Owning her own home was a dream that was many years in the making for Kim Ford. So when she and her husband were finally able to buy a home in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans in 2003, it was like all her dreams were coming true.
She loved her home, her neighbors, her community. She planned to spend her retirement here, sitting on her front porch in her cast iron rocking chair, surrounded by grandchildren.
Kim and her husband, Mark, pose with their dog, Zoe, on their front porch – Kim’s favorite part of the house.
“It was a spiritual feeling to have my own space,” Kim says in the episode. “And then Hurricane Katrina happened and stole all of that right away from me.”
Kim and her family were out of town when Katrina hit. Her hotel carried copies of USA Today, and on the front page was a picture of her neighborhood, completely flooded. She fell to the floor in shock.
Suddenly homeless, the family temporarily relocated to Dallas to begin the process of rebuilding their home. And their lives.
They visited their home to assess the damage. Nothing could be salvaged. Their cars, their family pictures, the dress their daughter had worn in their wedding – everything had been destroyed.
“It’s really like you lose a loved one, it’s like I was erasing my history, we were throwing away our history,” Kim says. “So it was very difficult.”
Rebuilding was an uphill battle. Kim says her homeowners insurance company only paid out a total of $150. She ended up having to sue them.
It was battles like this that convinced many of the Lower Ninth Ward’s residents to not come back. But Kim was determined to return to her home. So she fought.
Today, back at her home, Kim continues to fight. Her experience has turned her into a local activist. She started Community Recallers, an organization that holds elected officials accountable, and hosts Treeshakers, a radio talk show in New Orleans that focuses on human rights and social justice issues.
Some of the volunteers who helped rebuild their home.
But Kim still faces challenges. After the hurricane, a lot of the previous residents left and new people came to take their places, altering the community in a variety of different ways. Her own daughter moved to Atlanta with her husband to find better jobs. So now Kim’s dream – of the front porch, sitting in her rocking chair, watching her three grandchildren play – is in jeopardy once again.
To hear the full story, listen to “Home After The Hurricane” now.
Learn more about the host of Home. Made., award winning journalist Stephanie Foo on our host page.
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STEPHANIE FOO: When Kim Ford was newly married, her husband Mark would tell her stories about the neighborhood he grew up in.
KIM FORD: As a kid, they walked out to the canal and caught fish and caught shrimp, caught crabs and seafood. And I was like, wow. A lot of the things that he told me, I never did experience that. I was always very excited to hear it. I never tired of hearing the stories.
STEPHANIE FOO: The stories painted this picture of a vibrant community.
KIM FORD: How the parents all had blue collar jobs. They all were homeowners and they were able to earn a salary that paid for them to purchase property.
STEPHANIE FOO: It was like a utopia, or …
KIM FORD: Was like a mecca, a mecca of Black people.
STEPHANIE FOO: The stories made her fall in love with the place. But then something happened to that neighborhood, and that city. Something that changed Kim’s dream.
KIM FORD: We had lost everything, everything.
STEPHANIE FOO: This is Home. Made., an original podcast by Rocket Mortgage® about the meaning of homes, and what we can learn about ourselves in them. I’m Stephanie Foo.
The neighborhood Kim fell in love with is the Lower Ninth Ward, a historic Black community in New Orleans that sits on the Mississippi River. We all know what happened to New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit it in 2005. 80% of the city was under water. Over 130,000 homes were destroyed or damaged. 1,800 people died. More of those people died from the Lower Ninth than any other neighborhood. After Katrina, New Orleans’s population dropped by over 50%. And it still hasn't returned to what it once was.
Since 2008, about 23 million people have been displaced by environmental disasters globally. Over 200,000 Californians were displaced by wildfires last year alone. With luck, most of these people will rebuild their homes, or move to a new, safe place.
But their story doesn’t end after the flames are extinguished. After tragedy, their sense of home, of place, or belonging can evolve in surprising ways. Today, we’re telling the story of Kim Ford, and how Katrina changed her, and her relationship to the Lower Ninth Ward – forever.
STEPHANIE FOO: Kim had lived her whole life in New Orleans, but growing up she’d never heard the stories of the Lower Ninth. In the late 1800s, Black people flocked there from nearby plantations in the south. They came for working-class jobs and the promise of home ownership.
JOYCE JACKSON: It was always a dream to own your own land. You were always living on somebody else's land and working for someone else.
STEPHANIE FOO: Joyce Jackson is a cultural anthropologist at Louisiana State University.
