Sweat pours down Reginald “Trigger” Smith’s face as he cleans out a storage unit squeezed next to three FEMA trailers on his lot in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the New Orleans neighborhoods most devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
He is living in one of the trailers, a cramped space filled to the brim with the paraphernalia of his career in movie and music production. One of the trailers is still brand new and unlived in. Since FEMA announced earlier this year that high levels of formaldehyde in the trailers poses a serious health risk, he doesn’t even want to open it.
“It makes your eyes burn,” he said. A video with music by Aaron Neville shows Trigger chest-high in water, pulling a boat through the street to his mother’s nearly submerged house down the block. Now the house is gutted; he is trying to rehab it but is still waiting on promised Road Home money.
The Lower Ninth Ward is slowly coming back to life, with rehabbed and newly constructed houses mixed in with overgrown skeletons of flood-ravaged homes and vacant weedy lots where houses were totally washed away by floodwaters or demolished in the aftermath.
It is a slow, very slow battle. And July marks the deadline when, in keeping with city residential codes, not to mention the formaldehyde risks, FEMA trailers are supposed to be vacated and removed from properties. But the trailers are still housing many people, and as has often been the case since Katrina, laws and policies are nearly meaningless when people have nowhere else to go.
In the past two months Renaissance Village a 600-unit trailer park housing Katrina evacuees near Baton Rouge, was vacated. It is not clear where all the people went; some likely ended up back in New Orleans, perhaps squatting in the many vacant buildings here in the Lower Ninth Ward and throughout the city.
“They’re passing out fliers saying you have 90, 60, 30 days to get out,” of the trailers, said Teddy Thomas, 26, who is no longer living in the FEMA trailer on his mother’s property in the Lower Ninth, because they have an infant and are worried about the health dangers. “But if you don’t have somewhere to go…”
Across the street, Marguerite Burke, with a face weathered and creased beyond her 64 years, sits in the shade of a bright yellow boarded-up house. She was renting before the hurricane, so she is one of the people who “lost everything.” But stress exacerbates her health problems, so she tries not to think about it.
George Wharton, (pictured above, photo by Wafaa Bilal) who is hard at work on a crew demolishing a nearby school that had served as a shelter during the flood, doesn’t shy away from thinking about the ongoing political and social aftermath of Katrina.
He pointed out some nearby Habitat for Humanity houses “built by President Carter,” but he said “Bush hasn’t done sh-t. He kissed a few babies, hugged a few white men, then he’s gone.”
Like many people he also sees ulterior motives in the city’s tearing down of most of the public-housing projects since Katrina, replacing them with market-rate or mixed-income housing. After several years of battles to save public housing that drew activists from around the country and displaced residents bussing back from Houston to demand the “right to return,” a large portion of the Lafitte, C.J. Peete and other projects are leveled. Many of the projects were known to be relatively sound structurally, surviving Katrina better than most other buildings.
“Ask them why they are tearing down the projects when all those homeless people are under the bridge,” Wharton said. “They want to get the black people out, the people who they blame for all the crime.”
As his crew is demolishing the school, he notes, no new schools are being built near the Lower Ninth, meaning a long commute for youth who have returned to the area, one more hurdle among many in the neighborhood’s long uphill battle. He also sees it as symbolic that the city is tearing down a structure which gave people refuge during the hurricane.
“If another hurricane comes, we’ll have nowhere else to go, except back to exile.”