside the ward but almost an hour's walk away and public transportation is minimal.

      No grocery store chains or large retail chains have set up shop here, and fast food chains also seem reluctant to invest.

      On standby

      One motivating factor for new inhabitants should be the low cost of property. Real estate can be picked up cheaply, with the average listing price at just over $43,000 according to MLS data.

      Other known draws for attracting young families and homebuyers are things like good schools.

      New Orleans' public school system received nearly $2 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to build or renovate schools throughout the city, but Lewis complains there is still only one school available in the Lower 9th and it has to operate from Grade 1 to 12.

      Truck driver Terry Vincent has lived in New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward since childhood. It used to be a pretty tough area, he recalls, with a high homicide rate. (Colette Kennedy/CBC)

      So gentrification, which has been so successful in other parts of New Orleans, is not having the same impact here even as its poster child — the now trendy and fast-growing Bywater area — is just to the west.

      Still, attempts are being made. A former school in the ward, Holy Cross, is slated for a mixed-use development including condos.

      It is the kind of planning drive that worries some longtime residents who want to see their neighbourhood rebuilt, not reinvented.

      But their fears may go unfounded as there may be nothing to attract buyers to the development.

      Derek Wood moonlights as a bike tour operator in the ward between working as a researcher at Tulane University, but has no intention of putting down roots here. "It's just too boring," he says. "There's nothing to do here."

      So the reality of the Lower 9th Ward, hit hardest by the flood waters of Katrina, is that it still stands by and waits.

      Other parts of New Orleans, like the celebrated French Quarter, may have even profited a bit from Katrina.

      Historic front pages from Louisiana newspapers in The House of Dance and Feathers, Ronald Lewis's small museum behind his house, tell Katrina's story in a nutshell. (Colette Kennedy/CBC)

      David Gooch, who oversees the famous landmark restaurant Galatoire, says receipts increased by about $5 a person after Katrina, a result he puts down to people wanting to enjoy themselves a bit more after going through such an ordeal.

      But back in the Lower 9th Ward, Lewis accepts a different reality. He's not sure he wants to be a part of any commemorative ceremonies either.

      "They want me to put a face on it when my community is incomplete," he says. "Just let the world know we are civilized people down here, and we believe in what must be done."

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