JOYCE JACKSON: That land ownership gave you a sense of stability and a sense of value. When they managed to purchase the land, it stayed in the families for several generations, and that's what was happening in the Lower Ninth Ward.
STEPHANIE FOO: The neighborhood represented freedom.
JOYCE JACKSON: The Lower Ninth Ward had the highest percentage of Black-owned homeownership in the city.
STEPHANIE FOO: Into the late 1900s, the neighborhood was about 98% Black, and had one of the highest rates of Black homeownership in the country. And families would stay, living side-by-side for generation after generation.
KIM FORD: My husband's parents owned their house, and husband's grandfather owned the house next door. His side of the family, his family would have parties, birthday parties, and they would have barbecues, they will go to church together, events at church. And it was just different from what I had known. My family didn't do that and I wanted that.
STEPHANIE FOO: It was different for Kim because she grew up in another neighborhood of New Orleans: The St. Bernard Project.
KIM FORD: I thought that I would be in the projects all my life. I never thought that I would be able to grow up and afford to buy my own home.
STEPHANIE FOO: In St. Bernard, nobody owned their own home. But when she met her husband, Mark, at the age of 28, that started becoming a possibility. He started telling her all these idyllic stories about his childhood, about this “Black mecca” She’d go and visit his family there, and it was just as perfect as he described it. They’d walk around the neighborhood and dream of one day owning a home there. Of taking their place along the generational timeline, being cared for by neighbors and then caring for children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren.
In the early 2000s, Kim and Mark caught a break. They both had steady jobs in the sales department at the local Hilton hotel. And a friend of Mark’s was selling his house in the Lower Ninth. He wanted them to have it, and was willing to be flexible on price.
KIM FORD: I didn't think it was gonna happen because I didn't have friends like that, right? I was like, "Oh, honey I don't know." And sure enough, we were able to get this beautiful corner lot of property. A single-family, beautiful home. Oh my god. Yeah, it was a big deal for me. It was a big deal for me.
It had taken 14 years from when she first started dreaming. But she finally had her own house. Kim was 42 now. She had a teenage daughter, Chrissie. She and her family moved in, near Mark’s folks, in 2003.
KIM FORD: I always love being with their family. But then when we got our own home, I felt like we were really a real part of that. We weren't just coming in to visit and leave out. We were actually ingratiated into the community. And I loved the community. The friends, my neighbors, my neighbors were so kind. Here in the Lower Ninth Ward, they really have this, the support in the community.
STEPHANIE FOO: Like generations before her, Kim settled into the traditions of her close-knit neighborhood.
JOYCE JACKSON: There are the Mardi Gras Indian families in the Ninth Ward, and there are so many musician families in the Ninth Ward. It's something that you really don't get in other places.
STEPHANIE FOO: This is Joyce Jackson again, the cultural anthropologist. She also studies ethnomusicology.
JOYCE JACKSON: I mean look at all these traditions. You just come out in the streets, and you enjoy life. I've seen elderly people get up and get into the streets during these social aid and pleasure club parades, and they forget about their arthritis. They forget about the backaches and just enjoy life. I've seen people just transform when they get into the streets of the Lower Ninth Ward, whether it's a Mardi Gras Indian parade or social aid and pleasure club parade. Then, you have to think about the churches there. There were so many churches there. That spirituality is very important, too, in looking at the totality of a community.
STEPHANIE FOO: And Kim thrived in this beautiful space. She began to build dreams of her future, and of her children’s futures.
KIM FORD: I had a cast iron rocking chair and … and my house is across the street from a high school baseball diamond. I used to come home and say, "Oh yeah, when I grow old, I'm going to sit right here on this porch." And just rock away, watch those kids play baseball, watch my grandbabies running around him. I was just, "Oh my god, I love my house so much." And I just felt so thankful. It was a spiritual feeling to have my own space. And then Hurricane Katrina happened and stole all of that right away from me.
STEPHANIE FOO: Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans the last week of August 2005. At the time, Kim, Mark and Chrissie were in North Carolina for a family wedding.
KIM FORD: Hotels, they give you USA Today. The USA Today down the whole hallway had my neighborhood on the cover. I knew it was my neighborhood because I know the baseball diamond that's across from my house and I knew the top of the gas station, I mean, around the corner. And I knew it immediately. And then they floored me, I just fell on the floor. I couldn't get up. I couldn't talk. I guess that's what you call shock, right? It was horrible.
