Some things don’t hit home until you see them with your own eyes. For Lisa McCormick, it was standing on the banks of the Mississippi River in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, looking up at the levee walls that failed and nearly drowned a city during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The neighborhood has long been one of New Orleans’ poorest. When Katrina hit, the average resident survived on $16,000 a year. One out of every three residents lived below the poverty line — $9,570 that year.

Pulling on the thread of poverty in the Lower Ninth dredges up some of the city’s more ignoble past. When the city’s earliest settlers moved to New Orleans, they bought up the high ground, forcing poor residents, many of whom were free people of color, into the low-lying areas, according to a report from the Data Center. Zoning laws in the early 1900s kept black residents from living in white neighborhoods, and by the mid 1930s, federally backed lending maps almost exclusively designated the city’s black neighborhoods as “hazardous,” meaning residents could be refused a loan or other bank service based on their residence there.

The Lower Ninth produced a long record of health disparities within the neighborhood — something that intrigues McCormick, an associate professor in the department of environmental health sciences and the associate dean for public health practice. Laws and ordinances that prevented significant economic growth in majority-black neighborhoods also precluded residents from accumulating generational wealth, which would have enabled them to relocate to a more economically diverse neighborhood and access better health care and education.

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