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The 9th Ward of New Orleans is a section of the city bordered by the Mississippi river on the south and Lake Pontchartrain to the north. It is divided into three main sections by the Industrial Canal and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. Together, the Upper and Lower 9th Ward and East New Orleans make up the largest in area of the 17 wards of the city.
The 9th Ward has a variety of contradictory depictions. It is popularly shown in the media as a den of crime and gang problems, high murder rates and extreme poverty. However, residents argue that the area is far more diverse, having many beautiful historic landmarks and one of the highest rates of homeownership in all of New Orleans. The area is responsible for the careers of many well-known musicians, poets, and sports stars.
In 1965, the area was devastated by the results of Hurricane Betsy, which inundated much of the 9th Ward when many of the levees failed to protect the city. Yet even the experience of this disaster did not do much to increase safety precautions around the area. In 2005, most of the Lower 9th Ward was destroyed and the Upper 9th and East New Orleans areas were catastrophically damaged by Hurricane Katrina. In the lower area, not only were most buildings flooded, the resulting storm surge displaced homes and stores from their foundations, leaving widespread destruction.
Tremendous criticism has been leveled at the State and Federal Governments for their handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, perhaps nowhere more than the 9th Ward of New Orleans. The impetus to rebuild the area was slow, perhaps because of the relative poverty levels of the residents. Some officials and news releases went so far as to suggest that the area be abandoned rather than restored. Many residents of the city were infuriated by the apathy of restoration efforts but relatively helpless, as the widespread destruction prevented many from returning to their neighborhoods.
After more than two years since the hurricane, recovery efforts remain a mixed bag. Some areas, such as the community of Bywater, have regained much of their pre-Katrina population, but thousands are still left waiting on government reimbursement or insurance money to rebuild their homes. The lower 9th in particular is home to hundreds of temporary trailers given to residents by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). These temporary dwellings are not without problems, as testing has shown extremely high formaldehyde levels present in the materials, sparking serious health concerns for residents.
The 9th Ward is a land of contradictions and confusions that seem to lead to a tenuous future in the wake of reconstruction efforts. While the poverty and unemployment levels of the area are high, these numbers are skewed by an extremely high level of retired citizens who live on pensions or are receive government benefits. Some critics of political response to rebuilding efforts also mention that those most in need of their homes and communities are the poor, elderly and unemployed. The future is uncertain, but returning residents express confidence that the area will again return to an era of music, celebration and neighborhoods, and hopefully be able to counteract crime more efficiently with proper city planning.
After Katrina hit, my church sent an outreach team to help clean up the 9th Ward. The upper 9th Ward, at least the areas we saw, fared better than the lower 9th Ward. We were having trouble doing clean-up work because many of the homeowners were either dead, relocated or absentee landlords. The government-sponsored clean-up crews couldn't send bulldozers or other heavy equipment until every homeowner on the block signed off on it.
I have to admit, I was in the "abandon, don't rebuild" camp right after Hurricane Katrina hit. So many 9th Ward residents had relocated to Houston and other places already, and the area was obviously not prepared for Category 5 hurricanes like Katrina. I thought the funds to rebuild New Orleans would be better spent in other areas that didn't have the same flooding problems as the 9th Ward.
I've changed my opinion over the years, however. More residents moved back than I thought, and I became more aware of the historical significance of some lower 9th ward restaurants and nightclubs.
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