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The Lower Ninth Ward, Ten Years After Katrina

Amid bureaucracy, scammers, and confusion, the close-knit, predominately black community is a tapestry of hope and despair.

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As the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, news outlets from around the country are descending upon New Orleans to find out how it is faring. The Lower Ninth Ward has become the poster child of the slow recovery—only about 37 percent of pre-Katrina households have returned to the neighborhood, in comparison with more than 90 percent of households throughout the city, according to Postal Service data. Some residents, who have already seen the fifth anniversary come and go, wonder: Will the national attention make a difference, or will their struggles merely make headlines for the day?

Ten years after the storm, the Lower Ninth Ward is a tapestry of hope and despair. It is a shadow of what it once was, but the residents who have returned have an enduring sense of community and civic pride. There are rows of empty homes, but the neighbors who are back almost all know one another. There's a lot more rebuilding to be done, but nonprofits in the area say they're not giving up anytime soon, even if the media shifts its attention away from the city after the storm's anniversary.

Before Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward was a neighborhood of predominantly African-American families. Families who knew every other family on the block, who had cookouts in the front yard and waved hello from the porch, who paraded to booming brass bands and the spiritual chanting of Mardi Gras Indians, and who swore they would never leave the place they were born and raised. Now, lot after lot sits neglected with overgrown weeds and rotting wooden frames.

"People are not back because they didn't get the money they needed to do what they needed to do," 55-year-old Alison Robinson said.

Before Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward had one of the highest rates of black homeownership in Louisiana.

Robinson is one of 15 children who grew up in a three-bedroom house in the Lower Ninth Ward. Her brother, sister, and two of her sister's children were living there when Hurricane Katrina hit. Like the rest of the block, it was all but wiped away by more than ten feet of water.

Most of the Browns live within blocks of each other, just like they always have. Robinson's nephew Nevles Brown lives across the street from the family house. "For us, it's a landmark," he said, fondly recalling how they all used to try and squeeze onto the porch together.

After a decade of community fundraisers, it has four Easter-egg yellow walls, half a roof, and a wooden skeleton for an interior. Robinson's family, the Browns, faced the same red tape that befell many of the 15,000 residents who were living in the Lower Ninth Ward before the storm.

"There's no reason to believe someone in the Lower Ninth Ward would want to come back less than someone in Lakeview," said Caroline Heldman, the co-founder of the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum. "I think the fact that people did come back elsewhere when they could speaks to the fact that there were some structural issues in the Lower Ninth Ward."

The Browns did not receive any aid for their family house from Road Home, a federal program intended to help Louisianans rebuild or sell their homes after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Robinson says they were denied because the home is in too many names. All 15 of the Brown children, seven of whom are no longer alive, are on the property deed.

This was a common challenge faced by residents in the Lower Ninth Ward. Before Katrina, a section of the neighborhood had the highest rate of black homeownership in New Orleans. According to local housing advocates Delia King, Laura Paul, and M. A. Sheehan, many of these properties had been passed down through the generations, but never formally transferred to their inheritors.

This created a host of problems for families attempting to become eligible for aid. The government provided services to help people get their paperwork in order, but amidst the bureaucracy and confusion, many never did.

The Lower Ninth Ward, August 25, 2015. Photograph by Caitlin Faw

"Owning your home outright affords you a measure of security that none of these people will be able to get back somewhere else. If you go and work a minimum-wage job, full-time, anywhere in this country, you can't buy a home," said Laura Paul, the executive director of Lowernine.org, a nonprofit dedicated to rebuilding the neighborhood. "You can't take out a mortgage, so a lot of people are holding onto their properties here, and in some cases, their flood-damaged homes, waiting for help."

No one knows how many families who lived here still want to return. According to the House the 9 Program, an initiative started by the Lower 9th Ward Homeownership Association, there are about 700 Lower Ninth Ward households who initially signed up for government aid through Road Home and have not come back. M. A. Sheehan, the director of the program, estimates about half of them would move home if they had the chance.

Homes and vacant lots stand in the Lower Ninth Ward (bottom) in front of the Industrial Canal (center) and downtown New Orleans (top left) on August 24, 2015, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photograph by Mario Tama/Getty Images

The program has helped tens of thousands of property owners get back in their homes, but it's also been the subject of much criticism; in 2010, a federal judge ruled that Road Home had distributed money based on a formula that was biased against black recipients. The problem was that Road Home allocated grants based on market values rather than the cost of construction, and many black residents lived in areas where property values were low. This means people living, for example, in the predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood of Lakeview received more money than Lower Ninth Ward residents thanks to their higher property values, even if their rebuilding costs were the same.

