NEW ORLEANS—A year ago, Hurricane Katrina wiped away Clement Richardson's apartment in New Orleans East. Today, he lives 11 miles away in a gleaming white government trailer in his parents' front yard. He's in a different neighborhood, but one equally devastated by the hurricane.
He's all alone in a place once teeming with people. His parents, 67 and 70 years old, aren't coming back. They're in Baton Rouge, sick of hurricanes, and his siblings are now in Nashville, Tenn. Richardson still plans to renovate the family house in the historic Holy Cross neighborhood in hopes that his daughter may live there someday.
On a sweltering morning in August, he pointed to the solitary street light that works on his block. "It's like an old Western town," he said. "No stores, no restaurants, no gas, no washeterias, nothing on this side of the bridge. Everything you know—your job, your house, your school, your friends—changes. Everything is gone. Everything."
Hundreds of thousands of lives are on hold throughout New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. One year after Katrina devastated the area on Aug. 29, huge swaths of the region are barely beyond the basic cleanup stage.
In neighborhood after neighborhood in New Orleans and adjoining St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, a few houses on a typical block may be gutted, the rancid furnishings and carpeting and walls dumped onto the curb as it's stripped to the studs and, perhaps, rebuilt.
But the majority of the estimated 78,000 New Orleans homes and apartments that were destroyed or severely damaged sit silent, their owners waiting for rebuilding money—or trying to decide whether they even want to rebuild. Progress in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes also is grim.
Special census workers walk through New Orleans knocking on doors in an effort to determine how many people live here now. In the most desolate neighborhoods, crews of out-of-state volunteers, clad in white mesh coveralls, descend on houses for gutting jobs that take a couple of days in the sweltering August sun.
Up U.S. 90 and into the Mississippi Gulf Coast towns of Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Gulfport and Biloxi, the half-mile-wide strip of destruction along the coast has largely been cleaned. Casinos have been the first to rebuild, and should provide financial lifeblood to the tattered coast. But what once were residential neighborhoods along the coast are nothing but slab foundations and barren landscapes. A sign on one flattened lot, next to a wind-tattered American flag, says, "Gone to the Virgin Islands."
People's attitudes are all over the map. Indeed, there is no one Katrina mindset. For example, many revile the Federal Emergency Management Agency as having an inept, slow, bureaucratic response after the storm. At the same time, plenty of people are quick to point to their small but blissfully cool trailers and say they're thankful for what FEMA has given them.
An estimated 350,000 people have yet to return to the area, and many—it's difficult to know how many—swear they never will. Then again, in a town fittingly called Triumph, which Katrina's eye passed through, Louisianans refuse to accept defeat, even if they still don't have a gas station or grocery stores to go to. Signs declaring "We're Back!" are everywhere.
Today, it's possible for a tourist to hit the hot spots of New Orleans and not really notice much amiss. The famed French Quarter is intact, although not quite as busy as it once was, and the charming Uptown area and the historic Garden District are functioning well. Mardi Gras and JazzFest drew crowds this year and gave the city an important psychological lift.
Parts of suburban New Orleans are bustling with rebuilding activity and overflowing with new residents. And there are small sparks of light in otherwise grim surroundings.
Not far from Richardson's trailer, the Holy Cross School football team practices in a field surrounded by empty houses. Team members were out in force the first week of August, despite the sight of their wrecked school in the background and the knowledge that they'll have to move midyear from the collection of classroom trailers parked near the practice field.
It'll be the fourth move since Katrina for the school, which nevertheless has retained about 60 percent of its students, many of whom undertake extensive commutes to get to class.
"This school is 127 years old and has a great tradition," head coach Barry Wilson said. "It's been difficult, but we're in good shape."
But overall the region is mired in despair and still only contemplating the prospect of rebuilding. Residents have been through bruising political battles, including a pivotal mayoral election in New Orleans, and have waited angrily as regional leaders dickered over rebuilding rules.
Residents suffer aggravations small and large. They drive miles out of their way for a cup of coffee or a bite from McDonald's. Their schools are still closed. They have to decide whether to keep paying the bank for houses they can't use.
