Army Corps Faces Mountain Of Mistrust In New Orleans' Ninth Ward The Corps, which built the levees and floodwalls that failed during Hurricane Katrina, is back to propose a new infrastructure project. It's not going over well.
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Army Corps Faces Mountain Of Mistrust In New Orleans' Ninth Ward

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Army Corps Faces Mountain Of Mistrust In New Orleans' Ninth Ward

Army Corps Faces Mountain Of Mistrust In New Orleans' Ninth Ward

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The Army Corps of Engineers has wanted to expand a canal in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward for decades. It now has the support of the Trump administration but not the people who live nearby. Hurricane Katrina devastated the area 12 years ago. And as Tegan Wendland of member station WWNO reports, the canal's proposed expansion is reopening old wounds.

TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: Vanessa Gueringer was born and raised in the Lower Ninth. She loves it here. She and her husband left this baby-blue shotgun house behind when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. When they came back...

VANESSA GUERINGER: The doors were all chopped up. We saw the markings where, you know, they had been here checking to see if there were any dead bodies or the like. Everything was just absolutely destroyed.

WENDLAND: And who does she hold responsible for that damage - the Army Corps of Engineers. They built the levees and floodwalls that failed during the storm, releasing up to 12 feet of water into the Lower Ninth. Now the Corps wants to build something else here - a new lock to let more tugboats and barges through. On a cool spring night, Gueringer squeezed tight into the packed pews of St. Mary of the Angels Church. Army Corps Spokesman Ricky Boyett stood in front where the preacher usually stands and described the plan. And it didn't go over well.

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RICKY BOYETT: Maybe one or two homes may have to be temporarily relocated. Construction of the lock...

(CROSSTALK)

WENDLAND: The Corps says the project will take 13 years. They'll have to take out a busy bridge. Some people might even have to move for a while. And people have worries - like where the nasty sludge from the bottom of the canal will get dumped and whether the structure will be strong enough to protect them from storms. It's a legitimate worry. The failure of the levees during Katrina forever changed this mostly black neighborhood. About 20,000 people lived here before the storm. Only a few thousand remain. And people like Gueringer are still mad.

GUERINGER: The majority of my people don't even live here now. So they have broken families. They have taken lives.

WENDLAND: The people of the Lower Ninth sued the Corps over the flooding several times. One suit is tied up in the courts. The others were dismissed. City Councilman Jason Williams says they just want the Corps to pay.

JASON WILLIAMS: I don't know that there's ever been a public apology. I don't know that there's ever been an explanation. So to move from that to saying we've got a new project - I can understand why somebody might not believe in it.

WENDLAND: Army Corps Spokesman Rene Poche says the agency wants public input.

RENE POCHE: We have a long way to go to rebuild trust. I don't know if we'll ever rebuild it totally.

WENDLAND: The nearly billion-dollar expansion of the Industrial Canal would make more money for the shipping companies but wouldn't create any new local jobs. And that's the crux of the problem, according to Andy Horowitz, a history professor at Tulane University.

ANDY HOROWITZ: The Industrial Canal was never designed in any direct way to benefit the people who live right around it. It was meant to serve interests that are distant and removed from that neighborhood.

WENDLAND: To Gueringer, a big, new lock isn't useful. She wants grocery stores, businesses, parks.

GUERINGER: There's nothing but empty lots where houses existed. You know, there are so many things that have not been addressed in this community.

WENDLAND: She and her neighbors have written their fears down on slips of paper, and the Corps has filed them away. It'll take a year to complete its latest review, another year of waiting - something the people of the Lower Ninth Ward have been asked to do again and again. For NPR News, I'm Tegan Wendland in New Orleans.

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