It didn’t take long for Shannon Rainey to realize something was seriously wrong with the homes at Gordon Plaza.
Shortly after she moved into her home in the subdivision that was built in the early ’80s through a partnership between the Housing Authority of New Orleans and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, she said she started to notice that the ground underneath her feet hid an unsavory past. The single-family homes were championed by then-mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial as a way to allow lower-class African-American families to own their own homes. But the former mayor left out the fact that Gordon Plaza was built on top of an old landfill covered over with fresh soil. Residents like Rainey quickly uncovered the truth, quite literally.
“Maybe about two or three years after I moved back here, I realized that we were living on top of a toxic landfill from digging in my backyard,” Rainey said, “Because of all the different debris we were finding while we were digging to plant trees and gardens.”
Just five years after the development opened, the Environmental Protection Agency began to find evidence of toxicity in the soil. Rainey describes health clinics that were set up around the neighborhood that confirmed what many residents already knew, the people were getting sick and the soil was to blame.
“Rashes were all over [people’s] bodies. Children were being born deformed. Women were having miscarriages. People were popping up with cancer,” Rainey said of the days before the EPA officially declared the area a health risk.
The EPA tested the soil in 1993 and declared the area a Superfund site. Superfund sites are areas that are federally recognized to contain hazardous waste that poses a threat to the health of people and the surrounding environment.
According to reports from NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, residents sued the city, school board, HANO and insurers in Civil District Court. Judge Nadine Ramsey ultimately ruled in the resident’s favor in 2006, the newspaper reported.
The EPA reportedly undertook a $42 million remediation project to replace the topsoil of the area and protect the residents from the hazardous waste in the ground — that work finished in 2003.
Then in 2005, Hurricane Katrina made quick work of the soil buffer, washing away the protective layer and re-exposing harmful materials. Rainey said that the response of other government agencies to their requests for Road Home and other rebuilding grants only underlined the fact that where they were living was still unsafe.
“Coming back from Katrina, we realized that when we trying to get funds from FEMA and Road Home, we were put on ‘the Red List.’ And that kept us from getting help like raising our houses and fixing windows and all that,” she said. “We were denied because they said, ‘You all live on a toxic landfill.’ So, that told us right there something is seriously wrong back here. If a federal government agency refused to help us, we knew something was wrong.”
When Ramsey ruled in favor of the residents, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune reported that the damages came to $14.2 million.
Rainey, who is the president of Residents of Gordon Plaza, Inc., takes offense at the way that the settlement was distributed.
Rather than being discouraged, Rainey said she felt called to continue to fight for her neighbors.
“God gave me a vision to come back and move back to my house. And he wanted me to walk this walk,” she said. “And continue to fight this fight that he gave me as a purpose to do. I’ve been fighting ever since.”
Although the fight went on for Rainey, the results were basically moot. Nothing had changed over the years.
A 2013 FEMA report that explained that the soil was still toxic and the election of Mayor LaToya Cantrell gave Rainey a new sense of hope that something would be done about the residents of Gordon Plaza.
The residents reached out to Mayor Cantrell on August 8, urging her to commit to a relocation plan. As of publication of this article, Rainey said that she and the residents haven’t heard back. Rainey said that she thinks Cantrell is avoiding the Plaza and its inhabitants.
“She acts like she’s afraid she might catch something back here — catch what we done caught: cancer,” she said. “That’s what I’m upset behind, and that’s why I’m going to continue to fight.”
While Rainey readily admits that it was the negligence of the administration of former mayor Dutch Morial that caused the issue, she doesn’t understand why Cantrell can’t fix the problem.
“It’s only a stroke of the pen,” she said. “We know Dutch Morial created it. But we also know she has the power of a stroke of a pen to make it all go away.”
The situation may be more complex than a stroke of the pen as Rainey suggests. Since the land is designated as a Superfund site, it could require involvement from the EPA and the Mayor’s Environmental Office. Additionally, the resources for the relocation represent another hurdle the Mayor’s Office would need to clear.
Very Local New Orleans reached out to Cantrell’s Office for a statement on the matter. Spokesman Beau Tidwell said the Mayor’s Office declined to comment in specifics.
“Due to pending litigation, the Mayor’s office is unable to make specific comment at this time. Mayor Cantrell has heard from the residents, and will fully explore the possibilities in working toward a positive resolution.”
The residents of Gordon Plaza are holding a rally on September 8, and a public walkthrough of the space to educate people about the state of their homes.
“I hope to make enough noise that it catches somebody’s attention,” Rainey said. “Even Donald Trump, it could catch his attention. We need everybody to know what’s going on in the city of New Orleans.”
The Rally for the Residents of Gordon Plaza starts at 10 a.m. on Saturday, September 8 at 3301 Press Street. More information can be found here.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Sept. 6, 2018, and has been updated to include information about the Gordon Plaza class-action lawsuit and information on issues that could arise from relocation.