STEPHANIE FOO: The view from Kim’s front porch was now the view on everyone’s newspaper. And it was flooded. In some areas, 12 feet deep. Houses were pushed off their foundations and just floated away.
KIM FORD: So immediately we became homeless.
STEPHANIE FOO: Kim had only gone to North Carolina for a weekend trip, but now she couldn't return.
MARLA NELSON: When you have this sudden and often violent destruction of a place, it's traumatizing.
STEPHANIE FOO: This is Marla Nelson, a professor of urban studies at the University of New Orleans. She studies the recovery and relocation process of post-Katrina New Orleans.
MARLA NELSON: It brings grief and really threatens an individual's and a community's identity. But then that loss of the built environment and all those social networks that people depend upon was shocking and stress inducing, and a really very traumatic, traumatic experience.
STEPHANIE FOO: This would be true anywhere. But it was especially bad in New Orleans.
MARLA NELSON: But I think one way in which New Orleans was unique is that New Orleans had really a large share of its population that had lived there and had never lived somewhere else.
STEPHANIE FOO: If you’ve ever been to Louisiana, you also know that there just isn’t any place remotely like it. The languages and accents are like nothing else you’ll hear anywhere in the world. The food is unique – crawfish boils and fried green tomatoes. Not to mention the relationship to the land, the swamp, the tides, the alligators, the nutria. The music! Jazz, blues, swamp rock. Where else can you hear zydeco when you turn on the radio? In the Lower Ninth, each block and social club had their own brass street band with its own style of costumes and dancing. It’s not like moving from San Francisco to Portland. To leave Louisiana is to lose a singular and irreplaceable culture.
MARLA NELSON: We enjoy things that are not common in other places. So if those were gone, you can feel this sense of loss, this disorientation.
KIM FORD: You have to think about how you want to be whole again. And I really was aloof. I was discombobulated.
STEPHANIE FOO: Kim and her family headed to Dallas from North Carolina. Far enough to be safe. Close enough to rush back when things were OK. And then, they sat there and waited. But they would be waiting for a while, because the future of Kim’s house wasn’t the only thing in question. The fate of the entire Lower Ninth Ward rested in the balance.
MARLA NELSON: There were concerns about, we needed to shrink this footprint to have a more compact city that would be safer and more efficient. And how this was displayed was with a map showing neighborhoods of the city that shouldn't come back, right. This was proposed early when many residents were still evacuated. The Lower Ninth Ward was one of those areas. These initial discussions, along with very long and confusing series of planning recovery processes, I think really created a lot of uncertainty and confusion about the future of the neighborhood.
STEPHANIE FOO: During this confusion, Kim and her family came back to assess the damage of their house. They drove into New Orleans, rolled into the Lower Ninth, and from a distance could see the house still standing where it always did. They parked in front, got out and approached slowly.
KIM FORD: We knew it was going to be difficult, but I really was just not prepared.
KIM FORD: We had lost everything. We lost the cars, everything … none of that was anymore good. Nothing, all the water had come all up in the house, all the pictures were off the wall, everything.
There was nothing else I could salvage. And I saw things like the dress that my daughter wore in our wedding. All of the pictures of our lives … had to throw all of that away. It's really like you lose a loved one, it's like I was erasing my history, we were throwing away our history. So it was very difficult.
STEPHANIE FOO: In the months and years following Katrina, if you owned a home in the Lower Ninth, and you wanted to return to it, here were the challenges: Like Kim, you were probably living somewhere outside the city so you couldn’t always tell what was happening to the house. Money was running low, but you still had to pay your mortgage of your old house, plus whatever rent you need for your current housing situation. In terms of repairing your home: Kim faced a total rebuild, but the financial aid that the government offered to residents of areas like the Lower Ninth was much lower than in higher-income areas.
KIM FORD: I didn't want to take what the government wanted to give me for my house.
STEPHANIE FOO: The Supreme Court would later rule that the government specifically discriminated against Black homeowners. For example, families who had owned their homes the longest were ineligible for aid. That's because many of them had held their homes for generation after generation, but just hadn't transferred the title after someone died. So they couldn't prove ownership. Even insurance companies found legal loopholes to keep from having to pay homeowners for flood damage.
KIM FORD: My homeowners insurance paid me I think $150 for everything from the rooter to the tooter, and I ended up having to sue them in court.
