Living in the Lower Ninth of New Orleans

Isolated families struggle to rebuild their neighborhood.

January 8, 2009, 1:29 AM

Aug. 26, 2007 — -- The Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans was Ground Zero in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The neighborhood was under 20 feet of water. Hundreds of people died.

While two-thirds of New Orleans residents have now returned to the city, the Lower Ninth is still a ghost town. Fewer than 1,000 residents live in what was once a thriving working-class neighborhood of 19,000 people.

Life is unquestionably difficult there, but there are also moments of profound joy.

Marilyn Joseph, a 66-year-old retired public school employee, could not contain her glee when she checked out the renovations of her home. She had lived there from the time she was 7 years old, until Katrina made it unliveable.

"You should have seen my house," she said. "But God works through Charles."

"Charles" is Charles Dillon, who Marilyn calls her "angel." A year-and-a-half ago, he quit his desk job as a marketing director in Tennessee to come to New Orleans and volunteer full time for a church group, called Faith's Work, gutting and rebuilding homes.

Dillon works for free. "My treasure will be in heaven, and money can't buy my experiences," he said. "To see this woman smile as I've seen her, the government cannot grant enough money to buy it."

"Words cannot even express how happy I am," said Joseph.

Many who saw the devastated Lower Ninth after the flood waters receded, believed the neighborhood would never come back.

People are living here again, but they have few neighbors. For every house that has been rebuilt, there are scores that remain boarded up and empty.

And it's a tough place to raise children. Single mom Lakethia Stuart is raising four kids with no hot water, no gas, and no grocery stores. The family lives partially in a FEMA trailer — partially in the house they can't afford to finish reconstructing.

Stuart says her children were not happy where they were living in Baton Rouge. "My kids are my number one priority. ... I'd do anything to see that my kids are happy," she said.

For the residents of the Ninth Ward, there are some tangible signs of recovery: Stuart's kids attend a recently re-opened school, mail service resumed this weekend, and musician Fats Domino, the Lower Ninth's most famous resident, has nearly rebuilt his mansion, and is preparing to move back soon.

Residents also face the risk of another hurricane. But, they say there is a spirit in the Lower Ninth Ward that Hurricane Katrina could not destroy.

"You have to live here to have it in your heart. And to know this is your home," said Stuart.

Joseph agrees. "There is no place like home. No place. And this is where I will be," she said.

For more information on the church group, Faith's Work, call 985-643-2929

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