They still live with the uncertainty, the chaos, the depression, even the strange smells of post-Katrina life. While the rest of the country has moved on, people in New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast can't avert their eyes to relieve Katrina fatigue.
"We've learned to wait and to be disappointed," said Mike LaFleur, the owner of Mike's Hardware in New Orleans' Gentilly neighborhood. "Before it was waiting for electricity, and then for insurance adjusters. Now it's cabinets and countertops. And it's not like you got 100 people waiting. It's 100,000."
As he closed up his store, which is doing a bang-up business but still has plywood covering the windows, LaFleur said, "We all thought we'd be a lot further along than we are."
His son Rob, who helps run the store, suspects that the true gravity of Katrina has escaped much of the country. "They saw the pictures from Mardi Gras and JazzFest and thought, `Oh, it's back to normal down there,'" he said. "It isn't."
One year after the storm, even the simple accounting of who was lost and of who remains isn't complete.
In the rural community of Hopedale, southeast of New Orleans in devastated St. Bernard Parish, Angel Chauppetta stood on the banks of a bayou and looked at the field of weeds that was once her father's home. She's spent a year searching for him, believing he's alive even after a 30-foot storm surge hit his fishing camp.
Charles Louis "Slim" Chauppetta, 63, a retired welder, hated the city, loved to fish and wasn't fond of running from hurricanes. When his son tried to fetch him a few hours before Katrina arrived, authorities had blocked the roads and declared the area already evacuated.
Angel Chauppetta didn't believe it. She said her dad was the type who would've hunkered down, possibly seeking refuge in a large, rusty water barrel near his camper. She thought the fury of Katrina so rattled his brain that he no longer knew who he was.
In the past year, Chauppetta, 40, has dug through debris, stomped through marshes, checked hospitals and shelters, and tapped into missing-persons databases.
"I know he wouldn't stay away from us a whole year if he was in his right mind," she said. She refused to accept any other explanation.
But now, her eyes teared up, her voice cracked and she admitted, "I'm not sure anymore."
The official death toll for Katrina is 1,695 people—1,464 in Louisiana, 231 in Mississippi—but that only hints at the true human cost. Like Chauppetta, many people have spent the last year searching for those who are considered missing. In Louisiana, the official number of missing is 135; in Mississippi, it's 18.
Many others have spent the last several months contending with the post-Katrina deaths: the suicides, for starters, but also the quiet deaths that won't ever show up in government statistics.
The Plaquemines Parish town of Venice is a fishing outpost near the mouth of the Mississippi River and known as "The End of the World." Michelle Collins spends her days cleaning rooms on an elaborate houseboat called the Lazy B that's leased by a famous Texas oilman.
A year ago, Collins, 48, and her mother Rita, 76, rode out the storm and eventually were rescued, in part with help from an old friend, Chester Cheramie. In the months that followed, her already-ailing mother was moved twice but never made it to her hometown. She died May 6 after a stroke.
"We were trying to get her back to Buras, but we never made it," Collins said. "It was the stress, not knowing where she was at. It killed her."
Then on July 22, Cheramie died of a heart attack—again due partly to stress, Collins thinks.
As John Alfone walked the streets of New Orleans, his voice got quiet. "There have been a lot of deaths, a lot we'll just never really know about," he said.
Alfone is part of the special census project involving state and federal agencies to get accurate population figures, and he was knocking on doors in the Uptown neighborhood.
At a house on Milan Street, Alfone rang the bell and knocked, then knocked, then rang again and then knocked again, loudly. "I think it's safe to say these people are not here," he said.
As for his own father, Alfone said: "It's a very gray area."
The elder Alfone was moved from his New Orleans hospital bed to one in Jackson, Miss., then to one in Houston and finally back to New Orleans. While the evacuations were handled well, the stress, John Alfone thinks, was too much. His father died in February.
The region also is dealing with a loss of a different kind: not death, but companionship, friendship, family, a sense of home.
In a swampy area about as far east as you can get in New Orleans, Gene Barousse looked up and down his two-lane road. "Most of these people are not coming back," he said. Of the 80 to 90 families once in his community, 12 remain, he said.
