Two totally different worlds exist just blocks from each other in New Orleans.
The French Quarter is the oldest, most famous neighborhood in New Orleans, a national historic landmark known for its old Spanish architectural style.
Colorful walls and shutters decorate the narrow streets, and many of the buildings have fancy iron balconies.
The French Quarter is known for its nightlife. The streets are lined with bars, clubs, restaurants, galleries and tourist shops.
The Iberville public housing development is located directly west of the French Quarter and just north of the Central Business District.
Hurricane Katrina forced many families out, and a lot of families have not returned because of the conditions in the development now. Vacant units, drug deals and abuse, and violent crimes dominate the scene at Iberville these days.
Unlike much of New Orleans, neither the French Quarter nor the Iberville development were damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Eighty percent of New Orleans was flooded because the levee system failed, causing severe property damage with some areas as much as 15 feet underwater.
The French Quarter was not so devastated because it was built on dry land 5 feet above sea level.
A few streets in the Quarter flooded but only a few feet, and just a few buildings experienced wind damage. Most of the landmarks were only lightly affected.
The looting and violence that went on in the rest of New Orleans didn’t take place in the French Quarter either.
The Iberville development wasn’t flooded either, but its residents had a very different experience than those of the French Quarter.
Many families in the development were evacuated to the Superdome, where there were reported cases of rape, vandalism, violent assaults, drug dealing, drug abuse and gang activity.
After the storm, many Iberville residents had to move out of state to cities like Houston.
Justin Akers, a resident of the Iberville Homes who stands 6’ 2”, recalled how he walked out of the development and soon found himself in waist-high water.
“I got out of here. I drove out to Jackson, Mississippi,” said Akers. “The French Quarters was dry. Just a couple of days later, there were big parties like it [Hurricane Katrina] never happened.”
Akers was right.
The French Quarter was officially opened only a month after Katrina.
Throughout the city, there wasn’t any clean water or electricity. There was no telephone or cellular phone service or Internet access. While the rest of the city was in shambles, it was business as usual in the Quarter.
Iberville residents said that historically, there is a strong relationship between Iberville and the French Quarter. Brian Diggs is a 12-year resident of the Iberville Homes. During Katrina, Diggs said he drove to Maumelle, Ark.
He came back to New Orleans for work. Diggs complained that many public housing residents did not receive the money that was supposed to help rebuild their lives.
“A lot of people didn’t return and a lot of those that didn’t return worked in the French Quarter,” said Diggs.
Community activist Malcom Wilson agreed. “The Iberville Homes was developed to provide poor or working class black and white families affordable housing. What’s ironic is that a lot of these people did work in the French Quarter,” Wilson said.
Wilson explained that the failure to help many low-income people and the demand to demolish the Iberville development have perpetuated theories that the flood happened when the dikes were blown up to purposely flood the lower Ninth Ward, another poverty-stricken area.
Wilson didn’t subscribe to that theory but he did allege that government officials allowed the city’s low-income areas to flood.
“They let the levee break this time,” he claimed. Wilson believes that New Orleans city officials are trying to push poor, black people out of the city to benefit the French Quarter and surrounding areas.
“Hurricane Katrina was used as tool for the new demographic.”
Wilson and others interviewed at Iberville noted that the development sits on prime real estate.
Because New Orleans depends so much on the revenue from tourists to the French Quarter, many of the city’s wealthy and powerful have argued publicly that the Iberville development should be destroyed.
The residents of Iberville feel differently.
Residents wonder where the families who live there would go?
According to the 2000 census, the average household income for Iberville is $7,279 a year, making it one of the poorest neighborhoods in New Orleans.
Some may label the idea that Katrina has facilitated New Orleans’ gentrification a conspiracy theory.
None of the official inquiries or media investigations about the causes for the flooding found any evidence that the levies were purposefully destroyed.
But Wilson and others point to a historic event to boost their case. In January 1927, the Mississippi River broke out of the levee system in 145 places after months of heavy rainfall.
The flood caused $400 million in damages and 246 lives were lost in Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. When the flood reached New Orleans, about 30 tons of dynamite were used to destroy the levee system. Exploding the levees steered the flood waters to the Lower Ninth Ward, which suffered a lot of damage as a result.
Later, it was found that the demolition was unnecessary because there were other levee breaks further down that made the flood less threatening to New Orleans.
Many residents of Iberville and other New Orleans neighborhoods wonder if this situation happened once, why couldn’t it happen again?
One high-ranking congressman also voiced his opinion that the slow, widely criticized relief efforts after Katrina were designed to push poor black people out of the city.
US Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was recorded in a 2007 video saying, “Doing nothing for New Orleans residents is an intentional strategy to make Louisiana richer, whiter and more Republican. It’s not a huge secret.”
One Republican congressman was overheard telling lobbyists that Katrina helped those who want to demolish public housing in New Orleans.
Former US Rep. Richard Baker (R-LA) was quoted by a mainstream newspaper as saying, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”
Baker resigned from the US Congress in 2008, and neither Baker not Frank responded to RJ’s efforts to get them to elaborate on their statements.
But in comparing the floods of 2005 and 1927, one fact is the same.
In both floods, the low-income neighborhoods were devastated and somehow the wealthier areas were spared.
While the deliberate destruction of the levies is only an urban legend, the facts are that Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the low-income residents were hit the hardest, the low income population received the least assistance, and many of the residents did not come back home.
Of those families who came back, many are being pushed out because of lack of affordable housing.
Whether relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina intentionally failed the low-income population or not, a lot of people are still not being helped and are living in horrible conditions.
Tags: spring 2010 issue
Categories: Special Reports