An abandoned home sits vacant in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward nearly eight years after Hurricane Katrina. / Steve Edelson, The Asbury Park (N.J.) Press
NEW ORLEANS -- As you continue along St. Claude Avenue, the downtown skyline and French Quarter filling the rearview mirror, you eventually cross over a rusted steel bridge traversing an industrial canal.
You've entered the land where things break: levees, hearts and promises. In that order.
In a city where Hurricane Katrina left a legacy of death and destruction that framed a national debate nearly eight years ago, the Lower Ninth Ward became the lightning rod for the discourse on everything from reconstruction to race.
To this day it's a place where blame remains ambiguous, normalcy is a fleeting concept to many and insurance companies and FEMA are considered part of the problem.
Moving slowly on roads that dip and rise as you approach the area where the levee was breached, empty lots dot the landscape, while many homes remain uninhabitable. Other parts of the "Lower Nine" are studies in contrast, with neat, well-maintained houses sharing the same block with graffiti tagged structures, plywood where once there were windows and doors.
With the perspective that superstorm Sandy provided, having seen firsthand the devastation in places like New Jersey's Union Beach and Ortley Beach, it's hard for me to imagine that this New Orleans neighborhood is 7 1/2 years removed from the event, with many residents having simply walked away.
Seated comfortably inside the chapel at the Greater Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church, a block from the massive grass-covered levee that holds back the Mississippi River, Arthur Johnson has walked the path that victims in the metropolitan area are just beginning to traverse.
His East New Orleans neighborhood got washed out, and now he heads the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development, a nonprofit organization struggling to help a neighborhood that simply will never be the same.
As his speaks, his diatribe is startlingly similar to what you hear from Jersey Shore area residents, while his experiences foretell many of the pitfalls that Sandy victims will try to navigate in the coming years.
"I would tell them to pray ... I would tell them to be resilient," he said.
Johnson and his wife sought refuge in Florida in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, before slowly rebuilding their life, determined not to let man or Mother Nature evict them.
"You have to be strong and you have to fight for your rights," he said. "I know people in New Jersey, that's a part of their infrastructure, fighting for your rights. But you really have to fight because the bureaucracy, and I don't just mean government. It's big business, there's money being dished out, from contractors coming in to people cleaning up the area, as well as those who are helping rebuild homes and infrastructure.
"There's a lot of money. And you know what happens when there's a lot of money. There's also a lot of heartache and grief and trouble."
Inside their small, cramped office at the rear of the church, Johnson and his staff deal with issues that range from developing businesses and restoring services, to the difficulty associated with meeting stringent building codes.
Maya Arnold used to live in the Lower Ninth. She doesn't anymore, having relocated to another part of town, unable to face the past and hopeful of a brighter future.
"I've seen so much stuff on television from the Northeast and it brings back so many memories," she said. "What I would say to those people is you have to stay together, whether it's your family or your friends or whoever. It's the people in your life that will carry you through, not some government agency."
It's been a long, hard fight, but public services like schools and a fire department are back. There's even a supermarket, something that was missing even before Katrina.
But some residents, relocated as far away as Texas, simply never returned.
"One light at the end of the tunnel is that the people who are back are stronger," Arnold noted. "There's a saying my elders used to tell me, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. And those who are back are stronger. Mentally, physically and emotionally, and they're not scared."
As Arnold talks of resiliency and determination, I can't help but think of the people I've met along the Bayshore and down through Ocean County, who returned the minute they were allowed back to begin tearing out drywall and flooring.
In essence, what Arnold's pedaling is hope, understanding better than most that it's what Sandy victims need more than anything else right now.
Stephen Edelson is a columnist for The Asbury Park (N.J.) Press.
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Read the original story: New Jersey's post-Sandy plight echoes in New Orleans