On August 29, 2005 at 7:45 a.m., the world changed forever for the people of the Lower Ninth Ward. That’s when Industrial Canal breached in two sections – the day after Hurricane Katrina – forcing a wall of water into the neighborhood and tossing homes and cars around like toys. The cause? The failure of the federal levee protection system, representing the worst engineering disaster in America’s history.
Katrina left dirty floodwaters across the Lower 9 as high as seven feet in Holy Cross and up to 20 feet and more to the north, where water lapped at rooftops. The ward gradually slopes down (as high as the French Quarter in parts and four feet below sea level at its lowest) – effectively, a community wedged into between two canals, railroad tracks and the Mississippi River. As a result of the elevation differences, the water stayed for nearly five weeks, ruining everything below its surface, but with worse effects in the lowest parts of the neighborhood.
On block after block, entire houses had been swept off their foundations, with corner stores and other businesses flattened. Splintered trees. Dirty, rusting cars scattered at odd angles. More than a thousand dead. What remained was a shallow layer of muck, canal water and sewage as far as the eye could see. Mold began to devour everything on the inside. And eventually this northern part of the Lower 9 became the largest demolition of a community in modern U.S. history as whole neighborhoods were bulldozed away. It is estimated that of 220 square blocks from Claiborne Avenue to the Bayou, only 140 homes were left – and most of those uninhabitable.
Just three weeks later, on September 24, Hurricane Rita arrived – the fourth-most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded – bringing more high winds and storm surge, pushing more water from the Industrial Canal into a community still reeling from Katrina’s devastation.
Katrina’s and Rita’s floodwaters left the same dark-gray mud as everywhere else. While most of the area’s historic houses did not suffer as much significant structural damage, homeowners were still forced to relocate. Everything on the inside had been destroyed: clothing, furniture, appliances, keepsakes. Residents were not allowed back into the neighborhood until mid-October. And they began the task of “gutting out” their properties down to the studs (sometimes with the help of volunteers): ripping out water-soaked carpets, insulation and cabinets, tearing down sheetrock (to above the mold line), removing all belongings, electronics, etc.
Few Holy Cross homeowners had flood insurance because much of the area wasn’t considered a flood plain due to its higher elevation and thus residents weren’t required to purchase flood insurance. The cost of construction has prevented most evacuees in the neighborhood from renovating. That, and the fact that electricity and reliable supplies were not restored until nine months after the storm – one of the last areas to do so in all of New Orleans. Many residents, too, continued to wait for the government’s Road Home monies, battling with insurers about wind damage versus flood damage, or fighting FEMA and the city over “red tagging,” which denotes that damage is greater than 50 percent.
Across the Lower Ninth Ward the streets are still too quiet, many of the historic shotgun houses, creole cottages and sidehalls empty, boarded up, ready for rebuilding.