By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 8, 2005
NEW ORLEANS -- The Lower Ninth Ward crouches behind a pile of dirt, separated by a big bend in America's biggest river and a thick canal and eons of tradition from the "high-class people" up on the high ground over in the French Quarter. They keep piling the dirt higher, pushing the levee up and up over the years, but the water keeps coming into the Lower 9.
This place -- an archetype of New Orleans African American culture dotted by tiny corner groceries called "superettes" and laundromats called "washaterias" -- is still now, eerily still. This poorest of neighborhoods, which gave the world Fats Domino and hosts during Carnival season the "second-line" parades, with their high-stepping funk groove, is almost completely under the water that Hurricane Katrina pushed into the city.
What isn't underwater is coated with a mud so thick and gloppy and black that it could have been produced only on the banks of the Mississippi. New Orleans is a counterintuitive place, and so is the Ninth Ward: The streets closest to the river stay driest and drain fastest because the ground is higher there, and the ruined houses have the small consolation of being glazed now by caked dry mud instead of the wet stuff.
The dead, and many of the living, are elusive. The dead because they are underwater, or tucked silently into flooded homes; the living because they are willing to hide in order to stay.
They sit in mildewing living rooms, curtains drawn, breathing the foulest of air and distrusting the people sent to help them. Theirs is a place of persistent poverty -- 36 percent of Lower Ninth Ward residents live below the poverty line, nearly twice the statewide poverty rate -- even though parts of the neighborhood have been upgraded. Before the storm, new money was trickling in to fix up the old shotgun houses -- so narrow that it's said a shotgun blast could travel unabated from front to back through the doors in the center of each room.
The young Navy boys are trying to talk the most stubborn out of the area, offering hot meals and showers on the ship that pulled up to the levee. But it's a tough sell. The storm that wrecked the Lower Ninth Ward only worsened the class divide, the mistrust that was here before. The people who live here do not need a demographer to tell them that much of the deepest flooding wrought by Katrina rose in places where black people live, or that almost all the faces in the evacuee lines are black.
Patricia Alexis, a pretty 57-year-old with flashing eyes, as well as a bum knee and a host of ailments that keep her from working, tried it "da man's way." She went to the Superdome and sat in unspeakable filth with tens of thousands of people -- almost all black, she points out. She saw gunfights and vandalism and corridors turned into open sewers.
As soon as she had a chance, she got out of there, "waded through the water," to get back to the Lower Ninth Ward -- flooded and foul, but home. She poked around her little brick rental this week, exhausted from piling sopping clothes but, somehow, smiling.
"This is better than the Superdome," she said. "I was in danger there."
Alexis bathes with a bucket of suspect water. Dinner is an MRE handed out by the sailors who come by every once in a while, calling out on loudspeakers that everyone should leave. She ignores them.
On her street, dogs and cats scavenge as furiously as the people. Scrawny kittens follow anyone who passes by, mewling weakly.
One of them followed Milton "Cat" Crawford up out of the stinking, flooded streets and up on to the bridge over the Industrial Canal, crying persuasively until he finally gave in and put the shivering white thing into a box to take with him. Crawford grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, prowling faded streets with the same names as the fancy streets in the French Quarter -- Dauphine, Burgundy, Royal. His side of those streets ended at the levee, though, before picking up on the other side, a world away.
Crawford crested the levee, dipping into his neighborhood to search for his pit bull, after waiting out the flood across the canal at a brother's home with friend Terry White.
"You smell that smell?" White said once he reached the canal bridge. "That's dead-body smell."
No one knows for sure how many people have died here; saving the living has taken precedence over collecting the dead. But everyone seems to know someone who is missing or has peered into a disturbingly quiet house. The worst are the houses with holes in the roofs. People suffered there. Axes made those holes, axes dragged to upper floors by people with nowhere else to go when the water rose, nowhere but up on the roof.
At the base of the bridge, a Virgin Mary statue sits, her head just above water, outside a low brick house. "A chick named Kim lived there," White said. "I wonder if she made it."
This is a place, and a time, when men like White, men who have lived in New Orleans all their lives, get mad. There is something cruelly familiar about the deluge. Another storm, another black neighborhood flooded.
"I don't believe that levee broke like that," said Terry White, referring to the biggest of the busted-open levees that flooded the city. "I believe they broke that levee to save where the high-class people stay."
There's no evidence to support White's suspicion. But his skepticism, nonetheless, has ancient roots. In the great Mississippi flood of 1927, officials dynamited a levee to save the city of New Orleans, flooding communities south of the city. Few -- especially the poor -- ever forgot.
White is staying on, despite increasingly forceful calls for an evacuation of the entire city, to make money. He needs it, that's for sure, having scraped together a living doing odd jobs. When New Orleans starts rebuilding, he figures, jobs will come. He and Crawford want to be first in line.
Whatever the rebuilders offer is sure to be better than what the Lower Ninth Ward has now. The corner groceries all have "no loitering" signs out front, to steer away the junkies -- heroin is the vice of choice these days. Countless telephone poles, now leaning at crazy angles, have signs that read: "Free Me/Bert's Bail Bonds."
A few blocks from Crawford's home, a weary wood-sided place with a wide porch, a boat named "Palm Beach" sits in a front yard -- just the sort of craft that could have saved lives, he can't help but think. Of course, the boat, with its powerful outboard motor, doesn't belong to the owner of that house. It floated in from someplace where people can afford powerful boats, from someplace outside the Lower Ninth Ward.