VOICES OF THE NINTH WARD
(New Orleans 2005)
Walking the deserted streets and gazing in at empty, awkwardly morphed houses, it’s the small things that wakes one up to the reality of the situation: a child’s blue and white trainer filled with mud, a woman’s once shiny-pink makeup set with an array of eye shadow shades, a green umbrella stubbornly wedged into a patch of grass in a defiantly vertical rebuke, a white door perhaps once belonging to a bedroom atop a house-sized pile of rubble similar to a Dali painting, a shrine of angels balanced on the end of a telephone pole. These are just a few of the images that bring this site of devastation into the here and now of today.
New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Katrina on the 29th of August 2005 and is still, seven months later, in such a state of disarray that one could mistake the event for only occurring a mere three weeks ago. Nearly 80% of the city was flooded by one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded to form over the Atlantic. The Ninth Ward, one of the poorest and arguably worst hit areas in New Orleans, is still eerily quiet and in severe chaos from the multiple Levee breaks along the surrounding Mississippi river and the Industrial Canal caused by the storms surge.
The few people who have returned to the ninth ward do so fleetingly. There is only one man, Kenny, who has managed to obtain a FEMA Trailer. He describes, whilst swaying his big arms around like windmills and smiling a wide grin, how quiet and strange it is when night falls in this once bustling and music filled neighbourhood,
“I am the only one here… I could shout out, but it’s only me and some wild dogs who would hear, there’s no lights or nothing here”.
Another resident who returns by day is Frankie H. Washington. He has a Purple Star Medal stuck to his Bronze Star Heroism cap, Frankie is a proud Vietnam Veteran. In faded blue overalls he has been cleaning out his flood-ridden home, bit-by-bit on his own. At over sixty years of age he has commuted every weekend from where he was evacuated, a two-hour drive from the ninth ward, to slowly clear the rubble of his possessions out onto the street. When asked why he is so determined to gut out a house he may never be able to move back into, he replies,
“I cannot rest… I cannot rest you understand, until I know it is clean and all these things are gone; I cannot leave it as it is. I would not be able to forget”.
He says this whilst standing in the doorway of the house, which he still locks with a padlock despite there not being anything of value in the inside. It has been his home for over twenty years with his wife, who had the largest shoe collection one could possibly imagine and who constantly worries about him as she looks after their grandson in their temporary home. As Frankie talks about Mrs. H. Washington she rings him on his cell phone, she is in a state of confusion, asking how to turn the fire alarm off that is blaring away in the background and to find out when he will be driving back. Frankie talks about his wife while laughing through a white ventilation mask, “oh the shoes!” and “oh the pans!” he exclaims as he works through the kitchen cupboard throwing thick black mouldy water out the kitchen window, which have has been sitting in the near thirty different pots and saucepans piled on the shelves under the sink.
“She does like her cooking, oh she does, yes sir, she does, she misses her cookin!” On marriage he smiles and invites one, in a high-pitched thick southern accent, to “come on in cause the waters fine!”
A few blocks away Mrs. Willie L. Barnes is hunched over with age, yet has a cell phones earpiece in one ear, where most 93 year olds would no doubt have a hearing aid. She looks at the floor and prods the damp, water-stripped floorboards with her wooden cane that has a black rubber end, similar to a doorstop. Her long pause seems to be a refusal at first to talk about her experiences, her son Donald, however, returning from the back of the house somehow understands what she wants. He puts out his hands and she leans her face towards his outstretched fingers. He carefully removes the white mask she is wearing to try to keep out the smell and mould spores that populate the air like a subway at rush hour. She wanted to look her best.
In her kitchen, light comes in through the window above the sink. It’s afternoon and her surroundings are beginning to have that warm tint of magic hour. The almost bare kitchen, even in its severely dilapidated state, has a sad beauty to it. She stands just out of the sun’s spilling rays, fixing her gaze from the floor to the sideboard of a warming oven, then back to the floor. She lifts her stick up and drags it across the sideboards surface. In her thick Southern accent she quietly says, in a tone so soft it almost went unheard,
“It’s as if I’ve never cleaned it…as if it hadn’t been used to warm all those meals over all those years”.
She is 93 and is clearing out a house that could potentially be bulldozed or left standing but left with no city services. She wears a white blouse with two pink roses with green leaves – this was saved from the waters of the levees break. Her corvette sits in the garage next door. These are the people who await the government’s decision on when and if they can move back home, but the real question is, where will they go if they cannot return?