Although he's rebuilt his small house on a bayou, most of his road is in ruins—"There's a refrigerator on the roof there," he said—and his own brood of seven children has scattered with the Katrina winds.
In Mississippi's Katrina zone, the Rev. Elizabeth Wheatley is experiencing the same sense of loss at Christ Episcopal, a congregation without a church. In the once-quaint coastal community of Bay St. Louis, a 35-foot storm surge washed away the church. What stands there today: the original bell tower, which miraculously survived, a temporary building and a temporary Quonset hut.
Wheatley will rebuild. Just not now. "The cost for construction is outrageous," she said. Across the region people who can find construction workers must decide if they want to pay the currently inflated rates; in Wheatley's case, an extra 35 percent.
Of her parishioners, she said, "Nobody that lost their property has laid a foundation yet." From a base of 150 families, the church now has 60 to 70; of those, nearly three-quarters are in FEMA trailers.
The loss of community hits Frank Greene in a different way.
Stepping into his apartment is stepping into funky New Orleans at its best; vintage Mardi Gras posters cover the walls, local funk and blues legend Walter "Wolfman" Washington blasts from the stereo.
But Greene knows what it means to miss New Orleans: His little apartment is in Ville Platte, a quiet Louisiana town of 8,000, more than two hours from the Crescent City.
"The ambience of the city was lost. The energy, drained," said Greene, 63. "They say they want to bring it back, but that propaganda doesn't work for me. New Orleans died."
Even if he had the heart to go back, rents and crime are too high now; rent in the area is up 40 percent, according to the Brookings Institution, a public policy-research center. Greene quit his job as a cook, applied for Social Security, found part-time work in Ville Platte and joined the New Orleans diaspora, tens of thousands of people scattered from Houston to Atlanta.
Earlier this year, Greene threw a Mardi Gras ball for his new town, featuring jazz, gin, fried chicken and red beans with rice. Fifteen people showed up.
"We'll organize better next year," he said.
For those who are staying, and who are trying to rebuild, daily life can be a source of annoyances, small and large.
At a FEMA trailer camp near St. Roch's cemetery in New Orleans, a mobile clinic rolled to a stop. Keisha Green dashed to its door, her family in tow.
"I need help," she told a nurse aboard the clinic, operated by St. Anna's Episcopal Church. Green's 14-year-old son needed treatment for an asthma flare-up and a foot rash. Her mother was overdue for blood-pressure and blood-sugar checks. Her aunt's headaches wouldn't stop.
Before Katrina, Green's family had counted on Charity Hospital. But it's gone—destroyed and not rebuilt—as are hundreds of city doctors.
These days, the Green family gets up at 4 a.m. and stands outside another clinic, run by Operation Blessing; fewer than 100 patients in the first-come-first-served line will be seen on any given day.
Beyond medical establishments, New Orleanians must contend with the loss of public schools (only 29 percent are open), bus routes (only 49 percent are operating) and child-care centers (only 23 percent are open), according to an index of Katrina statistics compiled by the Washington-based Brookings Institution. Everybody has insurance hassles to deal with or FEMA stories to tell.
Mary and Jack Badinger, for example, are still begging FEMA for a trailer to replace their home in St. Bernard Parish.
"My husband applied in September and we've called every two weeks," Mary Badinger said.
On the other side of New Orleans, in the suburb of Kenner, Shountiliz Williams can't get rid of a trailer that FEMA delivered last November.
"We've been calling FEMA every day since May," Williams said. "My husband even offered to have it moved himself if they would tell him where to bring it."
So far, FEMA has provided more than 100,000 trailers to families displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which hit the area four weeks after Katrina. Another 10,000 Louisiana families are still waiting for trailers, often because of problems with utilities or site access, according to FEMA's New Orleans office. A complication in the Badingers' case is that Mary Badinger is blind and may need special equipment. FEMA recently contracted with additional companies to pick up the pace of delivering and removing trailers.
Even things that have nothing to do with FEMA or the hassles of rebuilding have changed the lives of Katrina's victims in small ways. Emma Suggs, 44, lives in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, and she's on edge during the latest hurricane season.
