Nearly 12 months after Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast, New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward remains utterly devastated. Its residents-many African-American and poor-received permission later than others in the city to return and sift through the rubble the storm had made of their lives. Then they heard about rebuilding plans that call for their part of the city to be rezoned as unoccupied green space. Residents were further upset by plans to tear down homes without notification from the city. Assisted by lawyers for the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, an advocacy group, and other organizations, some residents sued to stop the demolition and get the city to notify residents. Essence talked to Ishmael Muhammad, a 34-year-old attorney and cocoordinator of the fund’s organizing committee.
ESSENCE: Was gentrification heading toward the Lower Ninth Ward even before the storm?
Ishmael Muhammad: Katrina has done what years of fighting with the people here never did. The storm is a scapegoat for the gentrification that developers were already trying to bring to this area.
ESSENCE: Is there currently a plan to rebuild the Ninth Ward?
I.M.: There are several different plans. Some are talking about making the Lower Ninth Ward a golf resort. Another plan calls for it to be a wetland runoff. And another calls for there to be high-rise buildings. None of these benefit the people who live in the Lower Ninth Ward.
ESSENCE: What have Lower Ninth Ward residents been told by the city?
I.M.: Basically, people will have to rebuild their homes with no insurance money and little help from the government before the city will determine the neighborhood is viable.
ESSENCE: What specifically can the city, state or federal government do to help this area?
I.M.: Put electrical power in the neighborhood. Send trailers. Contact home owners and help them. Pressure the state to have a moratorium on home sales. There are already signs all over the neighborhood: If you want to sell your home, call so-and-so. You know that if people are desperate, they’ll take a penny for something that’s worth a million dollars. It’s happening already.