In this month’s RV Life, columnist Rick Stedman describes why golfers, fishermen and admirers of beautiful scenery should visit Louisiana, and writer Barry Zander shows you around his hometown of New Orleans during Mardi Gras. No doubt you can have a good time in Louisiana, but you might want to extend your visit by also doing good works.
Seven years ago this month Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, causing $100 billion or more in damage, killing more than 1,800 people and destroying or badly damaging 300,000 homes.
Given the extent of the devastation, it’s not surprising that New Orleans still needs help recovering, especially in its poorer neighborhoods.
In the low-income Lower Ninth Ward, there were more than 19,000 residents before the hurricane; the population today is below 6,000. A recent New York Times Magazine story, headlined “Jungleland,” described the Lower Ninth Ward as beleaguered, desolate and overgrown. Where there were once neat rows of single-family houses, the article said, there are now dumping grounds, wild dogs, snakes, ruined houses, old foundations covered in weeds, and a scattering of new homes standing out “like teeth in a jack-o-lantern.”
Laura Paul, executive director of lowernine.org, which is helping to rebuild the area, said the New York Times article, which focused on how nature reclaimed the abandoned land, didn’t convey the whole story. Progress is being made, but obstacles remain. It may take another decade for the Lower Ninth Ward to recover, Paul said, and she is appealing for RVers to come to New Orleans and help by combining tourism with volunteer work. It is called voluntourism.
Paul, a 41-year-old Canadian arrived in New Orleans as a volunteer aid worker five months after Katrina struck and had the intention of spending a week, but stayed on. The nonprofit organization she runs works with property owners to rebuild their houses, with the owners paying for materials and volunteers supplying labor.
Most volunteers who come to New Orleans to work with lowernine.org are young—the average age is 21. Paul would like to attract older volunteers, too, and is appealing to RVers because she believes they can bring “a lot of life experience and knowledge.”
lowernine.org houses volunteers in a dormitory-like setting, but RVers can stay in a nearby RV park.
Volunteers are needed for all kinds of construction work. Skills in carpentry, electrical work and plumbing are desirable but unskilled people can be trained to help, too. If you don’t like construction, there are other volunteer opportunities, including fund-raising and website maintenance. You might even help with a farm project. The organization’s urban farm helps feed the neighborhood, whose nearest grocery store is more than three miles away.
Before floods devastated the Lower Ninth, the area had one of the nation’s highest rates of home ownership by African-Americans, Paul said. Seventy-two percent of the properties were owner-occupied.
Some wonder about the wisdom of rebuilding in flood-prone areas, but the Lower Ninth Ward is higher, on average, than several other New Orleans neighborhoods. It suffered complete destruction from Hurricane Katrina because it is bordered by Industrial Canal levees that were breached. Since then, the federal government has spent $14.5 billion on a vast network of levees and structures to protect New Orleans.
“Of all the neighborhoods that were flooded, the Lower Ninth Ward was the hardest hit and is the slowest to recover,” said Paul.
The Associated Press recently reported that 739 homeowners in the Lower Ninth Ward have sold their properties to the state instead of rebuilding. Of these properties, 570 have not been resold and sit vacant, adding to the blight.
Nevertheless, there are signs of progress. Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation is spending millions of dollars in the Lower Ninth Ward to build 150 new homes, all designed to be storm-resistant and environmentally friendly. The home rebuilding efforts of lowernine.org are less elaborate, focusing on rebuilding houses on the sites where they existed and working closely with the original occupants. So far, Paul said, the organization has rebuilt 53 homes and provided assistance to 100 properties.
The heavy destruction in the Lower Ninth Ward has made it a tourist attraction. When tour buses started coming to the area, Paul said, there was resentment from residents. Someone put up a sign that said, “Tourists Go Home.”
But Paul said she thinks people should come to see what Katrina and the collapse of the levees did. “It’s absolutely something people should see,” she said.
If you make the trip, you might not only want to look at what happened, but help the area recover. Paul said she can use volunteers for a day, a week or more. You can find out more at lowernine.org.
Write to Mike Ward, editor at RV Life magazine, 18717 76th Avenue West, Suite B, Lynnwood, WA 98037 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Find First Glance online at rvlife.com.