It has been almost nine years since Hurricane Katrina ripped through the South, leaving behind a wake of destruction so profound that New Orleans for months was the center of the media universe as the city buried its dead and began the momentous task of rebuilding both its home and social fabric.
The news outlets left long ago, leaving few to tell the tale of the Lower 9th Ward. Among the poorest and crime-prone before the August 2005 hurricane, the Lower 9th remains a landscape of destroyed buildings and empty lots. Experts doubt it will return to its pre-Katrina form, but the ward is getting help from an unlikely source.
“It was 11 feet of water over a small city,” said Mount Vernon’s Emily Webber, who in August will help lead a team to New Orleans to spend a week helping to rebuild the Lower 9th. “They had help the first couple of years and then people left. It’s their home. They’re not giving up.”
Webber, a trustee at Dunn’s Corner Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, made her first trip to New Orleans in 2012 with the Rev. Gary York, of Oakland United Baptist Church, and the Rev. Ted Chaffee, of First Baptist Church of Gardiner. The Kennebec to the Mississippi mission’s team works with American Home Missions Build to repair and restore the homes and communities Katrina destroyed in August of 2005. More than a dozen people from the three churches, and some who do not attend any of the churches, are expected to make the trip this year. They will join forces with dozens of other volunteers from around the country. Hundreds of volunteers descend on the Lower 9th each year.
“We’re considered the fun people,” Webber said, smiling. “We adopt people from other groups.”
The ward was a thriving community of 14,000 people before Katrina, but recent census data suggest just 3,000 have returned. The city has poured millions of dollars into the ward, rebuilding parks and streets and recently completing construction of a new fire station; yet other essentials are so scarce that the federal government has listed the ward as a food desert because there is no access to affordable healthful food.
Last year the Kennebec team worked with Burnell Cotlon, a Lower 9th native and Army veteran who sank most of his $70,000 in life savings into buying a nearly destroyed building and rehabilitating it to hold a barbershop and candy shop. Cotlon plans to open a grocery store soon in the same building. Residents now buy food from a tractor-trailer that rumbles into town once a month.
“The grocery store will be the first in the whole 9th Ward since the flood,” York said.
The Kennebec to the Mississippi team was formed when the youth group at Chaffee’s church was looking for a summer trip. The group had a choice of a trip focusing on fun or one that involved working for others.
Chaffee, like many people the team members talk to, was surprised the Lower 9th had not been rebuilt already.
“The kids were really interested in doing this,” Chaffee said. “They overwhelmingly chose this.”
York recalled a couple from his church who volunteered in New Orleans shortly after the flood. York met with them when they returned. The effect of that discussion has remained.
“They sat in my office and just cried,” York said. “I was glad to get the opportunity to go.”
There were 18 people in the first group and 12 last year. The Kennebec team spent most of its time the first year doing cleanup. Tools and supplies are in short supply, so last year the group bought tools that it left behind when it returned to Maine. The team is raising money this year to buy even more tools and supplies for the trip, which is scheduled for Aug. 3-9.
The team never knows what it will be doing until it meets with volunteer coordinators in New Orleans. Team members have done everything from removing vines and scraping paint to rebuilding a wall so a woman could move back into her home.
“It’s an experience,” York said. “There’s a job for everyone.”
Regardless of what they wind up doing, one thing is certain, Chaffee said: Despite the sweltering heat and hard work, the people the Mainers meet on the trip, both the natives and the volunteers, will affect their lives profoundly.
“Once you’re down there, it grips you,” he said. “We paint these neighborhoods with one color — they’re crime-infested — but they’re not seeing the inside story.”
Part of that inside story is told by the X’s that mark so many of the abandoned and dilapidated homes. Rescuers painted the marks immediately after the storm to indicate the home had been searched and whether dead people or pets were found inside.
“The first year, that was the thing that got to me,” York said. “It seems like every house had an X on it. Everyone you meet has a story of someone they lost.”
The ongoing effort to rebuild the ward is spearheaded and carried out primarily by the people who live there, York said.
“It’s the people themselves and volunteers,” he said. “It’s not government subsidy.”
Chaffee said the effort to rebuild the ward has been criticized because the low-lying area is prone to flooding again.
“The same could be said of Hallowell,” Chaffee said.
Those who have returned often live in difficult conditions, Webber said. Many families live together in crowded homes, or in garages, but they stay because the Lower 9th is their home.
“Whatever they have to do,” Webber said. “Some of the families have been there 200 years.”
The Lower 9th was settled and developed by freed slaves after the Civil War, Chaffee said. Many homeowners in the impoverished ward had no insurance, and many who did have had difficulty in reaching settlements with their carriers. The residents were not well organized politically or socially.
“Many of them have resettled or they can’t afford to get back,” Chaffee said. “They still consider themselves New Orleanians, but they’re displaced persons. They’re exiled.”
The group continues to raise money for the trip and to accept volunteers to go on the trip. The Depot Redemption Center on Main Street in Readfield is accepting can and bottle donations. Webber asked that others who wish to donate, or go on the trip, call her at 458-3777 or email her at [email protected]
Craig Crosby — 621-5642[email protected]Twitter: @CraigCrosby4