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Are Katrina Tours Exploiting New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward?

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We are all well aware of the devastation that Hurricane Katrina unleashed upon the Gulf Coast seven years ago. We have seen the pictures and been appalled by the government’s response. The numbers are staggering; 1,836 died, millions were displaced and the damage is undeniable.

New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, where breached levees sent fast-rising flood waters coursing through the street, was hit the hardest, and the entire community was left homeless. And now, as the city is still struggling to rebuild itself, tourists are being bused in to see the aftermath for themselves.

In January of 2006, the New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance banning the entry of tour buses into the neighborhood that had been so devastated by the hurricane. The ordinance states that the stream of buses would interfere with the city’s reconstruction and stresses the “importance that these residents not be victimized again by having their ongoing suffering exploited and paraded for commercial gain, entertainment or amusement.”

Whether due to blatant disregard on behalf of the tour companies or unenforced restrictions by the city, tours through the Lower Ninth Ward have persisted. Gray Line New Orleans advertises a Hurricane Katrina Tour on its website, promising “an eyewitness account of the events surrounding the most devastating natural—and man-made—disaster on American soil!”

Similarly, the Hurricane Katrina – America’s Worst Catastrophe – Bus Tour offered by Big Easy Tours will take you through various neighborhoods that were affected by the hurricane, including the Ninth Ward, to “drive past levees that breached and see the resulting devastation that displaced hundreds of thousands of residents.”

Part of the appeal of these tours comes from the ongoing efforts by Brad Pitt’s Make it Right foundation to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward. Beginning construction in June of 2008, the organization has built over 75 LEED Platinum certified homes for families in the area. People are being drawn to the neighborhood by a mixture of fascination and curiosity to see the condition of a city that has been trying to almost completely reconstruct itself for over 7 years.

In a March interview with the New York Times, a member of the rebuilding community pointed out that the problem with these tours is the lack of support that they provide for the devastated city and the people still living in it, giving off an air of exploitation. Most egregious is that the community sees no direct money from their involvement.

City Councilman Ernest Charbonnet hopes that all parties involved can reach a compromise, perhaps limiting the size of buses and the streets that they can travel down. Because while the tour buses can inconvenience residents by blocking roads, they also shuttle in prospective buyers of homemade goods, allowing residents to earn a little extra cash. Whatever the fate of the tours may be, perhaps the increased attention to the Lower Ninth Ward will serve as a much-needed reminder that, 7 years later, the disaster is still not over for this community of people.

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By Alex Francis for PeterGreenberg.com

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