Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Cost of Inaction: The Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans

By the waters of Babylon,
   there we sat down and wept,
   when we remembered Zion …

We weren’t ready for this.  When Barbara and I set out last Friday morning for one of New Orleans’ low-lying neighborhoods, we expected something bad.  But we didn’t expect this.

We had seen the horrid news accounts after Hurricane Katrina; but we had also read stories about the ensuing redevelopment efforts.  We knew that New Orleans had lost about a third of its population, now scattered around the country; but we had also heard about Brad Pitt’s efforts to help rebuild in the Lower Ninth Ward.  And on top of all that, we had seen how much money was being poured into saving the beachfront resort community of Grand Isle:  Surely, there must be a king’s ransom flowing into this community, once home to so many thousands, right?

This used to be a city: Lower 9th from the levee
But what we saw was almost beyond telling.

Afterward, a friend called the Lower Ninth “a field with streets.”  Words failed us, so we settled for that.  It was so strange:  fire hydrants, utility poles, street signs, concrete house footers, driveways, an occasional fence.  But almost no houses.  Here and there, a derelict house still stood, its broken windows exposing the hollow blackness within.

And then suddenly, a lonely Tyvek-wrapped house under construction, perched atop tall concrete pillars, standing sentry amidst acres and acres of devastation. 

The enemy beyond the wall
As we traveled south toward the Mississippi River, things began to look a little better.   Lots of houses were standing.  But first impressions can be deceiving.  On closer inspection, three out of four houses were dark, with plywood or locked shutters sealing the windows tightly. Ah, here’s a church!  But no, it’s just an empty building with a steeple – vines and brambles choking the entryway.  A school!  No, it used to be, but there are too few children remaining, and the steel gates are padlocked.

Here and there, the spirit of New Orleans snaked a tender shoot through the thick crust of devastation.  A small home repainted in bright yellows or pinks.  Christmas lights adorning a festive front porch.  Garlands of shiny beads in the windows anticipating the celebration of Mardi Gras.

Levity, or hopelessness? A sign at a ruined home.
What struck us was not so much the injustice of poor people relegated to the most flood-prone land, or of public money being poured into beachfront properties.  What stayed with us was the sense that we were looking at a preview – at New Orleans of the future.  This land sunk 3’ relative to sea levels in the 20th century, and sea level rise is just beginning to build up a head of steam.

Or might we find the national will to really do something to curb the emissions driving global climate change, and give this city a fighting chance?

… On the willows there
   we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
   required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
   "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
Psalm 137
More images of the Lower Ninth Ward 

Dorgenois & Lamanche Streets: devastation in every direction.

The blue sections of New Orleans are now below sea level on a good day.

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