Though the Brown family home never became eligible for Road Home funding, Robinson and some of her siblings, who all lived in the Lower Ninth, also applied for grants to rebuild their personal residences—and, they say, received only a fraction of the money they needed.

It took Robinson three years to move back into her house, and she says she was only able to afford it because her husband has a decent paying job. It's livable, but she's still doing basic repairs and her deck is simply gone. "They gave us like $53,000," she said. "How can you build a house for $53,000? A whole home! I had to tear the whole thing down."

Road Home has given out many additional grants to make up for underfunding the first time around, but the program currently doesn't take into consideration how much money people spent while waiting to rebuild. Some residents who had mortgages on their homes were forced to pay them immediately in full after the storm. In addition, many grant recipients ended up using the sum they received on rent while they were trying to return home. Even though their properties were unlivable, they had to continue to pay insurance and taxes on them. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is currently discussing how to provide more aid to homeowners who were forced to spend their grants on basic necessities other than rebuilding.

"That is a really important issue that we have heard about from all sides. From homeowner activists, from elected officials, from the mayor of New Orleans and others," said Marion McFadden, deputy assistant secretary for grant programs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds Road Home. "We are looking at other possibilities for relief. We're very far along in our consideration and hoping that we'll be able to resolve the matter very soon."

The Lower Ninth Ward, August 25, 2015. Photograph by Caitlin Faw

These additional funds likely won't be able to make up for all the money fraudsters swindled from residents. Phony contractors swooped in after the storm, offering low prices to families then providing shoddy work that needed to be redone—or simply taking off with the money.

Sarah Curtis, an elderly neighbor and longtime family friend of the Browns, lost so much money she had to give up her home. She's now living across the street with Gaynell Andrews, another Brown sibling. "I paid $76,000 to the first one and $37,000 to the second. They told me to buy all the materials, and then they left," Curtis said.

Road Home dedicated millions of dollars for victims who could provide receipts proving fraud. Some Lower Ninth Ward residents like Curtis don't qualify because they paid in cash or don't have proper receipts.

When asked how it's going one of the brothers, Irvin Brown, answered: "Slow, very slow, much too slow." Why? "Money. Money. Money. Money."

"We're doing everything we can within the flexibility we have to provide options to demonstrate how money was spent. But I'm just not sure that we'll be able to substantiate just with what someone told me as adequate proof of how federal funds were spent," McFadden said.

Representatives from the Department of Housing and Urban Development said it's a tough situation. They want to be able to provide assistance to victims of fraud, but they need to be able to account for the funds they give out, particularly because all the money spent on Katrina is potentially less money that can be spent on future disasters in other parts of the country.

Nonprofits that have been tirelessly working since the storm to rebuild homes say they will continue to serve the community until they run out of money. "The fear is that after [the ten-year anniversary of Katrina] nobody is going to remember us anymore," Sheehan said.

Donations to all the most well-known nonprofits in the Lower Ninth Ward have been steadily declining over the last ten years.

The Lower Ninth Ward, August 25, 2015. Photograph by Caitlin Faw

Volunteers from Lowernine.org started rebuilding Robinson's family home three years ago. The family is grateful for the help, but when asked how the house is coming along one of the brothers, Irvin Brown, answered: "Slow, very slow, much too slow." Why? "Money. Money. Money. Money," he repeated. Lowernine.org provides unlimited volunteer labor, but homeowners must find the funds for the materials. The Browns have been hosting community fundraisers and saving up to buy the items they need since the storm.

City Councilmember James Gray, whose district includes the Ninth Ward, estimated there are about 7,000 lots in the neighborhood that homeowners have not been able to repair. "I am also unhappy about the rate of recovery. Especially if you measure from the ten years since the hurricane," he said. "Things haven't been happening nearly as fast as they should have."

Gray said he foresees development accelerating, however. A $20.5 million community center with music and exercise classes, a senior center, and a health clinic opened in May. A new fire station was put in last year. The revamped Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School for Science and Technology is set to open this fall for the first time since the storm.

A woman walks along the rebuilt Industrial Canal levee wall in the Lower Ninth Ward on May 18, 2015, in New Orleans. Photograph by Mario Tama/Getty Images

"We are all very upset about the rate of progress. But if we look at the things that have happened in the recent past and the things that are happening in the near future, we are at least moving in the right direction," Gray said.

For residents and volunteers working on the ground to rebuild, the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is wrought with contradictory emotions: pride in their accomplishments, disappointment from the numerous setbacks, hope for the future, and a daunting commitment to finally finish the task so many thought would already be done.

"I do feel hopeful that we're starting to put the pieces together, that we're going to have enough people living there that the neighborhood will be able to become a functioning community again," Sheehan said. "The people that are living there are committed. There are a lot of empty lots, but anywhere where there is a home there's someone saying hi. That's a lot to build on."

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