New Orleans, day 7


In all my trips down to New Orleans, I never had a chance to see its cemeteries. The tours operate daily during daylight hours, offering a glimpse of the mausoleums and headstones unique to the area.

Today, I saw my first gravesite, the biggest one in the city.

The Lower Ninth Ward.

I promised myself I’d see it sometime before my volunteer week was up. One project team that had finished early drove through there on the way back to base camp.

To me, it’s the Ground Zero of Katrina, though I’ve seen some equally heartbreaking footage of areas in Mississippi wiped clean off the map.

The week flew by, so this would be last stop before leaving town. My old friend Will, who’s lived in New Orleans for close to 15 years, came with me. This would be his first trip to the Lower Ninth Ward since the hurricane.

I didn’t even know where we were going. I googled it and located the boundaries on a one-page map I had snagged. It’s a few miles east of the French Quarter, just over a canal drawbridge.


Driving through the streets, block after block boasts wide green spaces. The houses are gone, but the foundations and front steps remain. Quite a few broken churches remain as well.

The streets are mostly free of debris, and one or two service trucks are parked, indicating some work is being done.

No one is here, save for one other car driving slowly towards us. They give a wave, and like us, they are uneasy tourists in this land of devastation. The driver gets out, photographs a sign on a church and returns to cruising the streets on this overcast day.

It is overwhelming. Questions loom without answers. What happened to the people here? What was this place like before Hurricane Katrina? Why, more than a year later, haven’t armies of construction crews come in to rebuild?

What will happen next?

None of our volunteer crews came out to the Lower Ninth Ward, because it is simply beyond the scope of our effort. We can gut interiors and remove mold, but we can’t build from scratch or demolish existing structures.

And so it sits, this poor black neighborhood, abandoned, unloved. It is as it was right after the levees broke and the waters rushed through the basin. The grass and weeds have overtaken the lots, and the streets are drivable, but the houses are wiped out.

Every few blocks, we see a playground or a church or a school. Now, it is a silent wasteland.

Nothing is happening here, save for us driving along slowly on a Saturday morning.


Although it is only a few miles away from the more familiar sights of New Orleans, the Lower Ninth Ward is invisible to the city’s visitors. And yet, it demands to be seen, to be remembered.

To be mended.

If residents love a place enough to risk future floods and hurricanes, who am I to argue? Maybe the levees can be done right for a change, maybe a canal closing can save the area.

I ask Will if it had been the suburb where we had grown up in Birmingham, would it have been brushed aside like the thousands displaced here?

It kills me.

I shall be back in the spring. I’ll put in more time with Hands on New Orleans and see more of this great American city. And I’ll bring others to share in the effort.

And I’ll remember her, as she was, as she is and as she will be.

Tonight’s Comic Relief 2006 focused its fund-raising efforts on New Orleans. Learn more about the devastation, and give today.

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New Orleans 2006


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