Five years ago, the Gulf Coast experienced one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history.
On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept through the streets of many southern states — including Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama — destroying homes, businesses and streets. The devastation was extensive, eventually climbing to more than $84 billion in damages.
In New Orleans, when Katrina made a direct hit, the levees eventually gave way, leading to flooding and wreckage.
The human toll caused by Katrina was profound. Televised footage stunned many in the nation and the world as news cameras captured desperate men, women and children begging for food, water or pleading to be rescued. Bloated corpses floated in the rising floodwater. Many climbed to rooftops and waved signs for help.
Thousands headed to the Superdome in New Orleans or the city's Convention Center hoping to be rescued. Days of waiting for help proved too much for some residents. More than 1,800 perished.
Despite rescue efforts, with their homes and businesses destroyed and their jobs lost, thousands of African Americans left New Orleans.
Many never returned.
Aug. 29 marked the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and many residents say that they feel that wait for government assistance, especially to rebuild predominately African-American sections of the city, has been frustratingly slow.
In the Lower Ninth Ward and East New Orleans, miles of vacant lots still decimate the landscape. Services such as banks, grocery stores and libraries remain nonexistent in some areas.
Many blame a snarled government bureaucracy for the delay. According to Vincent Sylvain, state coordinator for the National Coalition of Black Civic Participation in Gentilly, New Orleans: "After Katrina, the black population in New Orleans decreased. There were thousands of blacks living in public housing, but those structures were bulldozed. Redevelopment has displaced those residents. In my opinion, there were plans underfoot to reduce the African-American population in the city.
"The Urban Land Institute was planning to turn predominately Black sections of the city — the Lower Ninth Ward, East New Orleans and parts of Gentilly — into green space. We fought recommendations by the institute for two years to ward off such efforts."
Caren Green, 29, a singer who moved to Gretna, La., but is rebuilding her home in New Orleans, said rebuilding efforts are being concentrated in affluent communities.
"They're rebuilding the French Quarter, Bourbon Street and the upper-class neighborhoods that the tourists can see," Green said. "In areas where black residents reside, the government hasn't done anything at all. They don't even have a hospital in New Orleans East, what we call the Upper Ninth Ward."
Yvonne Dalfares, 73, a retired schoolteacher who also rebuilt her home after the hurricane, said that "many people in New Orleans can't afford to rebuild their homes. Many houses are still in a state of disrepair. If you drive through the city, you'll notice many vacant lots where houses used to be."
Pastor Charles Southall III, president of the Central City Comprehensive Initiative (CCCI) and pastor of the First Emmanuel Baptist Church in New Orleans, said ABC's "Extreme Home Makeover" rebuilt his destroyed sanctuary after Katrina.
"The rebuilding efforts have been slow to nonexistent," he said. "Twenty to twenty-five thousand homes were devastated. A lot of the promises of the Bush Administration didn't happen. The bureaucracy is unbelievable. We have a federal government that is totally insensitive to blacks in New Orleans."
Southall said the devastation attracted unsavory characters to the Gulf Coast who
tricked unsuspecting homeowners with false promises.
"Contractors came into town from all over the country and scammed home owners out of their money and never fixed their homes," Southall said.
Despite the slow recovery, Gulf Coast residents are banding together to rebuild, however.
"Residents are using sweat equity," Sylvain said. "They're gutting homes, installing roofing. The people of this city have been much stronger than the government."
Southall is one of the residents who is committed to rebuilding New Orleans.
"Through CCCI, we're erecting 144 affordable houses," he said. "And we at First Emmanuel Baptist Church are renovating 400 units of low- to moderate-income rental properties. In July we opened the Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy for pre-K to 8th grades."
Others remain involved in rebuilding efforts.
Actor Brad Pitt and his Make It Right foundation have erected "green" homes with solar panels in the Lower Ninth Ward.
Emmy-winning director Spike Lee's second documentary on the Gulf Coast crises, titled "If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise," has been gaining kudos for its unflinching look at the problems still plaguing the Crescent City.
And residents are hopeful that the newly elected New Orleans mayor, Mitch Landrieu, will be committed to rebuilding the city's infrastructure.
"Mayor Landrieu is very sensitive to the city, and I think he'll do a great job," Southall said. "I think the mayor is working on getting resources for this city and helping it to get back on its feet."
Dalfares felt she spoke for all New Orleanians when she declared, "We will remember Katrina the rest of our lives. But no matter where we settle, New Orleans will always be home.
This article was previously published on LA Beez.
Shirley Hawkins is a writer for the L.A. Watts Times.
Photo by Marty Bahamonde/FEMA.
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