In a rented home off Kennedy Boulevard, Jim Ward painted the green dining room his wife's favorite wine red.
He built a French Quarter-style courtyard out back with a $9 fountain installed among ferns surrounded by curved concrete benches and a rusty bistro set.
He set up the little Christmas village he rescued - the 70 miniature houses, figurines and tiny trains whose plastic containers floated like rafts when 9 feet of water swamped Ward's St. Bernard Parish home during Hurricane Katrina.
The comforting reminders of the past in New Orleans mingled with optimism about the future. Ward, his wife and his children found jobs, and the family planned to stay.
Then the mortgage company called.
Now debt is like an anchor chaining Ward to his past. Like thousands of others with homes wrecked by Katrina, he is finding that the house he thought of as an asset is limiting his freedom to start anew.
After months in which the mortgage lender allowed Ward to delay payments on his home, the grace period is ending. Ward, a hairstylist with four children, can't afford to pay double for housing. And for this man with a strong sense of obligation, walking away from a mortgage or declaring bankruptcy is out of the question.
"I can't. I was brought up to pay your bills," said Ward, 49, whose low-maintenance shag covers a gaunt, tough face. "That's the way it is."
So next month, he will move back to St. Bernard Parish, into a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer or temporary housing, rebuilding a shell of a home with rising debt.
In St. Bernard Parish, about 98 percent of the parish's 25,000 homes suffered water damage from Katrina. Flood insurance covered only one in four of those homes, a parish official said. In New Orleans, the number of flooded, uninsured homes is even higher, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.
"I was in a no-flood zone, and you could put that in big letters," Ward said. "It was not required."
Had Katrina struck the Tampa Bay area, it is likely that many Floridians would have found themselves in the same shoes, according to FEMA, which estimated that 1.9-million state homeowners carry flood insurance, despite many more homes being susceptible.
"There are very few areas in Florida, save in the very far northern reaches of the state, that are immune from flooding in a catastrophic hurricane as we saw in 2005," FEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney said. "I would say most areas in the state are at risk."
For months, lenders have struggled with how to deal with people in the Gulf Coast who can't live in their home but still owe on their mortgage. Many suspended mortgage payments at the urging of the government, which is wrestling with several aid plans, including buying out homeowners.
"There's no question the federal government should step in and rebuild New Orleans, and part of that is making homeowners who lost their houses whole," said Bruce Dorpalen, housing counseling director for the nonprofit Acorn Housing, which has helped 1,600 Katrina evacuees.
But until a plan passes, mortgage companies and banks are in limbo, said Peter Gwaltney, head of the Louisiana Bankers Association.
"Lenders are bending over backward to be flexible," Gwaltney said.
He said he isn't aware of any foreclosures in New Orleans.
"Sitting and waiting may be in the best interest" of everyone, including the lenders, he said. But not all companies are willing to wait.
Wachovia Mortgage Corp. froze Ward's mortgage for six months after Katrina. The government, which called for a "stop the clock" on payments, never intended for lenders to back-charge homeowners, Gwaltney said.
But Wachovia called Ward several weeks ago and told him he should start making payments again or tell the company why he couldn't. He needed to make up for lost time, too, and pay a lump $4,500 or add $450 a month to his mortgage payments for a year, Ward said.
If he needs more time, Wachovia spokesman Kevin Bezner said, the company continues to grant and extend breaks for needy homeowners.
"But the way it's working, I would just have to pay more," Ward said. "It's pay now or pay later. Pay later and owe more."
He said he will apply for a Small Business Administration low-interest loan to repair his home. He will pay back the missed mortgage payments with FEMA housing money and borrow from a friend.
He would rather be mired in debt than ruin his credit by walking away.
"My wife and I have worked 20 years to get where we're at," Ward said. "I can't start over."
Ward was a foster child who was raised by a fisherman. He can fix a lot of things. But for 31 years, he has been a hairdresser, an occupation he chose because he loves women and stuck with because he likes seeing a smile when he "spins someone in that mirror." He has worked for Fantastic Sams for more than half of his career.
He saves as well as he shaves. He thinks $20 jeans are overpriced.
His family of six rarely spends more than $40 eating out. Weekly grocery runs come in for less than $75. He lived in three mobile homes before he could afford his first and only house.
"Some people would call me cheap," he said. "I made enough money to buy a house and live quite comfortably."
Ward's 1,500-square-foot, three-bedroom ranch home is 10 minutes from where he grew up. It lies near the Mississippi River and a pecan grove in a blue-collar parish where two oil refineries employed many. It cost $55,000 and had doubled in value before the storm.
For most of his life, Ward bought with cash, pooling together a few hundred dollars for a used Chevrolet Cavalier or a retired cab.
Two years ago, he bought his first new vehicle: A 2004 Ford F-150.
"My mom and dad said if you got to buy something on credit, you pay it off," Ward said.
He was on his way. But Katrina just sank him further into debt.
He nearly maxed out his emergency credit card paying for three days of hotel rooms and food in Memphis after the family fled St. Bernard Parish.
They moved into a friend's Louisiana home temporarily. Ward wanted to get to Tampa, where his father-in-law lived, but he was broke. He figured the trip would cost $300. He prayed, and the next day, an anonymous donor left the family $300 in an envelope.
The family made it to Tampa on $311.
Within two weeks, everyone had work. Restaurants hired son Jeffery, 22, and daughter Maggie, 19. Kane's Furniture hired son Sheldon, 21. Donovan, 17, enrolled in school.
Fantastic Sams offered Ward a permanent position. He quickly developed loyal customers who call him "Jimbo."
Catholic Charities gave Ward a part-time maintenance job and made his wife, Janet, 42, a caseworker.
"I'm telling you, there's a reason we're here," Ward said. "I could very well stay here, had it not been for my house, believe me."
On a shelf above the VCR in Tampa are family pictures re-created from relatives' copies, "because ours were lost," Ward said.
The living room centerpiece is a teak wood mirror that Ward salvaged from his old bathroom.
He found used couches, installed ceiling fans, painted the kitchen wall to match the counter and bought a household of furnishings from a condominium owner.
But the past still has a hold on him.
Outside on the back patio, Ward dug in a plastic tub to retrieve some artifacts of his former life.
"This was my $200 faucet, and I said I'm taking it one way or the other.
"My son's first baseball glove.
"This was my dad's," he said of a bowling plaque celebrating a 1965 "all spare" game. "It'll never be worth anything but to me.
"These are tiles from my pool."
Ward had hoped to make a table out of the blue remnants. Now he planned to take them back to the parish and dive back into the mess he left.
A few weeks ago, Ward and three relatives gutted the home. Out came the flooring, cabinets, stove, carpet, fridge and toilets. Victorian statues? Gone. His father's World War II uniform? Couldn't be saved.
"Throwing them in a big pile as big as this place and as tall, covering the front of your house," Ward said, opening his arms.
After that, Ward and his wife debated moving back to St. Bernard Parish.
There were many questions: Is the house fixable? Will it sell someday? Will the levees hold?
"I'm getting misty right now because it gets to you. I'm 12 hours away. I don't know if someone is in there burning my house," Ward said. "I don't know what's going to happen when I get there."
But he takes solace in a few things. His faith in God, and the fact that he has already lived in a mobile home, which will help when his family's quality of life sinks into a FEMA trailer.
He thought back to how, after he gutted the house, he sat on his patio, had a glass of water and smoked a cigarette. Wind blew through, and the eye-burning stench disappeared. An empty canvas appeared. A wall could be moved. The den could be reconfigured. Ward saw hope.
"I see a light, and it's the only light I see."