MARLA NELSON: And that, on top of arguably decades of neglect by city officials, convinced, I think, many residents of the Lower Ninth Ward that if they did come back, they would have to fight for that attention and resources, because they weren't going to be a priority in rebuilding. So that was an extra hurdle, on top of the insufficient resources to come back and rebuild.
STEPHANIE FOO: Many people decided not to. They sold their homes, or more likely, just the land under what remained of them. And they stayed put in the southern cities where they had sought shelter after Katrina: Atlanta, San Antonio, Birmingham. Far from their culture and traditions.
But Joyce Jackson, the anthropologist, told us a story about a Mardi Gras Indian who moved to Atlanta after Katrina.
JOYCE JACKSON: She said, "When I evacuated, I grabbed my patches, my Indian patches that I was working on for the next Mardi Gras." And she said, "That was the thing that kept me going."
STEPHANIE FOO: Mardi Gras Indians are Black New Orleanians who parade during Mardi Gras in Native American-influenced costumes. The tradition is partly an homage to Native tribes who helped Blacks escape slavery.
JOYCE JACKSON: And so, she said, "When I was in Atlanta, I said to myself, I know they don't have Mardi Gras here. They don’t celebrate Mardi Gras here but if I'm still here at Mardi Gras, I'm going to be walking the streets of Atlanta with my Indian suit on because I'm making it and it will be shown.”
STEPHANIE FOO: This was the first time the culture of the neighborhood was spilling out from the Lower Ninth in large numbers. So Kim faced a similar decision: Leave behind the Lower Ninth, and start over somewhere else, or fight to return.
KIM FORD: I have New Orleans in me, I am New Orleans. There's nobody's going to tell me I can't come back to my house or to my home. I want to rebuild my home. And I have to fight to do that.
STEPHANIE FOO: Determined to return home to New Orleans, Kim and her family stuck it out in Dallas. She took the insurance company to court. Her and Mark kept afloat working odd jobs. She even went before Dallas city council to advocate for better transitional housing for survivors of Katrina.
KIM FORD: That day, everybody who was with me got a house that day. Not only did they get a house, they also got a furnished house. I was no longer going to go in the bathroom and close the door and hide from everybody my tears, and my sadness of what was happening. That was the first day that I used and I carried my emotion with me.
STEPHANIE FOO: Kim swam against the tide for another 3 years in Dallas. During that time, thousands of volunteers had come to New Orleans. Some even came from other countries to aid in the rebuilding process.
KIM FORD: Volunteers are what saved my family in that, volunteers have mercy. God bless people who volunteer. Anybody under the sound of my voice, if they got time to volunteer, to help them make this world better it's a good thing, especially to families after disaster.
STEPHANIE FOO: Thanks to Kim’s persistence, and the help of strangers, her house on that corner lot in the Lower Ninth was rebuilt 4 years after Katrina. At last, Kim and her family packed up in Dallas and drove back to New Orleans for hopefully the last time. But 4 years is a long time to be away from home. Things change.
STEPHANIE FOO: Kim was finally back in the Lower Ninth. Back among familiar faces, next to the Mississippi River. New things to discover.
KIM FORD: Matter of fact, I realized my neighbor has a lemon tree in his yard. And I said, "Oh, neighbor, I never knew you had a lemon tree over here." And immediately he pulled off about 15 huge lemons for me.
STEPHANIE FOO: Kim sat down on her front porch. It’s the porch she dreamt of retiring to, and watching her grandbabies play around. She looked across the street. Out at that baseball diamond.
KIM FORD: It's no more. Where a baseball diamond was. Yeah, that's a significant change.
STEPHANIE FOO: The baseball diamond and the school it was part of were gone, replaced by a property development. Along with city planners and volunteers, developers have also come to the Lower Ninth, and have started to change the landscape.
KIM FORD: I no longer have that view of the river. It's little subtle things like that. And then here in the Lower Ninth Ward, we cordially wave to each other. Just a greeting to say, "Hey, I see you there. I acknowledge you." And we wave.
STEPHANIE FOO: That’s how it used to be, anyway. The ward is still mostly Black, but only 40% of the original Lower Ninth population returned to the area after Katrina. The new houses were more expensive and difficult to afford for locals who wanted to return. So, many of the new homeowners are hipsters and artists. And the neighboring communities are gentrifying more quickly with funky cafes and gourmet barbecue houses.
JOYCE JACKSON: So people buy. Whoever buys it, it's fine. But you have to adjust to what is going on in that community. You have to adjust to the cultural traditions, the parading in the streets.
