Thursday, March 24, 2011

New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward Today

When I told my friend, Rosemary, that I would be accompanying Bill to New Orleans where he would attend a conference, she asked, "Would you like Herb to introduce you to his NOLA contact?" Herb Wang, her husband and our good friend, had been taking University of Wisconsin, Madison, students down to the Lower 9th Ward every summer since Hurricane Katrina and the flooding in 2005. I was excited that I could get a morning's tour of the area with Darryl Malek-Wiley, Sierra Club Environmental Justice Organizer for New Orleans. A college student during the Vietnam War era, Darryl had stretched out his education to avoid the draft, at the same time joining in Sierra Club outings. Becoming an environmentalist has defined his life for decades. Darryl picked me up at my hotel promptly at 8:30 a.m. and said, "I have to get some students started on a project and then I'll show you around. We've got a few weeks here with lots of help over college spring breaks." My first view of the Lower 9th Ward was at the hub of Historic Green, an organization commited to sustainable design and historic preservation. Students grouped in a former warehouse received instructions for their day. Darryl would be taking a few to Bayou Bienvenue at the end of Caffin Avenue. He explained to me and the students, using a kiosk created by University of Wisconsin students a few years before, how the bayou could be restored. Before 1965 when the levees were built, natural bayous and wetlands cut the force of hurricanes and diminished the effects of flooding. Older residents of the Lower 9th could remember fishing, crabbing, and boating in the bayou. Now salt water had killed the cypress trees. The goal of Historic Green here is to restore the bayou back to its previous ecosystem. Today's project would be to work on the stairs that previous groups had begun building from the levee to the water. If residents could get to the water, they could fish for crabs, and take small boats from here. This group of six students from Minnesota would take rocks from alongside the levee and throw them into the water at the base of the steps, making a more solid area for the final steps and a beginning location for a dock. We left them throwing rocks. Back in the van, Darryl began describing the neighborhood where water had risen to the rooftops and homes had floated away, taking everything, including many people, with it. "When I first came here after Katrina," he said, "I couldn't drive down the street because it was full of debris." I remembered pictures of the wreckage of broken houses, cars, and trees. Many residents had not even been able to find where their homes had once been. Today there are no piles of debris and trash, but for every reconstructed house, there are at least three empty platforms with driveways that go nowhere. Some of the reasons that people have not returned are: the dissolution of an effective public transportation system; older residents did not qualify for new mortgages; even now there are no food markets in this area; and besides losing their homes, family, and friends, they have lost mature gardens that provided oranges, pecans, and kumquats, as well as vegetables. Some evacuees also became re-established in other towns and cities. Occasionally a charming new home has risen where an old one had been washed away. Not only are they built on concrete platforms as they had been before, but now the federal government requires that they be built a few feet off the ground on blocks, for high-water protection. Unfortunately, next door to attractive new construction, properties like this, with FEMA "x" markings still exist, continuing reminders of a painful past. Darryl seems to know everyone, calling out through the open window of the van. "What are you working on today?" a neighbor calls back. "I've got some students down at the bayou," he responds. "We're working on securing the steps so our flight of stairs won't float off into the bayou." The neighbor answers with a laugh, "Sure don't want that!" And we continue down the street. "These were not desperately poor people," Darryl tells me. "Seventy percent of them owned their own homes. They had gardens in back and flowers in front. We work with the neighborhood associations to see how they want to rebuild. Still, we have the unique opportunity here to build green, but we also have to recognize the original historic context of this area. Right now we have the greatest concentration of LEED Platinum homes in the world." Residents will live with fear for the rest of their lives, however, as evidenced by this new home (above), designed to float. I had never seen a LEED Platinum building. In Albany, we have been thrilled to watch the College of St. Rose build LEED Gold new construction. Some of the construction options that help these building qualify for platinum certification are solar panels on the roof, eco-friendly insulation, cement fiber board walls, and high energy windows. While some of the houses' non-traditional design may seem odd, they are doubtless very comfortable inside. Also, homeowners receive a reduction in their mortgage for every year that they stay in the neighborhood. In the Lower 9th, Brad Pitt has been instrumental in rebuilding part of the neighborhood to the highest environmental standards. (Note the steps going to nowhere in this yard, above. The owner lost both his sister and his mother to the flood.) Residents have a choice of different home styles, all of which aim to be carbon neutral. The Brad Pitt homes also are an entire story above ground. Homeowners have found this space handy as a car port, or for storing lawn accessories. Because some people may not be able to negotiate stairs, non-electric elevators have been installed as an additional outside entry.

