Calling Residents Back to the Lower Ninth Ward After Hurricane Katrina, residents of New Orleans' devastated Lower Ninth Ward scattered. Patricia Jones is slowing trying to lure them back. Her community group spreads the word about who's returning — and keeps up the neighborhood so they'll want to come home.
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Calling Residents Back to the Lower Ninth Ward

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Calling Residents Back to the Lower Ninth Ward

Calling Residents Back to the Lower Ninth Ward

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Many residents of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans felt like they got hit twice. First, they were hit by Hurricane Katrina and put under water. Then they were hit by a wave of bad publicity, as policymakers wondered whether the neighborhood needed to be abandoned. The woman we're going to meet next has a different view.

She's one of several people we're profiling as they fight to rebuild New Orleans. NPR's Larry Abramson reports on one woman and the simple network she is using to keep the Ninth Ward alive.

LARRY ABRAMSON: A community like the Lower Ninth Ward is a network. It's held together by shared information. So when that network falls apart, how do you put it back together?

Ms. Patricia Jones (Community Activist, Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, Louisiana): So basically, this map represents a way we communicated when we first came back.

ABRAMSON: Patricia Jones towers over a little poster-board sketch of the neighborhood that she and her neighbors used to get the Ninth Ward humming again. She's six-feet-plus in heels, broad shoulders - an imposing figure. The map is dotted with pushpins that help point the way to recovery.

Ms. JONES: If you want to come home and you're planning to do that, put a green tack by your home. If you're not sure, use the yellow. What this did was it allowed Ms. Mamie(ph) to talk to Ms. Johnson(ph), even though they weren't coming in the building at the same time.

ABRAMSON: What started out as a kind of party line for information grew into the Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association, or NENA, now housed in a former church on Lamont Street. But it wasn't the storm that got Patricia Jones into this. It was what came after.

Ms. JONES: We were basically pissed off into action.

ABRAMSON: Jones and her neighbors were infuriated that officials kept them from returning to the Lower Ninth for months after the storm, long after other areas had begun rebuilding. The area was depicted as a lost cause, too vulnerable to be worth salvaging. Jones and her neighbors figured if they could persuade just a few people to return, they could save the Lower Ninth from the bulldozer.

Ms. JONES: Here on the Lower Nine, there's a culture of families, live close to each another. So if you find one family member, if you find Grandma, you've probably found us, all the sisters and brothers and the cousins. And so the key is, you know somebody, call them. So word got out.

(Soundbite of dark squealing)

Ms. JONES: Hey lady, what's going on? All right, now. You doing okay? You making out all right? Good girl.

ABRAMSON: Jones strolls down Lamont street and greets the few people who have returned. There's still a lot of empty space in the Lower Ninth. It feels almost rural now. She says this area used to be hopping.

Ms. JONES: St. David actually had a school here in this hall. This used to be the kindergarten class, and there was a pre-K over there. That was a nail shop there, and…

ABRAMSON: All that is gone now. To keep the area from turning into a ghost town, Patricia Jones and other members of NENA have been mowing lawns and keeping the place clean to persuade people to rebuild. But no matter how much work they do, this area will always be surrounded by water on three sides.

Jones says that doesn't scare her. It helps makes this neighborhood what it is, a place where you can have breakfast on the levee and watch the boats pass.

Ms. JONES: Free access to water at a protected spot is a beautiful thing. People die for that. Why would I sell my property to go somewhere else where -I mean, come on. Someone else will buy that, and then I will be the visitor.

ABRAMSON: Jones obviously loves this working-class neighborhood. She doesn't want to see it raked clean and gentrified. She knows what happened to her grandfather decades ago when he lost his home.

Ms. JONES: And he was bought out, eminent domain. They wanted to put some railroad tracks across, and it took my dad - another generation passed before he was able to buy another home. But that's how I understood and was introduced to the value of home ownership.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Ms. JONES: So many things to do.

ABRAMSON: Of course, Jones' home was flooded, too - the first house for her, her husband and her daughters. They've been living in hotels and in apartments since the storm.

Ms. JONES: Someone - the lights are on.

ABRAMSON: Jones and her husband have been fixing up this house on Lizardi Street in their spare time. Parts of it look great now. There were new kitchen cabinets. Other rooms still have no flooring.

Ms. JONES: My husband and I are trying to decide if we're going to put the trim red or whatever, so we've been fussing about colors and all that, you know, regular husband-and-wife stuff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ABRAMSON: Patricia Jones says she's going to return home soon, no matter what. She doesn't care if her house still isn't finished - no more hotels and apartments for her. But it's just as important, she says, that her neighbors see that she's returned so word will spread that her street and the Lower Ninth are coming back. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Go to, and you can read stories of other people working hold the Gulf Coast together.

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