Eight years after Hurricane Katrina, many evacuees yet to return

Lower 9th Ward shows signs of life, but residents say many neighbors, especially African-Americans, never came back

Much of the rental housing in New Orleans was destroyed by Katrina. Four years after the hurricane, rent was on average 40 percent higher.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward is showing signs of new life eight years after Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. But still, only 30 percent of the low-income neighborhood's residents have returned, as opposed to 90 percent in the rest of the city.

Lower 9th Ward resident Joyce Morris is one of them.

About 80 percent of New Orleans was underwater after Katrina hit, and it took Morris nearly six years to rebuild her home using money from the federal "Road Home" program.

"My whole house was underwater. The whole entire house was underwater," Morris told Al Jazeera.

While she decided to stay and rebuild, Morris said many of her neighbors left -- and have yet to return.

"We're not exaggerating when we say these things … people are scared to come back," she said.

After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, more than 1,800 people were killed, and tens of thousands of homes and other buildings along the Gulf were destroyed.

Morris' neighborhood was home to about 14,000 people before the hurricane hit.

"You think about how things used to be -- your neighbors up the street. And in many ways we still haven't seen a lot of people," another Lower 9th Ward resident, Ben Lemoine, told Al Jazeera.

"There's people, to this day, I wonder what happened to them, where they are. It's those question marks in your head that sometimes make you a little sad."

Katrina caused one of the largest and most abrupt displacements of people in U.S. history, with an estimated 1.5 million people leaving their homes along the Gulf Coast.

A government report on evacuees pointed out that African-American residents were less likely to return to their homes than whites; 54 percent of African-American evacuees returned, compared with 82 percent of white evacuees.

Even though billions of dollars were paid out to victims of Hurricane Katrina, residents in nonwhite areas were paid less than those living in mostly white communities, according to a 2010 Amnesty International report.

The result has been that, relative to other parts of New Orleans, there has been little redevelopment in the Lower 9th Ward since the hurricane.

Though New Orleans regained a majority of its pre-Katrina population, reports show that it is not necessarily being replenished by former residents -- an indication that many evacuees were either unable or unwilling to return, Amnesty said.

One of the obstacles that prevented African-American and low-income residents from returning was a lack of affordable housing. Much of the rental housing in the city was destroyed and never rebuilt. Four years after the storm, rents were nearly 40 percent higher than they were before Katrina.

Renee Lewis contributed to this report. With Al Jazeera

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