"For one thing, I'm emptying my freezer," she said.
Suggs never again wants to see maggots like the ones that invaded her freezer during the weeks her family's house stood without power last fall. She never again wants to experience the stench of rotten shrimp.
Her freezer is spotless.
For many, the decision about whether to rebuild damaged, waterlogged houses is on hold. Homeowners are waiting out this hurricane season or for final government rebuilding rules or to see if they qualify for a new federal grant program.
In the shattered town of Buras, south of New Orleans, fisherman Dewell Walker is almost paralyzed with indecision over whether to rebuild his gutted, lopsided home. He knows he could simply give it up to the junkyard.
"I've got people waiting around for me to say, `OK, I give up,'" Walker said. He estimates that hurricane-debris haulers would clear $10,000 for carting away his home.
Before the storm, Walker, 48, crabbed each season with his fleet of 11 boats. "Now I've got pieces of about six," he said.
Many, many others are soldiering on. The number of building permits issued in New Orleans since the storm is up to 38,594, according to Brookings' figures, although it's hard to know how many of those people are actively rebuilding.
In the downtown New Orleans building-permit office, it isn't unusual to see the line of permit seekers "wrap up and down the hallways," office clerk Olicier Hills said.
Homeowners face a controversial Aug. 29 deadline to clean, gut and board up their buildings or have them declared public nuisances. If they're named nuisances, officials then can take steps ranging from sanctions and liens to eminent domain and demolition.
Those who are rebuilding often go about it with a sense of mordant humor. They are, after all, rebuilding in a city that, whatever its charms, lies below sea level, protected only by a levee system that was too weak before Katrina and is a long way from being upgraded to withstand even more powerful storms.
From his back yard, Douglas Doyle, a lieutenant in a suburban sheriff's office, stood in the shadow of a massive 17th Street Canal levee wall that failed and caused some of the worst of Katrina's flooding. He pointed to the back wall of his house.
"I'm putting French doors in there, so at least I can see the water coming this time," he quipped.
The area's rebuilding is slowed by unprecedented demands on construction workers and the difficulty of making the city's homes higher off the ground than they once were. To continue to qualify for flood insurance, many people will have to jack up their homes a few to several feet.
In Gentilly, Terrell Duncan pointed to a black mark on a light pole in front of a house on St. Roch Avenue. "That's the elevation we're shooting for," he said. "This house will be raised 8 feet."
His crew will place beams under the house horizontally and use jacks to raise it, 5 inches at a time. Once it's at the new height, concrete walls will be erected to serve as a foundation.
For those swept up in rebuilding, the excitement is overwhelming.
Sandy Holmes, a 13-year veteran blackjack dealer at the Isle of Capri Casino in Biloxi, said that when all the casinos reopened 12,000 jobs would return to residents of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Some already have reopened in neon splendor, and one will open Aug. 29, exactly a year after Katrina came ashore.
"It's like having your life back, bringing your world back," said Holmes, 60.
Wayne Fischbein almost has his world back.
Last Sept. 5, Fischbein and his wife stared at their two-bedroom house trapped in Katrina's fetid floodwaters. "I was at the bottom," he said. "I was depressed. My attitude changed."
He was driven to rebuild, as were most in his suburban Metairie neighborhood. Today he drives through his neighborhood and counts houses: 20 or more are in the midst of rebuilding, 12 have been torn down and five more will be torn down. In this area, the tear-downs will be replaced by bigger, grander homes.
From his front-yard FEMA trailer, Fischbein pulled out a computer spreadsheet that detailed rebuilding costs to date: $93,043.15. Insurance has paid, or is expected to pay, about $79,000. He has a house that's "98 percent new"—and virtually done. As soon as the electricity and air conditioning came on two weeks ago, he plopped down a mattress in a bedroom. He's waiting for the house to be finished before he brings the rest of his furniture.
"It's close—it's so close," he said. "I want to sleep in my own bed in my own house. I want to learn the new squeaks in my house."
His target date is Aug. 29.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060818 KATRINA update, 20060818 KATRINA map, 20060818 KATRINA Miss
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