Where did all the time go? That is the question that many people around the country will be asking with the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina coming later this month. It seems like just yesterday that the country’s eyes were glued to TV screens, viewing the scenes of destruction and devastation that followed the fall of the levees in New Orleans. The decade may have flown by for residents of unaffected areas, but it has been a long ten years for those living in the Gulf’s hardest hit communities.
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On August 29, 2005, a breach in New Orleans’ I-wall sent flood waters rushing into the Lower Ninth Ward, ripping houses from their foundations and killing hundreds. 10 years later, the area still resembles what one New York Times reporter described, slightly hyperbolically, as a ‘Jungleland’. Amidst this landscape of diminishing optimism, Brad Pitt’s Make it Right foundation is viewed as an oasis of hope.
Many will remember that the actor rushed to the scene in the aftermath of Katrina with the goal of rebuilding New Orleans’ most devastated ward. Pitt founded Make it Right in 2007 and committed to building 150 brand new, environmentally-friendly homes. In a highly publicized move, the organization recruited world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, the man behind the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, to design a duplex in the area, which was completed in 2012. All homes in the development have been awarded LEED Platinum Certification, the highest possible rating of sustainability.
To date, Make it Right has spent $26.8 million to construct 109 houses in the Lower Ninth Ward, all of which have been sold to first responders, teachers, and pre-Katrina, Lower Ninth residents. While impressive, the number is still shy of the 150 houses that the organization promised the neighborhood in 2007.
Make it Right communications director Taylor Royle is not worried about the progress however, “Our project is not to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward on our own… It has never been our goal to rebuild as many houses as we can as quickly as possible.” Instead, Ms. Royle explains that the goal is to use the foundation’s work in the Ward as a model “to build sustainable homes for several communities in need.”
From that perspective, Make it Right has seen great success. Since beginning in New Orleans, the group has expanded its focus, completing projects in Kansas City, MO, Newark, NJ, and Fort Peck, MT.
But how has progress been in the New Orleans’ community where Make it Right started?
By all accounts, the answer is a resounding “not great.” New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward is still on the long road to recovery and far from its already economically disadvantaged, pre-Katrina levels. According to Royle, the community population is still only 37% of what it was before Katrina. The more time passes, the less likely it seems prior members of the community will ever return to make the Lower Ninth Ward what it once was.
Local government and nonprofits have done wonders in constructing a new community center, school, roads, and dozens of homes, but private business investment in the area still lags.
First NBC Bank (NASDAQ:FNBC) board member and New Orleans resident Charles Teamer explains Katrina was impactful beyond its physical destruction. “What happened in the Lower Ninth Ward was a combination of economics and mother nature... As we go forward, we want to make sure we are using the best economic practices available.”
Critics of the redevelopment effort argue that funds could be better utilized in areas that have a higher probability of a full recovery, but Royle underscores the importance of Make it Right’s work in the Lower Ninth Ward “Most people don’t understand the history of the neighborhood… [The residents] were going to rebuild their houses with or without Make it Right. We just decided to support them,” she said. Even Ms. Royle admits that onlookers should temper expectations, “We are still missing a lot. It will never be the same.”
Teamer echoes her apprehension: “This was a storm with a 100 year impact… I am very optimistic but there is a lot to do.”
Even with the limited prospects of growth in the Lower Ninth Ward, one cannot help but root for the underdogs of the New Orleans' recovery effort. Royle is quick to point out the attachment residents have to their community. “Make it Right residents couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.”