• November 19, 2014

Holding on to Heart and Soul in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward

Tyrone Turner

Over the coming months, New Orleans’ native son Tyrone Turner will be revisiting the city he loves, checking in on how the people and landscape have healed since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Though eighty percent of the city flooded, and many died and were displaced across the metropolitan area, the Lower Ninth Ward became known as the city’s ground zero. Turner’s journey leading up to the tenth anniversary of the storm on August 29, 2015, begins with a look at what it takes to rebuild the heart and soul of a community.

“That was the tsunami of the United States. You seen houses in the streets and on top of each other, cars everywhere, and death flowed with it. It was a feeling and stench you never forget. But the spirit of the people overrides all that because they wanted to be home.” —Ronald Lewis, Lower Ninth Ward resident

Picture of Robert Green, Sr.
Robert Green Sr., in front of his home along Tennessee Street.

To tell someone you are from New Orleans is to claim descendancy from the Land of Oz, the Emerald City. Their eyes light up, fairy dust settles on their cheeks, and they smile, “Wow, you are from New Orleans?”

The traditional charms of the city—the blessed trifecta of music, food and non-stop partying—have been mixed in recent memory with the apocalyptic tragedies of the BP oil spill, eroding marshlands, and one of the worst natural disasters in the country’s history, Hurricane Katrina.

Deslonde Street in 2006 (top) and 2014 (bottom).
Click to enlarge for optimal viewing.

The question follows: “How is New Orleans doing?” Since Katrina, answering that question has not been easy. Greer E. Mendy, a resident born and raised in the Lower Ninth Ward, sums it up well, “It depends on who you are talking to and where you are talking with them.”

New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast, have come far since the storm hit on August 29, 2005. Against Sisyphian odds they have managed to roll that “recovery” boulder uphill, to stand on the mountaintop in spite of the trauma, death, and destruction that surged with Katrina’s waters.

Picture of the Dr. King Charter School band
Members of the Dr. King Charter School band bow their heads as a prayer is said for a Katrina anniversary memorial ceremony.

But what does recovery mean in the Lower Ninth Ward, an area that came to symbolize not only the acute tragedy of Katrina but also the larger, intertwined issues of neglect and race in this beloved city?

Robert Lynn Green Sr. is one of those people who lost so much in Katrina. I met Robert in 2006, the summer after Katrina. He was standing on the ruins of his home in Lower Ninth Ward giving a tour to students from his alma mater, St. Olaf College in Minnesota. The students stood on the collapsed boards, like a folded house of cards, and silently watched as he recounted his story: about trying unsuccessfully to leave the panicked city before the storm with his sick mother and extended family, trying unsuccessfully to evacuate to the Superdome, and then finally returning to his mother’s home to ride out the hurricane.

Picture of Reynes Street in 2006 and 2014
Reynes Street in 2006 (top) and in 2014 (bottom).
Click to enlarge for optimal viewing.

Robert talked about the water gushing into the darkened house, about hauling his family members into the attic and then onto the roof, and then scrambling to other rooftops as his home disintegrated. Two of his family died. His granddaughter, Shanai Green, was lost in the rushing waters and his mother, Joyce Green, collapsed on the roof and couldn’t be revived.

Picture of Tyrone Clark
Tyrone Clark, a lifelong resident of the Ninth Ward, stops for a portrait as he rides his bike on Claiborne Avenue.

In spite of such tragedy, Robert’s spirit is strong. He, like many residents who have come back to live, welcome the opportunity to tell their story to passing strangers so that they can understand, and so that what happened is not forgotten.

The corner of North Prieur and Deslonde Streets the in Lower Ninth Ward in 2006 (top) and 2011 (bottom).
Click to enlarge for optimal viewing.

In terms of numbers, Robert told me that only about 300 of the 3,000 homeowners have returned to the most devastated area of the Lower Ninth Ward. Far from despairing, he speaks with great enthusiasm about recovery. He believes ten percent is just the beginning, the seeds for a fully rebuilt, re-inhabited Lower Ninth Ward.

