A block and a half separate Henry Irvin’s house from the bayou that serves as the northern border of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. Modest single-family homes used to line both sides of the street, before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Today, it’s all but empty. Irvin, a 79-year-old widower with two bad knees, has no neighbors between him and the bayou. Facing in the other direction, Irvin stares into a similar solitude: There’s a falling-down house two lots away and a small Baptist church at the end of his block, but otherwise Irvin—a man often called the “mayor of the Lower Ninth Ward,” even by the city’s current mayor—lives here alone. One block over, on Tricou Street, there are six occupied homes, a veritable metropolis in this corner of the community. In whatever direction Irvin points his red truck, he traverses entire blocks choked with vegetation, devoid of both houses and people.
Ten years have passed since a series of catastrophic levee breaches caused the Lower Ninth Ward, along with most of New Orleans, to flood. The city, state, and federal governments have invested more than $600 million in the Lower Ninth, a relatively compact community that measures 20 by 25 blocks. Foundations have contributed tens of millions of dollars to the area. Brad Pitt alone has raised nearly $50 million through the Make It Right Foundation. Tens of thousands of volunteers have done work in the community. All of which raises the question: Why do large stretches of the Lower Ninth still look as if the levees failed only a year ago?
Simple economics has played a big part. Prior to Katrina, the Lower Ninth—a community sometimes referred to as “Backatown”—was home to many of the housekeepers, kitchen workers, and others who kept the tourism industry going in New Orleans. Another large share of its people were retirees who, like Irvin, lived on a fixed income. The average resident survived on $16,000 a year, and more than one in every three residents lived below the poverty line.
But more than economics is at play in the stalled recovery of this community, which was more than 98 percent black at the time of Katrina. The Lower Ninth has always been a place apart from the rest of New Orleans, a small village rather than one neighborhood among many. Much of that is geography. The community is downriver from Uptown and the French Quarter—as downriver as it is possible to be while remaining in New Orleans. The only way to get there is by bridge. The community’s personality before the storm felt more Mississippi Delta than big-city jazz. Residents raised chickens in the yard. They grew vegetables and fished for dinner. They tended to be country folks who went to bed a lot earlier than their city kin. “Before Katrina,” Irvin says, “I could tell you the name of everyone all the way from the bridge on down.”
While this separation made the Lower Nine, as residents tend to call their neighborhood, a distinct and vibrant place, it also left it vulnerable when disaster struck. The shame is that a mix of misperceptions and racially informed myths about the Lower Ninth Ward set the stage for one misguided policy choice after another, at all levels of government. Despite the well-meaning efforts of thousands of volunteers and hundreds of millions of dollars in private donations and public aid, the desolation of Henry Irvin’s community today is a self-fulfilling prophecy.