Little left in Ninth Ward but ruin and memories

Months after Katrina, stunned residents re-enter New Orleans neighborhood


NEW ORLEANS -- The sun was still burning off the fog yesterday morning when 88-year-old Nelson Meyers climbed five stairs onto a concrete porch he had built four decades ago. The railing was there. The house was gone.

The 25-foot wall of water that burst through the levee forming the western boundary of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina had lifted the home off its foundation. It had landed in the neighbor's yard, on top of a car, caked in mud, its lacy curtains shredded into filthy ribbons.

"A man's home is his castle," Meyers said. "And this is what we've got."

Living with 28 other relatives in Florida, Meyers and three family members drove to New Orleans to take Mayor Ray Nagin up on his offer to sift through the wreckage, to salvage what they could.

The Lower Ninth has been closed since the flooding, and residents had grown agitated over not being able to gain access to their property. Nagin relented, cautioning that the neighborhood - probably the hardest-hit pocket of the city - was not stable enough for people to move back. But, he said: "Everybody can get their stuff."

So, for two hours, Meyers and his family rumbled through the Lower Ninth in a small convoy, stopping at four family homes that dated back five generations. They all had their wish lists: the picture of Meyers and his wife enjoying a picnic, taken in the 1940s. The family Bible. Birth certificates.

They came away with nothing.

Like hundreds of other families, they could not salvage a single item.

Little more than three months ago, few outside New Orleans had heard of the Ninth Ward. Today, the neighborhood remains a testament to the wrath of Katrina's flood, a mind-boggling heap of splintered houses, upside-down cars, refrigerators stuck on rooftops and, across Jourdan Avenue, a huge barge that floated through the levee breach and settled atop a school bus.

The mayor's "look and leave" program might do little to stem the pain or to extinguish the anger among many residents, who feel that they were forgotten as politicians' lofty promises were echoing off the deserted streets.

"We heard so many words," said Linda Garth Llopis, 60, as she stood outside her partially collapsed home on Deslonde Street. "Our president said he was going to help. Everybody said they were going to help. We are citizens of the United States. And we've just been thrown away."

It is popular in New Orleans these days to remind people that they should feel blessed to have survived, that material possessions can be replaced. But such reassurances sounded empty yesterday to those who have lost everything.

Llopis is living in a hotel, with no job and no hope for rebuilding. At her feet was a small pile of belongings that her husband had been able to retrieve from their home: a handful of costume jewelry, a batch of his heart medicine, most likely ruined.

"We had a nice life," she said.

She and many of her neighbors are fighting the conventional wisdom that the Ninth isn't worth saving, that it was dirty and crime-ridden anyway, that the storm's silver lining was that it washed away the city's blight.

Like most poor neighborhoods, the Ninth had its troubles. But it was a community, said Barbara Ponder, 50, who had never lived anywhere but the 1900 block of Deslonde St. Just about everybody owned his or her home; there were few renters. There was a preschool down the street from Ponders' house. Several nearby houses had been remodeled in recent years.

Ponder lived a few hundred feet from the levee lining the Inner Harbor Navigational Canal. Her daughter used to play there; she and her friends often skidded down its sloped, grassy bank on flattened cardboard boxes.

Yesterday, Ponder stood on a flattened lot. There was no sign of her house. The few remnants of life where her home once stood - some dishes, a bashed-in stove, a flyswatter - were not hers. They had floated in from elsewhere in the neighborhood.

She had made her final mortgage payment in July.

Much of the destruction in New Orleans, particularly in the Central Business District, was caused by a slow, seeping flood. That was not true in the Lower Ninth, much of which was crushed instantly by a wave of water when an 800-foot-wide section of the levee collapsed early in the storm. Close to the canal, entire blocks are gone. Even a mile or so to the east, houses have been reduced to rubble, as if a giant stomped through town.

Here, the notion of rebuilding seems faint at best. Almost all of the houses above Clairborne Avenue - an 11-by-25-square-block area - will be demolished. Most were below sea level, and it is far from certain that the neighborhood will be rebuilt.

Scott Gold writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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