New Orleanians Bring the Streets to Life on the Anniversary of the Great Flood

It was almost 10AM and all three drawbridges—the only entry points into the Lower 9th Ward—were up. A line of cars piled up, waiting impatiently at the main bridge, anxious about being late to the start of the day’s events. A Memorial Ceremony was set to start at 10,  at the very place where a barge broke thru Industrial Canal Levee sending up to 20 feet of water crashing into the homes of thousands of people.

Following a few angry calls to the New Orleans Police Department, the Mayor’s
Office and the City Council, at a few minutes after 10AM,  cars were finally allowed onto the St Claude Bridge.  For months while the Army Corps of Engineers patched the levee, a wall of barbed wire ran parallel to it, preventing visitors or any unwanted levee critics from approaching. But on the 29th, someone cut the barbed wire and hundreds of people gathered in front of the useless new wall that could not resist the force of even a Category 2 storm . 

At the levee, one of the community’s spiritual leaders, Mama Olayeela, offered libations in front of an altar with hundreds of candles. A solemn drumbeat accompanied her. “Open the way, Great Mother, for the healing spirits to enter,” she responded to the drumbeat. Zion Trinity offered songs for “the warrior spirit in us to rise.” And as the crowd filed away from the levee to join the commemoration march, a number of people lining the road read the names of each of those who passed in the Flood. Commemoration organizers had collected some 900 names.  That day, in their memorial edition, The Times Picayune printed 850 names.  Close to 600 are still unidentified or missing.  Many in the crowd carried photos of their loved ones who had passed. Others carried signs, “Remember the dead, fight for the living”.

Death and Rebirth

Many have reported that the Lower 9th Ward looks, feels and smells like a dead zone.  Only a hand full brave pioneers have reclaimed their homes in the midst of block-after-block of devastated, abandoned homes—where the city still does not supply water, sewer or garbage service. But, as the crowd trudged in 95 degree heat up the rutted dirt road, past fields overgrown with weeds where piles of rubble (formerly houses) had recently been bulldozed, life returned to the Lower 9th Ward.

Veteran New Orleans activists were thrilled to be marching along side people they may see on their jobs, on buses, on street corners, but until then, never on political marches. A weathered man with a tambourine, Mr. Johnson, who had to be at least 80, walked stiffly, as if he had wooden legs with no knee joints. He refused an offer to ride in the air conditioned vans available at the end of the march for people not able to walk three miles in the tropical heat. Although the 29th was a work day, it was also the anniversary of the Storm that took so many people’s lives and flooded 80% of New Orleans. Nearly 2000 people joined Mr. Johnson because they still ache for public recognition of their grief and they still seethe with fury for the injustice they’ve experienced. Young, old, people in wheelchairs, children in strollers, young men with t-shirts down to their knees and others wearing dashikis stared down the National Guard perched in their humvees at each corner—some of the 300 who occupy the Black communities of New Orleans.

For a few blocks, this writer walked with Mrs. Anderson. Exactly a year ago, as the water rose to the second floor of her Lower  9th Ward home, she sought refuge on her roof. She began sobbing as she described how rescue helicopters, made eye contact, then passed her by as they headed for the white section of town. Finally, the raging waters pushed her home off its foundations and she clung to the roof until it crashed into a tree. She doesn’t remember how many hours she waited in the tree, not for help, but for death. “I urinated on myself for warmth”. Her sister interrupts, “you mean you were so scared, you pissed yourself.”

Ms Anderson is one of the 250,000 low-income Black New Orleanians who were displaced by the storm and don’t have the means to come home. She’s been staying in La Place, some 25 miles west of New Orleans.  “The doctor told me not to come back for the anniversary, that it would be bad for my blood pressure, but I had to come just for this day.” Most displaced New Orleanians are living a few hours away from New Orleans and want to come home.  But the state is systematically denying their right to return by withholding housing assistance, favoring below-minimum-wage jobs, privatizing health care and education. One of the demands of the Commemoration is for the right to return to New Orleans—reconstructed with social justice.

As the somber march reached a street that divides the 9th Ward from the 8th Ward, the Hot 8 Brass Band interrupted Ms Anderson’s story with an upbeat version of “I’ll Fly Away.” She, her sister and daughter, as soon as they heard the music, broke into the traditional Second Line dance, along with the rest of the crowd. The energy of the music lifted the grief and anger off the shoulders of the crowd. Everyone —those holding “Right to Return” signs and those with gold caps on their teeth, who heard about the event on the local hip hop station, chanted together to the beat: “New Aw-lins” over and over.  Sess 4-5, a local hip hop artist who worked hard to promote the Commemoration, was exultant. “Now it’s gonna happen,” he told this writer, before he yelled into his bullhorn, “No justice, no peace!”

At Congo Square

Energized by the music and hydrated by free water distributed along the route, few seemed to mind the three-mile march at the peak of tropical heat. They were more relieved by the disappearance of any threat from Hurricane Ernesto.  

Nine hundred names, imprinted on huge black banners greeted people as they entered Congo Square—since slavery, the historic center of people’s resistance to oppression in New Orleans. Drums welcomed the marchers. Some lingered at an altar with 1600 candles, writing the names of loved ones under a candle, some dancing in the flickering glow. Across the square, a Healing Tent offered massage, acupuncture and counseling. And bordering the square, people could visit a variety of tables with information about the new Women’s Clinic, the Workers’ Justice Coalition, the Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Association, Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund and others.

Well-known New Orleans DJ, Wild Wayne from Q93, nationally recognized poet Sunni Patterson and poet producer Asali DeVan shared MC duties.  The speech/performance of Mia X—a New Orleans native and first female rapper on the No Limit Record label--

was the highpoint of the afternoon.  She told the crowd, “I have a baby father in the cemetery and a baby father in the penitentiary and no family left to come home to in New Orleans.” She lost five family members in the Flood. “That’s why we have to have a Cease Fire among our people. We need to figure out how to meet our mental needs… We have a culture and history here—we gotta support each other.” The crowd gave her much love.

Other speakers -- including Nikkisha Napoleon whose Uncle passed in the Flood,  more people who lost family members, local Black community leaders and Malcolm Suber who represented the United Front that organized the Commemoration -- all contributed to the message of the day. Members of the International Commission of Inquiry for the upcoming Tribunal on Katrina Crimes against the People—from Brazil, Venezuela and South Africa—spoke of their common experiences on the slave ships of yesteryear and today.    They were committed to honoring those who passed and shared a consensus that the needless death and destruction that followed Katrina was a genocidal attack on Black people. The continued forced dispersion of Black people—the largest since the betrayal of Reconstruction-- must be resisted.  They also demanded that the City rescind any threat to subject peoples’ homes to seizure under eminent domain and that public housing be opened. In short: displaced people have the right to return to affordable, safe homes, quality schools, jobs with dignity, quality health care and recreational facilities. All committed to working for reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf according to the right to social justice and self determination.

By Arlene Eisen, an activist and long term volunteer with Peoples’ Hurricane Relief  Fund in New Orleans.  arlenesreport [at] yahoo [dot] com