Residents Of Lower Ninth Fight Proposed Lock, And Corps

Jun 7, 2017

In the Lower Ninth Ward an infrastructure project has reopened old wounds. For more than 50 years, the Army Corps of Engineers has tried to expand the Inner Harbor Navigational Canal. The shipping canal connects the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain. Officials want to dig it up and build a new lock to let more tugboats and barges through.

But the people of Lower Ninth are not having it. The conflict is emblematic of a long history of mistrust.

Vanessa Gueringer was born and raised in the Lower Ninth. She loves it here. She and her husband were renovating their shotgun house on Tupelo Street when Hurricane Katrina hit. They stayed with her sister in Baton Rouge. She says when they came back, “We saw the markings where they had been here checking to see if there were any dead bodies or the like inside the property. Everything was destroyed….just absolutely destroyed.”

She holds the Army Corps of Engineers responsible. They built the levees and floodwalls that failed during the storm, releasing up to 12 feet of water into the Lower Ninth.

Now the Corps wants to build something else in her neighborhood.

On a cool spring night, Gueringer squeezed tight into the packed pews of St. Mary of the Angels church. Army Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett stood in front, where the preacher usually stands, and described the plan. It didn’t go over well. The audience reacted strongly as he explained that the Claiborne Avenue bridge would have to be temporarily replaced and some people might even have to move for a few years.

People worry about the inconvenience, but also about the environmental impacts, like where the nasty sludge from the bottom of the canal will get dumped, and whether the structure will be strong enough to protect them from storms.

It’s a legitimate worry. The failure of the levees during Katrina forever changed this mostly-black neighborhood. About 20,000 people lived here before the storm. Only a few thousand remain.

People like Gueringer are still mad, “They have displaced people’s families….the majority of my people don’t even live here now.” She says, “They have broken families, they have taken lives.”

The people of the Lower Ninth sued the Corps over the flooding several times. All but one suit was dismissed, and that last one has been tied up in the courts for years.

City councilman Jason Williams says they want the Corps to pay, “I don’t know that there’s ever been a public apology, I don’t know that there’s ever been an explanation. So to move from that to a new project, I can understand why somebody might not believe in it.”

The Corps recognizes that, it’s partly why they extended the public comment period.

Spokesman Rene Poche says they want public input. “We have a long way to go to rebuild public trust. I don’t know if we’ll ever rebuild it totally,” says Poche.

The $950 million project has the support of the Trump Administration. It would make more money for the shipping companies - but it won’t create any new local jobs.

And that’s the crux of the problem, according to Andy Horowitz. He’s a history professor at Tulane and has written about the Corps. “The Industrial Canal was never designed in any direct way to benefit the people who live right around it. It was meant to serve interests that were distant and removed from that neighborhood.”

To Gueringer, a big new lock isn’t useful. She wants grocery stores, parks - for her neighborhood to be liveable again, “There’s nothing but empty lots where houses existed. There are no businesses here. There are streets that are not accessible. So many things that have not been addressed in this community.”

She and her neighbors have written their fears down on slips of paper, and the Corps has filed them away.  It’ll take a year to complete its latest review.

Another year of waiting - something the people of the Lower Ninth Ward have been asked to do again and again.

The Coastal Desk is supported by the Walton Family Foundation, the Coypu Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and local listeners.