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Published: Saturday, 5/13/2006

Nine months after Katrina, New Orleans' Ninth Ward waits

BY ANN STRANAHAN

I RECENTLY spent four days in New Orleans, and I've returned with profound sorrow and respect for the residents of its ruined neighborhoods, and outrage at how we have abandoned the people, our brothers and sisters.

I was part of a team from the Needmor Fund, a Toledo-based family foundation that funds community organizing, a process that draws its direction from the bottom up, from groups of low-to-middle-income persons whose rights are routinely abused or denied.

Needmor annually funds about 30 such groups, six in the New Orleans/Baton Rouge area. Because the wheels of social justice turn slowly in the Deep South, we have been involved with these groups for a long time. We visited to learn what they had been through, how they were doing, how to help.

We met with staff directors and volunteer leaders. What we learned was stupefying: nothing has been done. We knew we would see damage and hear stories of indifference or chicanery. But we were unprepared for the reality. While Mardi Gras took place in February, antique stores and bars are open in the French Quarter, for miles of middle and working-class neighborhoods, there is nobody there.

Before the flood, more than 400,000 people lived in New Orleans. Now there are fewer than 100,000. The rest are scattered in a modern-day diaspora across the bottom of the United States, trapped in ridiculous and vicious Catch 22s:

● Even if your family lives in a house, there are no public schools.

● Even if you finally got a FEMA trailer, it had no key.

● Even if you had flood insurance, it wasn't a flood. The levees broke. That's what happened.

● You couldn't find your grandmother, but they stopped paying for house searches, or,

● You found your grandmother's body in the attic, but they closed the new morgue.

● When you come back from Houston or Dallas or Utah or South Carolina this summer, you can't walk into your house, the mold will poison you.

● And when they come up with their big plan for a new New Orleans, your house won't be part of it. Where you lived will be a nice park, surrounded by new houses that you can't afford.

We passed thousands of vacant houses. Blocks that should be ringing with the shouts and hammers of carpenters are silent. Occasionally we saw a solitary handyman, or college students in masks, gutting houses so owners can start to rebuild.

Just try to imagine all of East, South, and West Toledo and Maumee, every house tipped and mangled nine months ago, and the streets are still deserted with nothing being done.

The organizers of our Needmor groups focus on the concerns of members, from the anxious locals lining the office halls and porches, from the diaspora, a "neighborhood" that stretches across thousands of miles.

The questions are the same: "What is going to happen? When will the schools open? When can we come home?" And leaders strategize on how to hold civil authorities accountable.

Uncommon alliances are being forged -- activists, poverty groups, and libertarians -- for there is a real and present danger that entire neighborhoods will be taken over by eminent domain and bulldozed. Our friends are exhausted. We have set up a Louisiana Organizers' Renewal Fund to give them respite, time with their families.

We made a site visit so that we could understand what the men and women and children have been through. We can't imagine it. But we can help. We can witness. Our team acknowledged that the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast have slipped under our radar. We must put their suffering back onto the national agenda and into our consciousness and our conscience.

We can tell Congress to quickly appropriate the $4.2 billion authorized to help rebuild houses: $150,000 for each homeowner. We can travel south to work. We can send money, preferably to neighborhood groups, or to the expertly administered Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, which stewards private dollars raised by ex-presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton.

And we can be vigilant. As recovery begins, choices made will affect thousands. New Orleans' poorest are in danger of being swept away again by a flood of high-handed urban planning.

Crucial questions must be asked: If the lower Ninth Ward cannot be rebuilt, where will its residents go? How will they be compensated? How will they share profits made by developing around the new green spaces - the lovely parks smoothed over the houses and the bones of their parents and grandparents?

The work of the Needmor Fund is guided by two basic tenets: The first is to trust the people. They know what they want. The people of New Orleans have lost relatives, friends, possessions, houses, and communities, built by parents and grandparents who weren't allowed to live anywhere else.

But they have not lost their voices, and they must be part of the decision about when and where they can return home. And we can be vigilant. When funds are available and recovery begins, choices will be made that will affect thousands.

Needmor's second principal is the one on which this country was founded, and which we must never forget: in a true democracy, everyone has a place at the table.

Ann Stranahan is a trustee of the Needmor Fund, a family foundation based in Toledo.



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