by Uta Allers
Our guide, M.A. Sheehan, an All Souls member who now lives in New Orleans with her partner, took a group of us on a tour of the Lower 9th Ward, where we are working and building new structures. As we passed some new and renovated houses, the many empty lots and many abandoned homes, I was struck by the reality of holes in the roofs of the deserted ones. I had assumed those to be hurricane damage, but M.A. pointed out that those were the reminders of people having broken through the ceiling to reach the relative safety of their roof – for days. As M.A. put it, “Can you imagine the trauma of living through that and within days being asked by FEMA and other authorities to line up and have your paperwork ready to prove ownership?”
One of our stops was the Bayou Bienvenu which was a shocking sight of a large body of water with nothing but cypress stumps for miles. The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet Canal (“Mr.GO” in local vernacular) was created in the 1960s to cut the shipping distance between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. Because of its construction, however, the bayou has become salinated and its wetlands all died. What’s even more frustrating is that the canal proved too small for the boats used for shipping, so after all of the environmental destruction it has caused, it has been underused for 50 years.
Much of the extreme effect of Hurricane Katrina was caused by the canal systems for shipping, oil and gas, which created a straight path for the storm’s churning water masses, crashing over and breaching the inadequate flood walls on the levees, as they did here in the Lower 9th.
The good news is not only that people are slowly, though laboriously, coming back to the neighborhood, but that Mr. GO has been blocked off at its entrance. The bayou is rapidly desalinating and with much help, will eventually return to its swampy origin.
Below: All Souls members gazing out over the stumps of what used to be a thriving wetland.