“I’m from the Nine, and you ain’t takin’ mine!”
New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas was just getting warmed up, but his constituents were already plenty heated.
It was a sweltering Louisiana afternoon, with humidity hovering around 80 percent. Volunteers in yellow T-shirts passed out cups of water to those who’d come to witness the official dedication of the Lower Ninth Ward memorial to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The memorial is located on a narrow strip of grass between North Claiborne Avenue and North Robertson Street at Tennessee Street, but you’d never know it save for the occasional hand-lettered sign nailed to a telephone pole by one of the many community action groups.
Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco was the first speaker, and her presence was made conspicuous by her arrival at a brand-new crisis command center. While her “you can’t build a rainbow without a storm” speech was well received, she clearly wasn’t the person the mostly black crowd had come to see.
The displaced residents of the Ninth Ward gave it up for Mayor C. Ray Nagin as he took the stage with Montel-like aplomb. A few hours earlier on Meet the Press, the mayor appeared stone faced and subdued as Tim Russert tried to railroad him into an apology for referring to the former site of the World Trade Center as a “hole in the ground,” but the mayor refused to take the bait. Now he was clearly happy to be in front of a friendly crowd, and you could practically feel his staff’s collective blood pressure rise as he announced that he was going to “go off script.” He joked with the crowd and defended his rejection of plans to “shrink the footprint” of New Orleans, which is bureaucratese for excluding historically black neighborhoods like East Orleans and the Lower Ninth Ward from the new New Orleans.
But Mayor Nagin had nothing on Thomas, a towering figure with a booming voice and a cadence that bespoke the influence of the preacher’s pulpit. As he regaled the politicians, volunteers and church ladies dressed in their Sunday finest with anecdotes of growing up poor and humble in the Lower Ninth, the crowd came alive at the mention of each street name and local business. The part-time actor recalled a sewer pipe in his neighborhood that he had used to cross the Tupelo Canal because there was no bridge, and murmurs of recognition passed through the crowd.
“Once you walk the pipe,” Thomas said, “you can make it through life.”
After the speeches, the assembly gathered around the memorial proper to lay flowers at the base of a headstone dedicated to those who’d lost their lives when the levee broke. Old Glory’s stars and stripes and the fleurs-de-lis of the state flag of Louisiana fluttered in the darkening sky as storm clouds rolled in from the south.
Lifelong resident Emma Collins shot a nervous glance at the sky. Last year she watched a wall of water roar through the ward from the roof of a hotel where she waited four days to be rescued. Collins found the speeches inspiring, particularly the mayor’s. “He’s homegrown. He was very inspirational.”
But not all of the attendees were satisfied. Vanita Rogers came to the dedication to pay respects to those who had died. The dedication presented a rare opportunity to listen to state, city and community leaders address her neighborhood, but one year after the storm, Rogers is starting to feel like she’s heard it all before.
“It’s basically the same speech,” she said, “so it’s received in the same way.”
Rogers saw the dedication as an opportunity squandered, and is ready to take matters into her own hands. She’s decided to contact everyone on her street and share what she’s learned, in the form of a newsletter. She embodies the kind of grass-roots community action that was in evidence everywhere, from the volunteers who served up free rice and beans to the folks who worked around the clock to make the memorial happen. Thomas may have charmed the audience with his history of the ward, but the future of the Nine rests squarely on the backs of highly motivated people like Vanita Rogers.
“It’s something that you need to do. You need to know what’s going on around you. You need to keep yourself informed and your neighbors informed. Since I’m here, I can be a voice and an ear for them.”