Picture of a boy in costume for the second line parade
Michael Tenner Jr., 10, a ‘spy boy’ with the Mardi Gras Indian tribe, Comanche Hunters, after one of the Katrina anniversary second line parades.

“Nine years after…we feel like we are back. We feel like we are normal. We do the things that we did before. So for us, the progress still needs to happen but we are at a comfortable point in our lives, and we just want other people to come back and do the same—to build this community back to the size it was before.”

Tyrone Turner photographed New Orleans and the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina for the August 2007 issue of National Geographic, which you can view here.

Follow Turner on Instagram, Tumblr, and on his website.

There are 14 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. joao Kulcsar
    December 1, 2014

    Great pictures. Very strong!

  2. Mahree
    November 23, 2014

    In the spring of 2013, a group of students from The George Washington University met with Robert Green while on an alternative spring break. After a week of volunteering with KIPP Central City, cleaning neighborhoods, and building with Habitat for Humanity, the most powerful moment of the trip was meeting with Robert Green. His passion for his community is truly inspiring, as is the commitment of the 300 other families who have returned.
    I remember Mr. Green telling our bus load of college students that they aren’t fixing the neighborhood. Everything was gone; it was a blank slate. Instead, they were building a brand new community with a new culture, a new identity. They were building a neighborhood of people who care about each other and want to work hard to create something good. The Lower Ninth is much more than a smattering of new homes built by volunteers and celebrities, it is a budding community that I am confident will flourish.

    Mr. Green also told our bus of tired students that the work they had done in that week was only a drop of water in a bucket. It wasn’t much. But students like them, and other volunteers, together had filled thousands upon thousands of buckets. He knew how to make every single volunteer, each drop in the bucket, feel valued. I hope he knows how inspiring he is to so many.

    November 23, 2014


  4. mustzoe
    November 22, 2014


  5. Ron Chalmette
    November 22, 2014

    … and 3 miles east of the Lower 9th ward 99% of the buildings in St Bernard Parish were uninhabitable; yet the National coverage was only on the 9th ward. The RCMP (Canadians) made it to St Bernard before the National Guard. and the beat goes on…

  6. dhcfhddd
    November 22, 2014

    awww sorry i feel bad for them

  7. patrick hagood
    November 22, 2014

    I am proud to call myself a New Orleanian and I appreciate all the support from people all across the world. NOLA love

  8. wendy mccullough
    November 21, 2014

    Bless You ~ New Orleans ~ I’ve also never seen a place with such spirit as you and the people of New Orleans.

  9. Sid Gaulden
    November 21, 2014

    When with a church group one year after Katrina and spent a week working in the Ninth Ward — unbelievable devastation matched by an unbelievable determination by those who lived through it to come home. God Bless them all.

  10. Jane cichony
    November 21, 2014

    i have always wanted to go to mardi gras and i hope to for 2016 as i will be turning 60 god willing.

  11. mariuss72
    November 21, 2014

    I traveled the world but i’ve never seen a place with such spirit as New Orleans. Altough i’m thousands of miles away, a part of my heart will always be there. God bless New Orleans, this place will live forever!

  12. Mary Balagia
    November 20, 2014

    Beautiful and Haunting. Thank you.

  13. Ania
    November 19, 2014

    As a young kid in high school, I have always dreamed of visiting New Orleans and enjoying the city and Mardi Gras. Life took over and got busy, and the dream, although still there, faded into the background. I finally had a chance to visit a few weeks ago with some friends and was amazed that the hype and reputation could actually be surpassed. Having watched the events on TV nine years ago, the dream came back alive. I was so happy to visit this lovely city, to experiance the trifecta as well as all the lovely people. All welcomed us with smiles and open hearts. Thank you for doing this piece, I look forward to reading more as you travel to your home town.

  14. A. Powers
    November 19, 2014

    Thank you for putting this moving piece together. I was studying abroad in Puebla, Mexico when the storm hit in 2005. I watched the news in horror and disbelief as the unfiltered images came onto the screen. I am not from New Orleans and never lived there but this event will always stick with me. I hope in time to see New Orleans Lower 9th Ward thrive and prosper.

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