The cold of winter descended on New Orleans this year, and the green grass quickly faded to brown. As spring approaches, there's hope that the greenery will soon reappear. In the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, however, Henry Holmes, a community resident and owner of Holmes One Stop, said such seasonal transitions are the only consistent changes he sees in that area.
Nearly five years after Hurricane Katrina, Holmes ponders the question that his fellow community residents and stakeholders are asking local leaders: "What about us?"
For Vanessa Geringer, chair of the Lower Ninth Ward's chapter of A Community Voice, "left without answers, stone-walled, or lost in limbo" are few of the sentiments that she shared with the public last week.
On March 7, Geringer and about 20 residents from the Lower Ninth Ward gathered at the site of the now-demolished Pete Sanchez Community Center to voice concerns about the slow pace of recovery in the community. The site is among the recovery projects taking place in the community, but there are no signs of construction. A New Orleans city official said the project is in design phase.
Frustrated with citizens' inability to get answers from city leaders on similar projects, Geringer has filed a complaint with the office of New Orleans Inspector General Edouard Quatrevaux asking that his office investigate the whereabouts of recovery dollars for the Lower Ninth Ward.
Specific projects and funding that Geringer asked Quatrevaux to look into include: FEMA funding for the 5th District police station; funding for the community's fire station, which continues to operate out of a trailer; the whereabouts of $94,000 to repair Oliver Bush Park and other recreational facilities; and federal funding allocated to the Recovery School District for school repairs, as the middle and high schools that were located in the Lower Ninth Ward sit dormant.
"We want action. We want recovery," Geringer said.
Deborah McCrocklin, general counsel at the Orleans Inspector General's office (OIG), acknowledged receipt of Geringer's complaint, but stated that the complaint was general in nature.
"We didn't really receive a complaint of any allegation of law or regulation," said McCrocklin, explaining that the OIG's office is tasked with investigating cases of fraud, waste, and violations of law ordinances or regulations. McCrocklin added that a citywide review of New Orleans' recovery is a priority for the OIG's office. She said such a review wouldcommence in 2011 due to the office's current case load.
Ceeon Quiett, director of Communications for the City of New Orleans, said the frustrations of residents of the Lower Ninth Ward are reasons why Mayor C. Ray Nagin continues to advocate at the national level for changes to the Stafford Act.
"After two years of lobbying to secure funding approved by the federal government, that was first sent to the State of Louisiana for further approvals, the City of New Orleans has invested $21.2 million for facility rebuilding and $26.4 million for street work, to date in the Lower Ninth Ward. This does not include additional funding in the form of increased project worksheets (versions) that have been recently secured," Quiett said.
Projects included in the $21.2 million investment to rebuild in the Lower Ninth Ward facilities include: Sam Bonart Playground Field lighting, completed; Sam Bonart Playground, operational phase; Andrew "Pete" Sanchez /Copelin Byrd Recreation Center/NOPD Substation, design phase; new consolidated fire station, design phase; Oliver Bush Playground, operational phase; Richard Lee Playground, pending FEMA declaration of greater than 50 percent damaged; Roffignac Playspot, operational phase; and Martin Luther King Branch Library, operational phase.
In addition, last week, Nagin, in dual roles as Mayor of New Orleans and chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, testified in Washington, D.C., proposed changes to the Stafford Act, some of which would expedite funding, remove funding caps and streamline processes for disaster-stricken areas.
Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, vice president of the New Orleans City Council and co-chair of the council's recovery committee, said that recovery throughout the city and in the Lower Ninth Ward has been slow.
"Many of us in government have been well-intentioned, but we obviously have not done enough. We certainly need to work with neighborhood leaders, listen to their needs, and bring about a swifter recovery in that community," she said.
Meanwhile, Holmes works to keep his restaurant afloat, which he says is a challenge now that the volunteers and construction workers are fewer in number. In fact, within the last six months, he's served about six breakfast meals per day, bringing in just enough to pay himself and the cook. Operational costs are paid out of pocket.
Holmes said he's concerned about the vacant businesses, buildings, schools and churches that he sees in the Lower Ninth Ward every day, but has yet to speak with a community leader concerning these issues. Moreover, he realizes the investment challenges that the city faces when comparing the Lower Ninth Ward to other parts of the city.
"We're in a poor economical area and the city is just slow about helping those types of areas because the money the city puts in will not generate enough revenue . . . to offset what they're doing," he said, adding that the answer rests in collaboration.
"We have to come together. The leaders in the area have to raise our voices to let the city leaders know that we are being neglected," Holmes said. "The city has a lot of money, but what are they doing with it? I don't know."
Nayita Wilson is a writer for The Louisiana Weekly.
Photo from FEMA.
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