“This is among the nation's greatest cities and greatest sorrows at the same time,'' said a resident who lost all his tangible possessions — but not his determination — in the horror of Hurricane Katrina.
James O'Byrne, an editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, spoke to 50 travel journalists meeting in his city earlier this month about the aftermath of the storm. It struck on Aug. 29, 2005, but the city is not yet close to recovering.
O'Bryne is a New Orleanian who estimates his personal debt from the storm at $300,000. You might expect him to face the rebuilding challenge.
But why is Michael Dion, a 61-year-old retiree from Ohio, making her way there a third time to help?
"I've been fortunate enough to meet a homeowner whose house we are working on, and that gratitude is enough to keep you going forever,'' she told me.
Dion, who worked in information technology for banks, first came here last year. She was among the nearly 250 people who paid to take part in Elderhostel groups joining the rebuilding effort. She was so moved she later drove herself to areas in Mississippi to help, then returned to New Orleans.
That second trip here, and then the one this month, were projects with AmeriCorps, the umbrella organization that annually channels about 70,000 volunteers into community-help projects.
Misery upon misery
I met Dion at 2028-30 St. Ann St., a century-old duplex in the Treme (tree-MAY) neighborhood of lower middle-class homes, northwest of the French Quarter.
Although this house is built four steps above the ground, it had 4 feet of floodwater inside.
Owner Victor Stripling fled the city to live in Baton Rouge, but his wife, at the time a hospital patient, died in the aftermath.
Stripling's story is typical of the misery created by Katrina. In addition to suffering his wife's death, he received no insurance money for his devastated house.
Determined to reclaim his home, Stripling, now 64, used a $40,000 loan from the Small Business Administration to have the roof and windows replaced and the exterior re-sided.
By then the casino maintenance worker was out of funds and was living in a trailer.
But unlike countless thousands of other displaced victims still out of their homes nearly 33 months after the storm, Stripling got a helping hand. He contacted the nonprofit organization Rebuilding Together.
With donations from national corporations and partnerships with organizations that include Habitat for Humanity, the AARP and the United Way, Rebuilding Together has pledged to rebuild 1,000 single-family homes.
In Stripling's case, assistant director Camille Lopez told me, after he proved he owned and had occupied his property — Rebuilding Together doesn't work on rentals — the organization solicited funds to complete the necessary work. From application to completion, it will have been about nine months.
'I felt this need . . .'
Among those putting the finishing touches on Stripling's house was Dion, the Ohio retiree. She had been dispatched there to help AmeriCorps volunteers like Cambria Martinelli, 25, of Boston. The AmeriCorps volunteers are donating a year of their lives to direct reconstruction efforts.
Dion is giving just a week at a time, though she estimates she spends more than $1,000 for her motel room, food and the gas to make the round-trip.
"I felt this need to help,'' she told me. "I'm single, and for about 20 years I've learned to maintain my home. Point me where you need something done, I'll do it.''
On this day she was pointed toward the reclaimed boards being used to create a fence around Stripling's back yard.
She hauled the lumber, then held it in place while petite Martinelli worked a nail gun to attach the boards to fence posts, or Dion supported the boards while Martinelli guided a circular saw to create even edges.
Dion also got on her knees to hammer a chisel against excess concrete in the post holes. She grabbed a brush to prime the boards for their coat of dark green paint.
Dion said that while "I'm not going to see this house completed, I can stand back and see that even a few days' work does make a difference.''
Recycling to preserve
Rebuilding Together, said Lopez, the assistant director, "is an outgrowth of a program to help seniors 'age in place' '' by renovating or repairing their homes.
A brochure says that in 20 years the organization has "restored and revitalized more than 100,000 homes across the country.''
When Katrina struck, Rebuilding Together's 30,000-square-foot warehouse was flooded, then looted of its supplies. Nonetheless, said Lopez, "The staff went from two to about 30, and we plan to go up to 50.
"Working five days a week in five neighborhoods, we target resurgent properties in areas that have both high poverty levels but also high ownership . . .
"We are working to keep people in their neighborhoods, to preserve the fabric.''
Often using recycled materials from demolished buildings — such as the interior boards used to fence Stripling's back yard — the group has rebuilt about 90 homes and is working on 30 more.
But in greater New Orleans there are thousands more to be reclaimed or rebuilt, plus hundreds of commercial properties.