Some rooftops have turf gardens (right) that absorb water and sun.

Very few trees remain, but those that are here are very dear to the people who survived the floods by hanging tight to the upper branches, inches above rising water below. The owner of this house (left) was told that he would get more direct sun for his solar panels if he took the tree down. He refused--this tree has become a member of the family.

We continued across a couple of four-lane roads to the Holy Cross Parish nearer the Mississippi, stopping at the Sierra Club headquarters here, and at the construction site of the new offices for Historic Green. Being in Darryl's company made everyone interested in meeting me. I was very glad that I could tell them that I am the Chair of the Sierra Club in upstate New York (Hudson-Mohawk Group). The Sierra Club is such a strong presence here that no other explanation is necessary; even the students we had at the bayou were Club members and had a familiarity with environmental issues in their home areas.

"Holy Cross is a historic area that the city of New Orleans has been more interested in restoring. Also the flooding here, while devastating, did not rise as high," Darryl told me. I could see that there were many shotgun houses and Creole cottages that were in the process of being restored. Still, even here a newly rebuilt house could be next door to an abandoned one.
We passed a group of students working on a rain garden. Designed with native plants, these gardens absorb water between the houses and the streets. Another group painted a nearby building. "We could not have gotten as far as we have without the help of volunteers," Darryl said. "We still have not received the help from the government that we have hoped for."
This house (above) is a "Katrina Cottage." I remembered fund drives and ad campaigns, in 2006 and 2007, for these small homes that would help replace those lost in the flood.
Eventually we returned to see how the students were doing. Darryl had brought more water for them to drink, as the sun got higher and the humidity rose. The students were pleased to show him their progress in filling the base of the stairs with rock.

Darryl looked at the sections where posts held up the stairs and cement would be poured to connect the steps to the rock. Some spots needed a few more rocks--I admit to helping throw rocks. I wasn't much help, and I came in when the hardest work had already been done, but I helped try to fill in the empty spots and enjoyed chatting with the students.

Buying cement mix was next on the project's agenda, so we left the students again. The students remained sitting on top of the levee in the breeze, eating their lunch. "You must meet a lot of great kids," I said to Darryl. "Every day," he replied, nodding.

On the way to the hardware store, Darryl dropped me off in a neighborhood where I could find my way back to places that were familiar to me and eventually to the hotel. I thanked him for giving me so much of his morning, and he said, "I want people to see what it's like here and what we are doing. Then they will go back and tell others."

To this end, I am telling you here in my blog about the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans today. Feel free to share this blog post with people that you know. If you would like to help, there is still much work to be done. Donations can also be made to The Sierra Club Foundation, c/o Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships, 85 Second St. Suite 750, San Francisco, CA 94105, with the words New Orleans EJ on the memo line of your check. Thank you.


  1. The is should be in the New York Times. THE best article I have read on agenda, eye for detail, description and mood all within the context of excellent reporting. Photos ad part of the story...essential. Everything you wrote leading to the photo of the tree impacted on me deeply.

  2. Nice post Virginia. I spent a few months working in New Iberia and living in Lafayette during 1993, about eight months after Hurricane Andrew had devastated the region. New Orleans was in good shape, but New Iberia still had vast tracts of land--entire blocks long--that were still piled up with wreckage. The region also experienced a rare snowfall and frost during the winter of 1992-1993 that didn't help things much.


  3. Thank you Virginia. I agree with creator mother, this is a wonderful piece. I experienced it like I was right there with you. I am going to share this.

  4. Very insightful - I am happy to hear they still have students willing to spend their Spring Breaks working in New Orleans.

  5. Unfortunately this natural disaster and outcome of it is a huge blemish for our country....the way our gov't turned it's back essentially on this area's extreme need within our country - will always be a mystery to me!

    I had been following the restorative efforts by Brad Pitt's organization and know they have bought a home there as well - where would we be without these organizations and the hundreds of volunteers ??

    FEMA turned out to be such a huge disappointment in this area - so much so that all faith in them was lost. I have to say hearing that our current gov't system is still not addressing the area's needs is very distressing - - is this where we say enough is enough and how can we extend ourselves as a humanitarian nation to other countries aide when we cannot take care of our own ?

    Reading your article Virginia, I felt like I was there. I really enjoyed the photos as well which were taken in their most natural form - to project the story.....which made it even more powerful -