RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Row after row of houses flooded to the roof and desperate residents on those rooftops waiting to be rescued, that was the scene in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, which turned it into an indelible symbol of the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. The heavily African-American neighborhood was among the city's hardest hit, and NPR's Greg Allen reports it has been the slowest to rebuild.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: There's a desolation in the Lower Ninth Ward today you feel on nearly every block. One of the first things you notice are the many empty lots, several on every street. Instead of houses, now they just hold weeds and tall grass. In this once-vibrant neighborhood, just a little more than a third of the households that were here are back after Hurricane Katrina. Edward Gasper was out with his son recently cutting grass in some of the empty lots. He lives nearby and grew up in the neighborhood.
EDWARD GASPER: Yeah, we're trying to get these lots back together down here. It's horrible. It's real bad.
ALLEN: The Lower Ninth Ward is cut off from the rest of the city by a shipping channel, the Industrial Canal. During Katrina, when the canal's flood walls gave way, water surged through the neighborhood, pushing houses off their foundations. Water 10 to 12 feet deep stood in some areas here for weeks. It was the last neighborhood to have power and water service restored and the last to be pumped dry. The devastation was worst on streets near the flood wall breach.
ROBBIE BANKS: My house, really, it was pulled to the front of my yard. It was, like, four other houses in my yard.
ALLEN: Bobbie Banks lived here with her husband and daughter. There used to be more than a dozen homes and businesses on this block. Now there are just two, hers and one other.
BANKS: And there were very nice houses in this neighborhood. This was a barbershop and a beauty salon on the corner here. Mona and her uncle was the barber right there on that corner right there.
ALLEN: Before Katrina, there was a bar on the street and a church on the corner. Banks knew all of her neighbors. She says they looked out for each other. After the flood, about 700 people took a buyout in the Lower Ninth Ward, choosing not to rebuild, instead turning over their property to the state. Some want to rebuild but haven't been able to afford it. And those who did rebuild faced obstacles.
Bobbie Banks knows all about those obstacles. She's recently widowed and on disability. Although her house is back, she's not in it. She's staying in a rental property nearby. Her story is familiar in post-Katrina New Orleans. A contractor took her money and didn't finish the work.
BANKS: One-hundred-and-five-thousand dollars is what he took from me. I was just so anxious to get back home. Trusting him was a big mistake for me.
ALLEN: She had other contractors, and volunteers helped complete the rebuilding. Then she found her home had been built using toxic drywall imported from China. It all had to be ripped out. Plus, she has termites. But with the help of some nonprofit groups, she hopes to be back soon.
BANKS: It's been so much trouble, but that's where I lived. That's home. That's home for me. It was home for my husband and myself and my daughter. It's home.
ALLEN: It's home, but it's not like it used to be. There are fewer people on the streets. Many say they no longer know their neighbors. Some streets are so filled with potholes, cars can't drive down them. There are a few convenient stores and fast food stands but no supermarkets or grocery stores. At least once a week, though, there is one place in the Lower Ninth Ward to find fresh produce.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So you got four sweet potatoes, and what else here? Four green onions.
ALLEN: Every Tuesday, a mobile farmers market run by a local nonprofit visits a senior citizen center in the Lower Ninth Ward and quickly sells out. Inside the senior center is something else that's sometimes hard to come by in this sparsely populated neighborhood, a sense of community. Annie Wright is from the Lower Ninth but lives in a different neighborhood now, Gentilly Terrace.
ANNIE WRIGHT: But I still come in the neighborhood because I have some friends here.
ALLEN: Wright says she planned to rebuild her home and return to the Lower Ninth Ward after the storm. There was a kind of agreement, she says, among all the neighbors on her street.
WRIGHT: And the neighbor who was next door to me, just so happened she died before we came back. And after she died, I decided, oh, I don't want to be back without her.
ALLEN: On her old street, Wright says just three of her neighbors returned. Sitting next to her at the senior center, Sidney Davis says he did rebuild and return but isn't happy about it. I asked him if he made the right decision.
SIDNEY DAVIS: No, because nothing seems to be the same. Everything is, well, what you call, depressing. There's no stores. There's nothing else we have down there.
ALLEN: And with so many empty lots in the Lower Ninth, property values remain low. In some cases, new homes built here are worth less than the cost of construction. But 10 years after the flood, there are some signs of progress. In the last year, 150 people moved back. A high school is opening soon in the neighborhood, a drugstore is on the way, and the city recently invested $19 million in a new community center, with a health clinic and indoor pool. Greg Allen, NPR News.
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