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Life in Post-katrina New Orleans

Sunday, January 20, 2008 | Day 1

If you look carefully at this picture, you'll notice the back end of an airplane sitting in the backyard of this flood-house in New Orleans.

Yeah... it's real alright. We could hardly believe what we were seeing. But as I'm learning... that's more the norm than the exception down here.

Everyone's home is a disaster site. Over half of the city of New Orleans was flooded. Tiny homes that should have been condemned years ago. Elegant homes with swimming pools in their backyards. Brick homes. Wood homes. Stucco homes. And middle class homes.

It's been two and a half years since The Storm. There are new trash piles on the sidewalks here and there, evidence of people who are just beginning the re-building process inside their home. They're the exception. Most haven't started yet. Some have moved far away. They're never coming back. The trama has been too much to handle. Some are still trying to get money to rebuild--from insurance companies, the government, and FEMA. Others are rebuilding, one weekend at a time.

I ran into "Mike" on Sunday as we were walking the street. His home is near the 17th street canal, where the pressure finally broke through and swept several homes off their foundations and piled them up like toy houses against one another. We saw the pictures on TV in the first days of The Storm. It was a famous "levy break," next to the huge pumps that failed after the power grid shut down. As luck would have it, his house was to the side of the break, and only slowly filled up with water as the area flooded. He's been working on his home now for eight months. The end is getting close. He'd like to lay off a little and take a break. He's getting too old for this. But his wife keeps coming to check on him, and if he hasn't made enough progress, she gets after him. He'd rather keep her happy, so he works constantly. The master bathroom is next. Then he and his wife can move back in.

That would normally be a happy occasion. And it is. But there's a down side. Most of their neighbors will not have returned yet. So, they'll be living in their newly rebuilt home, but have few if any neighbors.

That's what Bruce and Heidi have experienced too since they've moved back into their house in Chalmette. We met them--along with their 14 year-old son, James--over dinner at their church on Sunday, after attending the 10:30 service. Heidi guessed that maybe one-third of her neighbors have returned. The other two-thirds are either living elsewhere, waiting to see.... Or, have moved away for good. Or are in the process of getting loans and money to rebuild.

Before The Storm Heidi said that all of her extended family lived within five minutes of each other. Now, the closest one lives an hour away. Another lives in Texas. It's just not the same. But they're back here because... well, this is home. "Home" is a tough thing to shake off. It's more heart than head. Which helps explain why on earth people would insist on moving back to a city that lies below sea level and is a sitting duck for something of similar magnitude.

I sat across from Althea too. She's in her late 70's. A tough, proud lady. We talked about the city, the Mayor, the government response, racism, the culture of The South. Althea was born in the 1920's and so segregation was just "the way it was." Something she grew up with. She didn't know any different. She said she respected black people, but they were not equal to whites. Now, things have changed. For the better, she says. She knows in her heart that slavery and racism isn't right, but it's so ingrained it's hard to change even when you want to. She believes that two more generations will have to die off before the old racist-ways die out. She already sees a much different attitude in her grandchildren. "They don't even see color," she said.


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