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The Economics of Return

Goines concedes that her house is a goner, and so does her insurance company, which has cut her a check for $66,000. She says, too, that she is a goner, as far as New Orleans is concerned.

"I decided that I don't have any use for New Orleans," she said recently in the dining room of her son-in-law's father's house in Paincourtville. Like her daughter, she sounds angry. "I wouldn't have thought like that, but it flooded, and I don't trust New Orleans anymore."

Planners have raised the possibility of razing much of the Lower Ninth Ward and turning it into a flood-plain park. It is talk that infuriates those who have been forced to flee and are resigned to the necessity of bulldozers.

"I know they are going to have to tear my house down," said Joan Howard, 36, a housekeeper, who lived across Delery Street from Goines. "But I believe it's only right that they build me another house -- if I decide to go back. I know it's like a war zone down there, mister. Everything is destroyed. But I got the flood insurance."

Howard and her husband, Danny, 50, a truck driver, live now in the western suburbs of Houston, where they say they nearly emptied their savings account to come up with three months' rent for a $527-a-month, one-bedroom apartment for themselves and Howard's two teenage children, Ashton and Ashley. They have furnished it with three air mattresses from Wal-Mart and a kitchen table and chairs from Goodwill Industries. Joan Howard's father bought them a big-screen TV.

Three times in the past three weeks, Howard and her family have tried to get back to see their house on Delery Street. The first time, they got past police, wrapped plastic bags around their legs up to their knees and waded. Howard said they had to stop when the stinky water reached their knees. Two more recent trips failed because their three-bedroom, one-story brick house, in perhaps the lowest corner of the one-time swamp that is the Lower Ninth Ward, is still inaccessible without hip boots and permission from police.

"Us being homeowners, this flooding has really thrown us on our side," said Howard, who had been in her house for 11 years. "We wasn't poor really. We was really blessed, but we had to work for it. We had a big, beautiful house."

The house stills stands, unlike many on the street. Inside, the ceiling has collapsed. Furniture, appliances and other contents appear to be have been run through a savage rinse cycle, as in a washing machine with toxic water. Webs of mold are everywhere, and the smell is horrific.

Anger over the possible razing of portions of the Ninth Ward is fueled by the neighborhood's high home ownership rate, which is nearly 60 percent, and by its many years of residential stability. Despite long-standing problems of crime, drug abuse and inferior public schools, families stayed in the community for generations, anchored by churches and block parties and friendship.

Howard and her family, who knew most of their neighbors on the block (although they have lost touch with all of them since the floods), often marched behind a brass band in the anniversary parade of the Big Nine social club as it wound its way through the Lower Ninth Ward. One year, Howard marched as a maid to the queen of the Big Nine.

Until the storm hit, nearly three-quarters of families in the Lower Ninth Ward had been in the same house since 1995. In this respect, the neighborhood was considerably more stable than Lakeview, where over the past decade 57 percent of families had been in the same house.

As when Hurricane Betsy washed out much of the Lower Ninth Ward in 1965, there is again widespread grumbling about a "plan" to create a whiter New Orleans.


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