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Gulf oil spill: New Orleans residents 'taking ownership' of their fate

May 1, 2010 |  1:57 pm
Ronald Lewis and Ward “Mack” McClendon sat Saturday outside a tiny Lower Ninth Ward church which bore a banner that might describe greater New Orleans: “We’ve Come This Far by Faith.”

Community members had just met with Environmental Protection Agency officials and both men were pleased that someone was trying to disseminate information -- “as opposed to Katrina, where they did everything wrong,” said McClendon, executive director of the Lower Ninth Ward Village.

“We are veterans of disaster,” said Lewis, who runs the House of Dance & Feathers museum. “We survived Hurricane Betsy. We survived Katrina. Mentally, we’ll be prepared” for the oil spill’s landfall. He paused and looked toward streets that the 2005 storm had gutted.“You have to be when you’ve lost everything you’ve ever accumulated. Our fate was in the hands of the government and the government failed us on all kinds of levels after Katrina.... We're surviving just like a soldier come back from war.”

McClendon said the meeting, crowded with members of community groups, showed that New Orleanians were “taking ownership” of their fate when disaster, in the form of an oil slick, returned.“It’s powerful thing, how we’re fighting to be a part of it,” said McClendon, who’s still rebuilding his Lower Ninth Ward home after the plumbing and copper wire were stolen – twice.

Inside the church, Alice Craft-Kerney, a nurse who runs the Lower 9th Ward Health Clinic, had implored federal officials to remember the mental health needs of the still-emotionally delicate region.

“We’ve learned lessons from Katrina,” she said afterward. “We know our community is still fragile and we don’t have the monetary resources to get proper care.”

Many New Orleans residents either have family in the coastal fishing communities or feel a kinship to them, she said. Seafood is so much a part of the region’s cuisine and culture that merely ordering lunch is a reminder of the fishermen’s plight.

“They’re a weakened community because of Katrina. They’re not fully recovered,” Craft-Kerney said of New Orleans. She is still working on the kitchen of her own home, in its eastern section, which flooded in 2005.

The oil spill creeping toward the Louisiana shoreline “triggers that anxiety of ‘what’s going to happen?’ You remember that from the storm. It’s like, ‘Here we go again.’ ”

--Ashley Powers