Over the coming months, New Orleans’ native son Tyrone Turner will be revisiting the city he loves, checking in on how the people and landscape have healed since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Though eighty percent of the city flooded, and many died and were displaced across the metropolitan area, the Lower Ninth Ward became known as the city’s ground zero. Turner’s journey leading up to the tenth anniversary of the storm on August 29, 2015, begins with a look at what it takes to rebuild the heart and soul of a community.
“That was the tsunami of the United States. You seen houses in the streets and on top of each other, cars everywhere, and death flowed with it. It was a feeling and stench you never forget. But the spirit of the people overrides all that because they wanted to be home.” —Ronald Lewis, Lower Ninth Ward resident
To tell someone you are from New Orleans is to claim descendancy from the Land of Oz, the Emerald City. Their eyes light up, fairy dust settles on their cheeks, and they smile, “Wow, you are from New Orleans?”
The traditional charms of the city—the blessed trifecta of music, food and non-stop partying—have been mixed in recent memory with the apocalyptic tragedies of the BP oil spill, eroding marshlands, and one of the worst natural disasters in the country’s history, Hurricane Katrina.
The question follows: “How is New Orleans doing?” Since Katrina, answering that question has not been easy. Greer E. Mendy, a resident born and raised in the Lower Ninth Ward, sums it up well, “It depends on who you are talking to and where you are talking with them.”
New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast, have come far since the storm hit on August 29, 2005. Against Sisyphian odds they have managed to roll that “recovery” boulder uphill, to stand on the mountaintop in spite of the trauma, death, and destruction that surged with Katrina’s waters.
But what does recovery mean in the Lower Ninth Ward, an area that came to symbolize not only the acute tragedy of Katrina but also the larger, intertwined issues of neglect and race in this beloved city?
Robert Lynn Green Sr. is one of those people who lost so much in Katrina. I met Robert in 2006, the summer after Katrina. He was standing on the ruins of his home in Lower Ninth Ward giving a tour to students from his alma mater, St. Olaf College in Minnesota. The students stood on the collapsed boards, like a folded house of cards, and silently watched as he recounted his story: about trying unsuccessfully to leave the panicked city before the storm with his sick mother and extended family, trying unsuccessfully to evacuate to the Superdome, and then finally returning to his mother’s home to ride out the hurricane.
Robert talked about the water gushing into the darkened house, about hauling his family members into the attic and then onto the roof, and then scrambling to other rooftops as his home disintegrated. Two of his family died. His granddaughter, Shanai Green, was lost in the rushing waters and his mother, Joyce Green, collapsed on the roof and couldn’t be revived.
In spite of such tragedy, Robert’s spirit is strong. He, like many residents who have come back to live, welcome the opportunity to tell their story to passing strangers so that they can understand, and so that what happened is not forgotten.
In terms of numbers, Robert told me that only about 300 of the 3,000 homeowners have returned to the most devastated area of the Lower Ninth Ward. Far from despairing, he speaks with great enthusiasm about recovery. He believes ten percent is just the beginning, the seeds for a fully rebuilt, re-inhabited Lower Ninth Ward.
“Nine years after…we feel like we are back. We feel like we are normal. We do the things that we did before. So for us, the progress still needs to happen but we are at a comfortable point in our lives, and we just want other people to come back and do the same—to build this community back to the size it was before.”
Tyrone Turner photographed New Orleans and the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina for the August 2007 issue of National Geographic, which you can view here.