STEPHANIE FOO: Joyce Jackson says this has led to a clash in expectations.
JOYCE JACKSON: You have to adjust to the Second Line parades, the jazz parades, the burial parades, the jazz funerals. You have to adjust to that juke j down the street that is very apropos for this community, and what the community loves.
STEPHANIE FOO: But many of the gentrifiers don’t want to adjust. The things that made this place unique can be a nuisance to them.
JOYCE JACKSON: And then the people want to call in the city council and say, "Deal with the noise ordinance. We don't want all this noise. These bands are too loud, people parading down the streets with these loud bands." Well, you knew that when you bought the property, and moved in. So now you want to come in and you want to change the community structure. You want to change the culture, the traditions of the community that's been over 100 years? All of a sudden you want to come in and change everything.
STEPHANIE FOO: After fighting to return to the Lower Ninth, Kim realized she would need to keep fighting for that sense of home. To maintain some of the old ways of life there.
KIM FORD: That's why I started Community Recallers, so that I can develop a pathway to hold elected officials accountable.
STEPHANIE FOO: In 2017, she started Community Recallers, an activist group that pressures local government to take action on issues like better access to housing and financial investment in local businesses.
KIM FORD: My nickname is the velvet ham. I didn't tell you that, but they called me the velvet hammer, because I write very nice letters, but they are very … when the hammer comes down it's quite serious.
STEPHANIE FOO: In New Orleans, if you can get over one third of voters to sign a petition, you can recall a publicly appointed employee, hence the name Community Recallers. Their first target was a New Orleans District Attorney named Leon Cannizzaro, who they felt was disproportionately incarcerating Black men.
KIM FORD: And I would go out across the street from the criminal courts and I would have petition signings. I would bring my microphone out there, and I would talk about the district attorney's office and how terrible they were and all of the injustice that was going on in that building. And it was a joy. It was the only pushback that he had ever gotten. And like, we would have parades around marching bands, and beat on buckets. So, it was pretty cool.
STEPHANIE FOO: The pushback was intense but Kim’s petition failed to get enough signatures. Still, Cannizzaro recently decided not to run for another term.
STEPHANIE FOO: Kim also advocates for neighborhood preservation on a weekly community radio show called Tree Shakers.
MARLA NELSON: Certainly throughout New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, there was really an unprecedented resurgence in community activism.
STEPHANIE FOO: This is Marla Nelson again, the urban studies professor.
MARLA NELSON: You had community organizations throughout the city that got very engaged in rebuilding and bringing back their neighborhood.
STEPHANIE FOO: So Kim returned home, didn’t like what she was seeing and became an active participant in saving the neighborhood she loved. But then the thing she valued the most, the intergenerational chain of Ninth Ward residents – one of its links broke off. Kim’s daughter Chrissie and her husband had bought a house nearby in the Ward and started to raise a family. But they recently sold it to move to Atlanta for better jobs.
KIM FORD: If I had to put my finger on which thing that I dreamed that really just did not come to fruition, that's what it would be as my retirement goals. In 2004 that was just the easiest of all of the lifetime achievements, that I would think would happen surely.
STEPHANIE FOO: Kim’s dream was to retire to her porch while her grandkids played around the yard. So now, she wants to be near them. Chrissie’s kids. Three of them, ages 8, 6 and 18 months. She wants to move to Atlanta. Of course, her husband is a Ninth Ward native. And so he’s set on staying where his roots have been planted his whole life.
KIM FORD: My husband says, "Look, I'm going to stay here until I die. I'm going to be here." That's how my husband feels. It is a constant battle with us.
STEPHANIE FOO: As the Lower Ninth continues to recover from Katrina, its future is uncertain. So is Kim’s as she considers moving to Atlanta. But if she does, she might find a small piece of the Lower Ninth there, in other former residents.
In the end, Kim’s dream wasn’t just of that beautiful corner lot house, or the Lower Ninth ward next to the river, or the crabs or the warm breeze. It was the people. The neighbors that took care of each other. The children at the baseball diamond. Sometimes it isn’t so much where the porch is, but who is sitting on it with you.
STEPHANIE FOO: You’ve been listening to Home. Made. by Rocket Mortgage. My name is Stephanie Foo. You can reach us at rocketmortgage.com/homemade. Thanks for listening.
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Home. Made. Podcast
Home. Made. is a new podcast from Rocket Mortgage® hosted by Stephanie Foo. Inside every home, there’s a story.Learn More