Home surreal home
During a four-hour drive through the neighborhoods of New Orleans East, Lakeview, St. Bernard Parish and Gentilly, I could see block after block of vacant homes and abandoned shopping centers. Schools and churches were closed. A modern brick library was empty, its business conducted in a bookmobile on the sidewalk.
The buildings bear scary tattoos: By the front door is a large, spray-painted X, and in its various quadrants are dates when different groups of rescue workers inspected it for bodies. The bottom quadrant is the tell-tale: That space was reserved for the number of bodies discovered inside but not removed.
Closer to massive Lake Pontchartrain, which flowed through the broken levees, for block after block there are no homes, just their concrete pads surrounded by swaths of weeds.
A Six Flags amusement park is abandoned, its huge roller coaster and other thrill rides a bizarre reminder of what happens when you build on reclaimed swamp land.
Elsewhere, the city is dotted with freshly painted houses whose front yards have signs that proudly proclaim: We're Home!
But more often, next to the shell of a house being slowly refurbished, a small trailer is squeezed on the lot; this is where the homeowner lives during the reconstruction.
Poverty and scams
"When you see trailers,'' says tour guide Mary LaCoste, "it means hope — they are rebuilding.''
LaCoste, 75 and a native, now works as a guide on what the Gray Line brochure heralds as "Celebrate our Rebirth! . . . Hurricane Katrina Tour.''
She lived in the largely undamaged French Quarter but moved out of the city with relatives because there was no electricity for weeks.
"For over a century,'' LaCoste told my tour group, "New Orleans has been pretty poor. Katrina ripped the mask off our poverty.''
For many property owners, it was a matter of not having flood insurance. But many more reported being gouged by insurance companies whose claims adjusters made "drive-by'' damage inspections and then created outrageously low estimates upon which the checks were issued.
Tales of scams run by contractors, especially against the poor and elderly, are common. Almost daily, the Times-Picayune has articles about such problems.
Adding to the aggravation, said editor O'Byrne:
"If you got a federal relief grant under the program called Road Home, that was considered income, and it was taxed.''
Still defying belief
O'Byrne tried to put the current situation in perspective:
"You can easily drive for an hour to the east (of the bustling French Quarter) and not see an occupied house. "We are inured to it, until we take visitors who cannot believe this could be an American city in the 21st century . . .
"Perhaps 200,000 homes were lost. The magnitude of that disaster is not comprehensible. Nothing is on the scope of Katrina.
". . . To the extent that New Orleans has recovered, it is on the strength of the American people, not the American government. We have had help from church groups, student groups, help groups.
"But it is a government-level disaster. And far more members of Congress have been (to inspect) Iraq than to New Orleans, La . . .''
He began his presentation on the storm's aftermath with a powerful slide show. The first image was shot from a canoe:
O'Byrne, who stayed to help lead reporters in covering the aftermath, is shown in the canoe, facing a 1 1/2-story home, deep in floodwater.
"That was my house,'' he said. "I stepped from this canoe onto the roof of my front porch.''
After the slide show, he was impassioned during a recitation of how a resourceful group of journalists persevered when even police and firefighters couldn't use radios or cell phones.
Other people who had stayed despite the catastrophe sometimes put guns to the reporters' heads because they thought they might be looters.
O'Byrne voiced a comment the writers were to hear several times from city leaders:
"We need people to come visit and spend dollars. We need people to see we are still broken and must be made whole.''
He was passionate during his presentation and in answering questions, but by the end of his hour he conceded, "We face a national feeling of Katrina fatigue.''
Robert N. Jenkins can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8496.
Katrina, a Category 4 hurricane, passed just east of New Orleans, and the wind and extra water in Lake Pontchartrain created such pressure that huge gaps were torn in the substandard levees built over the course of 40 years by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Greater New Orleans comprises several parishes, or counties, and much of it is below sea level. A commonly used figure is that 80 percent of greater New Orleans was flooded. In some neighborhoods, water estimated at 8 feet deep stood for three weeks after Katrina.
Two years after the storm, the death toll for greater New Orleans was officially put at 1,464.
Two years after the storm, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that 300,000 people were still displaced, with an estimated 33,000 still living in FEMA-provided trailers. Earlier this year, high levels of formaldehyde in those trailers forced FEMA to relocate people to other temporary housing.
FEMA's Web site this month showed at least 50 schools still closed. More than 10,600 homes have been demolished, using FEMA funds, in the main parishes, with more than 4,700 still scheduled to be torn down.