Four years of progress, plight and possibilities
Anyone would assume that on an average hot, humid and hazy day in a southern city, if you hear an ice cream truck, you’re likely to see a trail of children laughing, smiling and pointing, after buying their favorite cold treat. That’s not, however, even close to the reality in many New Orleans
neighborhoods, especially in the Lower 9th Ward.
happy tourists, you’ll find a gumbo of progress, plight and unfulfilled promises, post-Katrina. “They haven’t built anything new down here except for the school,” says Nedra Bell, 37, owner of Flaminn’ Design, a beauty shop in the Lower 9th Ward.
Four years have passed since Hurricane Katrina’s high winds and waters from levee breaches drowned and destroyed homes, businesses,
schools and everything seemingly normal about the predominately African American neighborhood. Sadly and on some level surprisingly, it looks like
the storm of the century hit yesterday.
So why would any business owner rebuild in the area, where there is so little progress and not even half of the residents have returned? “I love New Orleans. There’s no place like home,” says Bell.
Her beauty shop, near N. Claiborne Avenue and Lizardi Street is in the heart of the Lower 9th Ward. She could have easily opened a shop in Houston and made the city where she evacuated with her three children her new home. When Bell returned to New Orleans months after Katrina to check on her property, she was motivated and moved to tears. Her business was still standing. “I felt like God kept it here for me to come back. It felt almost unreal. Everything was black and white. Animals and trees were dead. The smell was awful. You’ll never forget it,” says Bell.
Despite the despair and desolate conditions she found surrounding her salon, none of it outweighed Bell’s determination to come back. Starting over was a financial, emotional and professional challenge. Ripping out and remodeling the inside of the business cost $60,000.
To cover the cost, Bell took a job as a stylist at a shop in another New Orleans neighborhood,
saved every penny she made, combined the money with funds from her savings account and a small business loan. It took her a year to get back in business. She believed her return to the area hardest hit by Katrina, would motivate other business owners to come home.
A fraction of residents have returned but so far Bell is a bit of a lone ranger. Flaminn’ Design is the only salon open in the Lower 9th Ward. The doors have been open for nearly three years. Bell’s appointment book stays filled. Flaminn’ Design with its two styling stations, two hairdryers, contemporary artwork on display, is where you can find accessories on sale, get the trendiest hairstyles and openly talk about anything that bothers you. “Even though they’re around all of this, they feel better when they get their hair done,” says Bell.
Perhaps the better feeling is also tied into how customers come to the shop and their casual conversations swing between everything from rebuilding efforts, returning home, family domestic issues and life away from New Orleans. Everyone has a Katrina flashback. For some, it helps them maneuver through life. “I saw the news the day before the storm and said, ‘I got to go’,” says Sheryl Morton, 45, a customer of Bell’s for 15 years. “I thank God I left or I wouldn’t be here.”
Others clients however, still struggle with haunting images. “I spent four days on the roof with family, hoping and wishing,” says
Veronica O’Neal-Wilson, 41.” To get to safety, Wilson says she and her family found a boat and rowed to higher ground, using wooden sticks from bunk beds. “My son still has nightmares,” she says. O’Neal-Wilson now lives in Spring, TX but routinely hits the road for the six-hour drive to Bell’s shop. “I come back to get my hair done, fill up on New Orleans seasonings and meat and drive back to Texas the same day.”
Bell remains optimistic that the days of residents not wanting to come home and stay and businesses setting up shop primarily miles away from the Lower 9th Ward will eventually fade. “Five years from now, I see more progress. It’s going to be better because most of the neighborhood is going to be homeowners but I think it might take at least 10 years for this area to fully come back and look better.”