Recovering from disasters leaves some communities behind

Lower Ninth Ward, new orleans, recovery Hurricane Katrina
Posted at 2:29 PM, Jun 04, 2021

Hurricane season is here and people along the coast are bracing for what’s predicted to be an active season. This as many Americans are still picking up from previous years' storms.

That recovery effort can be felt across the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Bureau of Economic Analysis, people along the coast produce $9 trillion in goods and services annually; businesses along the coast employ 57.5 million people and pay about $3.6 trillion in wages.

But when one major city struggles to recover, it’s not all of the city that struggles.

So why do underserved communities continue to face challenges when government aid is available?

The answer may surprise you.

“This is my home, and I chose this to be my home," said Bobbi Banks.

For more than 30 years Banks has called this plot of land in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans home.

“Yeah, it was a nice little area here. You know, you had neighbors and it was a quiet area.”

Then came the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“I really wanted to come home. I didn't think it would be that," Banks recalled.

Prior to Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward was home to more than 14,000 residents. Now, fewer than 4,000 people live here.

“I don't have any neighbors, really,” Banks said. “I have one across the street, not on the same side of the street with me.”

Following the storm, there was a push to bring residents back. Banks says you had to fill out ballots to see whether you wanted to come home or not.

The state of Louisiana implemented a program called “road home.” Those who chose not to return could have their homes bought at the pre-storm value. But in 2019. The courts ruled that program was discriminatory against black homeowners.

Laura Paul is the Executive Director of lowernine.org. She reminds us that a home that was badly damaged is not going to cost you any less than any other home uptown.

The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, NORA, currently manages these properties that were bought. Many still sit vacant.

“NORA has done the work of auctioning off the property, but they haven’t done the work of reaching out to the people who owned the property before,” Paul said.

“ If you had told me in 2005 that we would still be here in 2021 doing this work, I’d tell you were crazy.”

Since Katrina, her organization has rebuilt 90 homes and helped repair several others.

Banks returned to rebuild, only to be preyed upon by crooked contractors.

“I know what he did was put a frame here. He put the frame and after he framed it. I gave him another payment, and after he got that payment, he was gone,” Banks said, remember one in particular.

She and her late husband eventually finished the home repairs themselves. But they needed help. And as Banks, Paul and others worked tirelessly to rebuild, they couldn’t help but watch the progress in neighboring communities.

“Lakeview flooded very, very badly, and the whole area was back on its feet, not no time, the whole city struggled for a long time, but not this long,” Paul said.

In a city that thrives on tourism, those willing to work for lower wages are left behind.

“You can talk hospitality industry, restaurants, bars, all of the things that drive New Orleans, rely on people who are paid poor wages," Paul said.

“If you’re requiring people to work for that then those people have to live somewhere and ideally you would like them to live in Orleans Parish so they can get to work and back and not have to take two or three forms of public transportation.“

Tulane University professor and real estate and infrastructure expert Jesse Keenan says no matter the disaster, residents shouldn’t rely on the government.

“The reality is that there's not enough money. The government in itself, whether it's state, local or federal government, it simply does not have the resources to engage in collective adaptation or building resilience for our communities."

He says it’s up to the private sector to jump in; to recognize the disparity and do something about it.

“I think right now there's a huge challenge ahead of us because otherwise we'll just break into a little segregated communities and we'll wall each other off and people will try to crowd into the one town that built the wall.”

Banks and Paul continue to fight.

“If you want to come back, make your way, start talking to the mayor, the governor, come on. Because this is home,” Banks says.

The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority declined our requests for interviews. After multiple requests, the city of New Orleans never got back to us by our deadline.