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In 9th Ward, soggy memories — and some hope

Kermit Francis Sr. leaves a trail of muddy footprints as he leaves the garage of his father's house in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans on Wednesday.  Don Ryan / AP
/ Source: NBC News

NEW ORLEANS — Love Brown gently placed the surgical mask over her nose and mouth, then carefully wiggled her fingers into a pair of latex gloves.

She took a deep breath. “This is home," she sighed, "at least, what used to be home.”

She walked up the front steps careful to avoid the soggy pile of baby clothes and toys scattered by the force of the flood.

Tough neighborhood
Brown lives, or lived, in the Lower Ninth Ward, a colorful, and at times controversial section of New Orleans.

Home to roughly 20,000 people, one-third of the residents live below or very close to the poverty line. Crime can be common and it has a reputation for being a rough neighborhood. 

The Lower Ninth is also geographically challenged. It sits nestled between two canals and the Mississippi River. And when the first levee broke, during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, water rushed into the neighborhood, filing it like a bathtub.

And Brown was there; trapped on her front porch with her four small children, all under the age of eight.

“We had people passing in boats and we’re flagging them down and they kept passing, like they’d be back for us,” Brown remembered. “We stood here a whole other day and no one came back. We had to walk, walk, walk, with four small kids.”

Brown, like many other residents of the Lower Ninth, chose not to leave. She said they didn’t think it would, or could, get so bad. And now as they are beginning to return, Brown and the others are realizing just how bad it really got.

Nothing left but soggy memories
“We’re devastated by this devastation,” Brown said as she lifted a double mattress being eaten by a green monster of mold and fungus. She was looking for pictures she stashed there. She found the pictures, but her memories are ruined, still soggy six weeks after the storm.

“As a mother, I’m traumatized by this because my kids want to know where is home,” Brown said as tears begin to fall. “What are we going to do? We don’t have anything. I’m not being helped.”

The house has now been red-tagged — meaning it is uninhabitable. Brown said she’s fighting with FEMA to prove she lived in the house and that she is eligible for rental assistance.  Without the proper documentation, which she says was lost in the flood, Brown says she and her four children will be evicted from the apartment they’re renting in Dallas.

”They’re asking me for proof of occupancy, how can I prove that?” Brown wondered as she shifted through a dresser. After looking in the second drawer, she stopped. There was no reason to open the third or fourth drawer. She knew what she would find. The same thick, filthy sludge, two inches deep, that covered the bottom of the first two drawers.

Brown shook her head as she headed toward her tiny kitchen.

Unfortunately, not alone
Brown, of course, is not the only one. Hundreds and hundreds of homes in the Lower Ninth Ward have been deemed uninhabitable. Entire businesses have been washed away and the streets are still covered in a cake-like mud patty that resembles a dried up river bed.

But despite this, many residents say they want to come back, rebuild and make the Lower Ninth Ward a stronger community than it was before. So far, Mayor Ray Nagin’s office has not announced any formal plans for putting the neighborhood back together, but he has encouraged residents to return.

Back to school supplies still dry
Back at Brown’s house, her spirit brightened as she noticed a plastic grocery bag tucked high on shelf in the closet. She stood on tip-toes to reach for the bag., “Oh look," she smiled, "school supplies. And the notebooks are still clean. At least that’s something. The kids can use these at their new school in Dallas.”

Brown locked her front door — some habits die hard. (“You always lock your doors in the Ninth Ward.”) She took with her the school supplies and her children’s birth certificates and Social Security cards. The entire salvageable contents of her home were stuffed into a black garbage bag that fit inside her purse.

But Brown says she still has a lot. Her family is safe and her spirit is not broken. She seems to have gained strength from the neighborhood she’s called home her entire life.