Some Ninth Ward Families Allowed to Return
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
One of New Orleans' black neighborhoods is finally seeing more activity: the Lower Ninth Ward became famous in the flooding after Katrina. Today, people are gutting houses, putting up drywall, cutting grass. A portion of the neighborhood is now considered safe enough to return permanently, as NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY reporting:
Water, electricity, sewers, natural gas and, if you're lucky, a trailer. That's what it takes to legally live in the southern section of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward these days, and on this day, Michael King(ph) has them all.
So you got your keys?
Mr. MICHAEL KING: Yeah, if I can learn how to open it. Okay, how do we do this?
CORLEY: King just had his trailer delivered and is having a few problems getting the keys to work.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KING: Isn't this goofy?
CORLEY: King is a building contractor who's been working to repair his own large, four-bedroom house, when he's not working on other homes. He calls the trailer accommodations a bit snug, but a welcome addition, especially for his wife, who's been staying at their home with the family dog for the past six months.
Mr. KING: She can live over there, but she couldn't cook over there, you know, cause the gas isn't on.
CORLEY: There's no head-count on who has returned to live permanently in the Lower Ninth Ward, but federal officials say they have 350 requests for individual trailers. FEMA says some areas are too damaged or may be unsafe for trailers, especially if other homes nearby are being demolished. After the city announced part of the neighborhood was open, FEMA contractors began inspecting 180 sites. King's house was one of them, and he's beginning to feel optimistic about the area.
Mr. KING: This block here, people starts to throw away their things, and the police are starting to ride the area. So, you know, a lot of people's coming back. A lot of work is getting done.
CORLEY: This part of the Lower Ninth Ward is a historic district called Holy Cross. The Holy Cross School is open, and many of the area's storied shotgun houses and Creole cottages remain intact. Sitting on an ornate bench on his front porch, Edgar Louis Taylor(ph) says he's both determined and lucky.
Mr. EDGAR LOUIS TAYLOR: I mean, like I say, my mama house is up for demolition. My daughter house up for demolition. My baby sister house, my sister house - I was fortunate enough to purchase a house in the Holy Cross historic district.
CORLEY: Taylor evacuated to Tallahassee after the flood, but came back right away.
Mr. TAYLOR: I need to be at my house. I can't be nowhere else. Matter of fact, they talk so bad about us, why would I want to be anywhere else? Why would I want to be in the company of somebody that - they made us look bad, nationally, like we were just - I mean, we were the slum of the earth or we just didn't have nothing or whatever. But, that wasn't true. That wasn't true.
CORLEY: Taylor says his three-bedroom home is evidence of his hard work. It's dry and sparkling clean after holding five and half feet of floodwater. He gutted the house himself, wired it after the energy company put a meter out front.
It looks amazing.
Mr. TAYLOR: It does. It really does. It made my house even look a little better.
CORLEY: I'm standing now on Derbigny Street. Derbigny is the dividing line between the open area and closed section of the Lower Ninth Ward. I'm looking at a house where the roof has collapsed and leans like a drunk, almost touching the ground. Cars clog yards here. The closed area, unlike the open section, is desolate.
Mr. MARION DEAN(ph): This rubble used to be my parents home and this is what's left of it.
CORLEY: Marion Dean and his wife Melanie(ph) had traveled from Jackson, Mississippi to take a last look at what remained of the Dean family home.
Mr. DEAN: This house was a one-story house when it was originally bought and in a neighborhood that was, originally, predominantly white. In 1965 we were one of the few black families that lived here. And my dad actually renovated the house with his own hands and he built it into a two-story house. So it was like one of the gems of the neighborhood.
CORLEY: Dean says the family has suffered several blows. His wife's mother died last May - his father, in early August, three weeks before the storm, when a teenage motorcyclist drove the wrong way down a one-way street.
Then came Katrina, and floodwaters slammed into the Dean family home, lifting it off its foundation and shoving it, splintered and damaged, into the street. His mother moved to Mississippi and the city tore down the house. Dean says people who believe this part of the Lower Ninth Ward can be revitalized are in denial.
Mr. DEAN: The hardest thing to accept for an Orleanian, but in particular, a Lower Ninth Wardian, if you will, is to accept the fact that this is over; this area is decimated. You know, it has been annihilated by a natural disaster, and there is no bringing it back.
CORLEY: There are a few in the Lower Ninth Ward who refuse to accept the idea. They are here, too, working on homes surrounded by piles of debris and the shattered remains of other buildings in the closed portion of the neighborhood.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, New Orleans.