[27 August 2007]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
NEW ORLEANS—His storm survival story is chilling: As the floodwaters unleashed by Hurricane Katrina swirled and rose around his Lower Ninth Ward home, Robert Green, his three granddaughters, his mother and two other family members clung to their roof as it floated for blocks. His mother, already ailing, died on that roof. His 3-year-old granddaughter fell from it and disappeared under the water.
Green, 52, went to Nashville afterwards, staying there for months. He could have stayed there forever. He chose to come back. He is trying to rebuild his house and his tax business and his neighborhood.
“It’s really important to me to have what was,” said Green, sitting in the tiny FEMA trailer parked where his home once stood. His trailer, and the neighboring one housing his 62-year-old mentally handicapped cousin, are among a handful of inhabited dwellings amidst the overgrown weeds, empty lots and remaining rubble of lives past. That’s fine, he said.
“It may seem like it’s lonely, but sometimes I get tired of the company coming by,” he said. “I’m not afraid to be down here. I’m home.”
Two years have passed since Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, making a mockery of the human engineering designed to keep the city of New Orleans safe. Rebuilding has been slow—even now, visitors who see the devastated city for the first time say that it seems as if nothing has changed.
But there has been progress: Where once entire blocks were empty, new construction and trailers dot the landscape like random teeth in a gummy grin. Blocks of destroyed homes have been razed.
Each day, more businesses are reopening. A recent drive through devastated Lakeview found new restaurants, retail stores, and services devoted, fittingly, to home remodeling and repair.
Still, it is a difficult place to live. Devastated blocks are constant, depressing reminders of the storm. The city’s leadership—oft-questioned before the storm and further shaken by the recent news that a well-respected councilman had accepted bribes—struggles to rebuild its infrastructure. One must generally travel farther to find a grocery store or a drycleaner or a gas station.
And rebuilding is hampered by bureaucracy, both private industry and government. Those trying to come back have harrowing tales of complex paperwork, multitudes of phone calls, hours waiting in lines to get the permits or money needed to rebuild. Then there’s the struggle to find qualified builders, plumbers, roofers, electricians.
It can be a nightmare, most agree. Green estimates he devotes at least 10 hours a day meshed in this web, both for himself and to help neighbors. He says he isn’t frustrated or depressed. “Frustrated is not going to do any good,” he said. “For me, this is home.”
And no, he doesn’t mind that when he looks out his back window, blocks of houses have been replaced by weeds so tall that they reach his head.
“It’s green,” he said. “You should have seen it after the storm, when it was brown and flat. Green means it’s going to grow.”
Not everyone is willing to put in the effort, emotional and physical, that’s needed to live in New Orleans 2007.
Fred Valdez moved to the city from Austin, Texas, for work reasons five months ago. He was supposed to stay until December. He’s ready to leave now.
“I’ll be surprised if I last another month,” said Valdez, 38, who rents a house in Lakeview, a neighborhood near Lake Pontchartrain and the breached 17th Street Canal. “It’s very depressing to be down here.”
He ticks off a list of complaints: Crime is a constant fear. Grocery prices are higher than usual. Rental property is hard to come by and rents are high. Roads are pock-marked and hard to negotiate.
“It’s what I expected after a major hurricane. It’s not what I expected two years after a major hurricane,” he said.
And the populace, Valdez believes, is just as damaged as the infrastructure. “I think Katrina really took a toll on them, and they’re really emotionally distressed, and a lot of these people don’t even know it.”
As Valdez sees it, the city has little to offer residents. “Yeah, you can drink and go through a drive-through and get a beer and take it to go, but there’s nothing else in the city that attracts,” he said.
Lakeview resident Mike Hennessey, a New Orleans lifer, has a completely different take on things. He’s rebuilding his house and constructing a rental property next door. Things have moved slowly, he said; he’s the only one he knows who has received a grant from the Road Home—a program to help residents rebuild—but some of that was to be expected.
“It was a helluva event,” Hennessey, 49, said of the storm. “We realize it’s a long-term deal. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s only two years and we’re talking five, 10, 15 years. It’s frustrating, but you know it’s going to take time.”
He points to various properties around his. “There’s people living over here, there are the guys on the corner, somebody’s building a new house over there, that’s progress.”
He suspects that most of America has forgotten about the devastation. In part, he can understand that. A lot is going on in the world, headlines are fleeting, televised shots of the New Orleans Superdome seem to imply that all is normal in the Big Easy.
“It really takes away from the suffering of people down here,” he said. “And people are really suffering.”
In the days, weeks and months after Katrina, houses became message boards, with words and numbers scrawled in paint on their walls so residents and rescuers could communicate with each other.
Searchers marked almost every house with a large X, filling its four quadrants with numbers and letters to indicate when they’d searched the dwelling and if anyone had died inside. They left messages—“Two cats dead inside” and “Dog under house”—for those who would come after them.
Displaced homeowners marred their once-pristine outer walls with names and phone numbers so friends could find them as they scattered across the country in the storm’s aftermath.
Many of those sloppily painted messages remain, signs of how much the city has suffered, signs of how much work still needs to be done.
On Forstall Street in the Lower Ninth Ward, a blue and black cry for help mars a salmon-colored cinderblock house: “Asking for donation to rebuild ... Please help,” along with a phone number. The message has been there at least a year.
A few blocks away, three blue words are painted on the back of a yellow-brick house: “This was HOME.”
But there are other, newer signs in the mix. Many are reminiscent of real estate “For Sale” signs, stuck in yards on spindly metal legs or posted in windows. They are signs of defiance or determination, usually varying by neighborhood:
“Hold the Corps Accountable!” is one common refrain.
“Broadmoor Lives,” proclaims a banner in that Uptown neighborhood.
“We’re Back!” reads a sign in Lakeview.
And the one message that is seen throughout the city: “We are rebuilding. We are New Orleans. We are coming home.”
(Natalie Pompilio is a special correspondent for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)