Touring New Orleans' Devastated Ninth Ward

Rolando Arrieta joins New Orleans residents on a bus tour through their Ninth Ward neighborhood, where they observe the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the floods that swept through the city three months ago.

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

On Thursday some New Orleanians will see their homes for the first time in three months. That's when parts of the city's Ninth Ward will be reopened to residents. People were not allowed into the area because it was declared unsafe after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Some homeowners did get an early peek at what remains of the Ninth Ward, but that view came from the windows of a bus. NPR's Rolando Arrieta was there.

ROLANDO ARRIETA reporting:

The pickup point looked much like a typical guided tour setup: a sign-up sheet, a waiting area, even a food wagon around the corner.

(Soundbite of crowd)

ARRIETA: Dozens of Lower Ninth Ward residents climb on board the bus. Colonel Sneed from New Orleans Homeland Security prepares them for what they're about to see.

Colonel SNEED (New Orleans Homeland Security): It is still too dangerous for you--for us to allow you to go back there on your own. That's why we designed this tour here--tour's a horrible word I know--but this is what we designed for you to be able to go and hopefully come to some closure. That was the whole purpose of this.

ARRIETA: Most of the houses in the Lower Ninth Ward are caked in toxic mold, so there are strict rules.

Col. SNEED: We cannot let you off the bus. We cannot let you into the homes because there--many of them are still structurally unsound. I'm telling you there's nothing in your homes that you can save.

ARRIETA: Residents are also told they won't go through the entire Lower Ninth Ward, and some don't take the news too lightly.

Col. SNEED: OK. What else? Yes, sir.

Unidentified Man #1: My whole family is on Deslonde and Peeb--Calveston(ph) Damity(ph). And you're telling us there ain't nothing there. So I want to go and see what I can see while something is there.

Col. SNEED: And that's what we're doing, sir. Again, we're here to help you out. I understand your frustrations.

Unidentified Man #2: OK, Dave...

Unidentified Woman #1: OK, so I want you--I'm sitting on the bus and I won't be able to...

Col. SNEED: But ma'am, you can see almost...

Unidentified Woman #1: ...see a thing!

Unidentified Man #3: See...

Col. SNEED: ...almost to the levee.

Unidentified Man #3: ...pass on the ice cream...

Col. SNEED: There are no homes in that area.

OK. Anything else? OK. Good luck.

Unidentified Man #4: Thank you.

ARRIETA: Heavily armed soldiers guard this blocked-off section of the Lower Ninth Ward. Veteran bus driver Oliver Mickens(ph) idles at the checkpoint. He gets a nod and an OK to proceed.

(Soundbite of bus motor)

Mr. OLIVER MICKENS (Bus Driver): OK, from this point on out, you find the arrows that's in the street. I have a laid-out route. Got to glo--go as slow as I can. If you all need me to stop, just say stop and I'll stop.

ARRIETA: As the bus creeps forward, passengers jump to their feet to look at all the destroyed homes. The first stop request is from Glenda Holbert(ph). When she recognizes her house, she said, `Forget the rules.'

Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, Jesus, look...

Ms. GLENDA HOLBERT (Resident, Lower Ninth Ward): Could you stop? Could you stop please.

(Soundbite of door opening)

Mr. MICKENS: Ma'am, you can't go out, ma'am.

Unidentified Woman #2: You can't go out. You have to take...

ARRIETA: A fried runs after Ms. Holbert and brings her back into the bus.

Mr. MICKENS: OK, I'm going to pull up, but you can't go out here or...

Ms. HOLBERT: We have a cousin that was missing. I don't even know if she under that rubble or what.

(Soundbite of bus motor)

ARRIETA: Mr. Mickens drives slowly, following the arrows marked on the street. He winds his way through the mounds of debris, dangling power lines and cars covered in silt and, like a typical tour guide, he points out certain landmarks.

Mr. MICKENS: You can see the breach down here--where the rock's at.

Unidentified Man #5: Yeah?

Mr. MICKENS: That was the first breach they say.

ARRIETA: Theresa Brown's(ph) house was about a block from the breached levee. All she can see is an empty lot.

Ms. THERESA BROWN (Resident, Lower Ninth Ward): There's nothing. And that's Ms.--that's--right there where that yellow truck is at, that's where my husband's mother's house was at.

ARRIETA: For the next couple of hours residents tour what was once their neighborhood, their home, their community. And once in front of their property they poke their heads out the window and take a picture or two of what it looks like now.

Unidentified Woman #3: OK, and you want to stop? You want to stop?

(Soundbite of camera being wound)

Unidentified Man #6: My house, my aunt's house, my cousin's house, my other in-law's--right there. All three of them houses gone.

ARRIETA: The tour wraps up and the residents ride back in silence, and now they're faced with the pressing question: Move on or rebuild? For Willie Lee Simmons, the answer is clear.

(Soundbite of crowd and background conversation)

Mr. WILLIE LEE SIMMONS (Resident, Lower Ninth Ward): No! I don't want to see this place no more! They ain't' going to let the water on me no more!

ARRIETA: But for Deidre Ellis(ph) the Lower Ninth Ward is still home, so she's going for it.

Ms. DEIDRE ELLIS (Resident, Lower Ninth Ward): I was down there 41 years, and I know I'm going back. Once they give me the go and be bu--do--get in there and clean up the property and then start rebuilding.

(Soundbite of crowd and background conversation)

ARRIETA: There's no telling how many will return this week, but most believe it'll take years to rebuild the community once known as New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. Rolando Arrieta, NPR News.

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