It's been seven years since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,800 people and leaving molding shambles in its wake. New Orleans is still recovering, in some places more than others. This past May, more than a dozen employees from the New York City Parks Department used a week of their vacation time to help the city rebuild. —Friday, May 11, 2012, Lower Ninth Ward
“THIS IS WHERE YOU are,” Tom Pepper said to a roomful of roughly 20 volunteers.
Pepper is the director of Common Ground Relief, a non-profit perched near the levee’s edge of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. He held up a book titled The Great Deluge, and pointed at a two-story white house on the cover. The yards around it were flooded with water. A deep olive sea reflected second-story windows and the crowns of trees. A burgundy barge floated amidst the ruins. A few hundred feet away, where the wall of the Industrial Canal should have been, whitewater rushed into the city.
The volunteers stood around Pepper in the living room of the house, which is now purple. Common Ground Relief gutted, rebuilt, and painted the house after the storm. The color helped it fit in, at least a little, with the surrounding 70-plus funky, pastel, acutely-angled homes built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right foundation.
Pepper continued. On August 29, Hurricane Katrina’s eye hovered 25 to 30 miles east of here and sent a 25-foot high tidal surge up the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, whose fixed banks funneled the water toward the city and into the Industrial Canal. Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella described the incident. The water in the canal rose 14 feet above normal levels. Pressure built, and shortly after 7 a.m., two giant sections of the wall collapsed. All that saltwater, and then that barge, poured into a neighborhood that is four feet below sea level in some places.
Cameras focused on the barge, but the water knocked down walls, splintered homes, and drowned people. Some people climbed onto roofs. The water sat, turning into a toxic soup, held still in the bowl of a city. More than a week later, over 60 percent of the city was still flooded. Many of the people who climbed onto roofs were saved, albeit with memories of their neighbors dying.
Still, people wanted to come back. Even though the Lower Ninth Ward had a high crime rate, was below sea level, and was surrounded on three sides by water, it also had a much higher rate of home ownership than the city as a whole. An estimated 20,000 people lived in the neighborhood before the storm. The area has been slow to recover. Pepper said the deluge destroyed more than 4,000 homes. A New York Times Magazine story published this past spring described sections of the neighborhood as a jungle, returning to nature. Roughly 5,500 people live here now.
Common Ground Relief is trying to create a welcoming environment for the people who want to return. Pepper said they have gutted more than 3,000 homes in the city and rebuilt more than 130 in the Lower Ninth Ward. The organization also teaches families to build raised gardens so they can grow vegetables in toxin-free soil, runs a legal clinic that offers free advice to lower income residents, and replants marsh grasses to help build a natural buffer around the city. They've done all this by relying on a rag tag army of roughly 40,000 volunteers. Today’s volunteers include 14 people from the New York City Parks Department, who plan to wade through waist-deep water in a bayou filled with bugs, snakes, and, they’ve heard, alligators—all to plant a few blades of grass.