My mother and my father both are from New Orleans — from the Vieux Carre and the Lower Ninth Ward, a village of mostly Black, working-class families separated from the rest of the city by the Industrial Canal, whose levees collapsed. They moved to Chicago in 1970, before my brother and I came along, but on every holiday, we’d load up my father’s gray Astro van, blinds on the back windows, to make the 18-hour drive “home.” I was a child of two cities. And so my heart ached when I saw the aerial shots of my grandparents’ Lower Ninth Ward home, underwater.
Eventually the rebuilding process began. My aunt Sharon, a teacher, moved into the second floor of her home and lived out of a cooler filled with cold cuts as she began to restore the bottom level. Another aunt returned home as well. Cousins spread out across various cities. My grandmother never moved back. My family helped her clean out her house. Her immaculate living room — filled with white furniture that we weren’t allowed to sit on except to snap holiday pictures — was caked with thick, black dirt and mold. The refrigerator was tipped over, regurgitating its rotten contents onto the floor.
In my grief for a lost childhood, from so far away, I wrote — a eulogy for my grandmother’s home in speech class, an honors thesis about a fictional couple who restore their wrecked Ninth Ward house. But where the pair in my novella succeeded in their renovation, like many other families across New Orleans, the reality for Lower Ninth Ward families is quite different.
In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the federal government created the Road Home program, run by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Louisiana Recovery Authority, a state entity. According to its now-dormant website, it “assisted more than 130,000 Louisiana citizens,” disbursing more than $9 billion to help people rebuild. But it helped White New Orleanians far more than the African Americans, like my family, who made up 67 percent of the population at the time of the storm.
Road Home distributed money based on either prestorm home values or the cost of repairs. In the case of many families from lower-income, majority-Black neighborhoods, this meant homeowners received significantly less for their houses just because of where they were located. An identical three-bedroom, two-bathroom brick home that flooded with six feet of water got $90,000 in aid in a Black neighborhood but $150,000 in a White neighborhood, according to the Planners Network, an urban-policy nonprofit. That is, if the home was still standing: Weeks after the storm, the municipal Law Department-Demolition Task Force placed notifications on collapsed homes, saying they were condemned, and the office demolished them not long afterward in the name of public safety.
If the home was fixable, and its value was appraised to be higher than the cost of rehabilitation, Road Home would theoretically pay for the work. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency (which had say over how the money was doled out) and the Urban Land Institute (which recommended various reconstruction mandates to FEMA) required that properties on low-lying ground (like my grandmother’s) be elevated between three and six feet. Never mind that African Americans had settled these neighborhoods in the first place because they were more flood-prone and less desirable. Black homeowners were getting less for their homes, and having to do more work, simply because of where they lived.
We saw the disparate distribution of these grants. My grandmother who lived in the Lower Ninth Ward received $17,000 from Road Home for a house that had been submerged below 20 feet of water; it needed to be gutted, front to back, and then put on stilts. The cost would have exceeded $100,000 My Aunt Sharon, in the Holy Cross neighborhood of the Lower Ninth Ward, received $12,000 from Road Home to fix a finished basement that had been completely wrecked by eight feet of water. “FEMA said my house was 34 percent damaged,” she told me. She did not agree.
My aunt from the Seventh Ward, a mixed neighborhood, fared a little better. She’d had six feet of water — the same level she was now told to raise the house, a project that would cost more than $60,000 (not including repairs to fix the water damage inside the home). She first got $9,200 from FEMA, wrote a letter to complain and then received another $10,000. Road Home gave her $31,000. Altogether, it was still far short of the costs she’d need to bear.
Meanwhile, a close friend who lived across the river (on high ground in a predominantly White area) got $150,000, the maximum grant available, even though she had no water damage; her roof was torn up a bit, and her carport fell down.
In 2008, five homeowners filed a class-action lawsuit against HUD and the Louisiana Recovery Authority claiming that Road Home had discriminated in its awards. The government settled in 2011, paying up to $62 million to 1,300 Louisiana homeowners.
The unequal recovery isn’t just about those who came home. Before Katrina, African Americans made up two-thirds of the city’s population. Now it’s 59 percent. There are 92,974 fewer Black people living in New Orleans now than in 2000. The recovery effort is a tale of two cities: With $75 billion in federal relief spending and $45 billion in rebuilding funds, New Orleans now has 21 neighborhoods with a larger number of active addresses than before. Four neighborhoods have less than half the population than they did prior to Katrina: three former housing projects and the Lower Ninth Ward. “The money went everywhere but the Lower Ninth Ward,” as Aunt Sharon puts it.
When I return to New Orleans, as I often do, I see so much of what the storm left behind that is still not rebuilt, not recovered. Crossing the Industrial Canal into the Ninth Ward, I see the handiwork of Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, Habitat for Humanity and many other philanthropic organizations that pledged money and manpower. But mostly what I see is nothing. No homes. Shells of buildings with graffiti up and down, from the rafters to the ground, and tracts where houses, churches, schools used to be. “It was more than a hurricane,” says Sharon. “It was a life-changing event that will never go away. It damaged people’s lives, it ruined people’s lives.”
My grandmother’s house on Charbonnet Street is gone, demolished in 2011 after she decided she wouldn’t rebuild — even though the family longed to — because there was not enough money to pay for all the work the house needed. On her potholed block, there are a few reconstructed, occupied homes, and plenty boarded up with plywood. And there are empty lots with grass as tall as people, former homes first claimed by the water and then the earth. I go. I look. I see and my insides ache.
On a recent trip, I watched through the car window as a group of White tourists biked down that street, sightseeing on a guided tour of the damage and devastation. Then I thought of the laughter that once spilled out of the doors and windows whenever we came home. Now that home, like tens of thousands of others, is gone. It exists only in my memory and imagination. It shows up in my work, both fact and fiction, and unfortunately nowhere else.