I have spent a lot of time on this assignment doing follow-up interviews with Katrina victims that I had met in September and October. Before I came down I made up a long list of people to track down and see how they had fared as they rebuild their lives. In nearly all cases I was heartened by what I found. Katrina’s victims are coming back with a determination and positive attitude. Here are four of their stories.
Raggs’ former home in Slidell
I returned to Slidell to see how the renovation of Debbie Dickinson’s apartment complex was coming. She evacuated following Katrina and has relocated to Westbrook, Maine, where she has settled well into the community. I did a story on her and her Katrina travails and brought her cat Raggs back with me to Portland in October. She and Raggs have become good friends with my wife and I there. Debbie has adjusted well to the move, although the transition from Louisiana’s mild climate to the deep snows of Maine has been a challenge, especially for Raggs.
I found Slidell well on its way to recovery. Schools have reopened, the mayor and city officials have moved back into city hall, and stores are open. Where there were boarded up and dark store fronts in September and the only traffic on the street were National Guard humvees, now it is hard to find a place to park in some of the shopping malls. Lumber yards and hardware stores, as would be expected, are doing a land-office business.
I pulled into the Pine Terrace Apartments in Slidell where Debbie had lived. Since my last visit to the apartment complex in October much has been done to clean up and rebuild after a 26 foot storm surge flooded and ruined all the first floor apartments. They have all been gutted and rebuilt. The paint on the new drywall shown in the morning light, and crews were putting down tile and carpet. The mountains of debris at the roadside were now all gone, and most of the second floor apartments were rented. Housing is still in short supply in Slidell.
”Can you tell me where Deborah Dickinson’s apartment was?” I asked one of the workers at the apartment. “I’m a friend of hers from Maine.”
”Do you know Debbie?” asked the man. “I’m Clifford Wilson, the manager, and I have been trying to get in contact with her. I don’t know where she is living now, and I have her rent deposit to return to her.”
I pulled out my cell phone and dialed Debbie’s number in Maine, and gave the phone to Wilson. “Here she is,” I said. “You can talk with her directly.”
They had a warm and friendly exchange, Wilson got her address and promised to get her deposit check to her right away. He then showed me her apartment and I could picture her wading into the rising storm waters and pulling 8 dogs and 3 cats to safety. Debbie is one of my heroes for all that she did during Katrina.
Recovery in Gentilly
I first met Kyra Griffith and her 2-year old daughter Danielle at a Red Cross Point of Distribution (POD) set up at the Laurel Street Elementary in the Garden District when parts of New Orleans were reopened for returning residents. I did a story on her return to their home in Gentilly and their plans to rebuild after the nine feet of water had flooded their entire neighborhood. They were evacuated by boat when the levees failed.
Kyra and her husband Dion are renting a “shotgun” house south of Rampart in the Garden District while they work on their house. Dion works for the city of New Orleans and in his spare time he has gutted out the interior of their house and thrown out all their furniture, carpet, walls and everything to the bare studs. They have finally received their FEMA trailer. It has been set up in the front yard, but it is not yet hooked up to the power lines so they cannot live there.
”We’re waiting to see what the structural inspector says about our house,” Dion said. “When I pulled up the carpet I found a crack in the foundation, and we can’t go any further with rebuilding until it is looked at. If it is real bad we won’t be able to rebuild and will have to tear the whole house down. We had homeowners insurance and flood insurance, and insurance on the two cars we lost, but it is not going to be enough to replace all that Katrina took.”
He explained that the wiring in the house will all have to be replaced, and a good part of the plumbing will need replacing as well. Then all the dry wall, ceilings and floors will be installed new, and they will need to replace all their furniture. Dion and Kyra are taking these difficult steps one at a time. In the meantime they have also completely renovated the “shotgun” house they are living for the landlord in return for rent.
”But we have to start paying rent here next month,” Kyra said. “The rent on this place plus the mortgage on our Gentilly home are a double burden, and we’re not sure if the city is going to have another round of layoffs that might affect Dion’s job. The company I worked for has gone out of business and I’ve lost my job.”
They are also expecting their second child this summer. They love their neighborhood and have three generations of family in the New Orleans area, and want to stay and rebuild. But they have decided to wait before dipping into their savings until several issues are resolved – their building inspection, his job security, and also the next hurricane season.
”We want to see what the next hurricane season brings, and how well the repaired levees hold up.”
The Griffiths are not alone in being cautious. I talked to a number of families who want to come back but are waiting until the other shoe (or shoes) drops.
A Tulane student comes home
Arden Stetzel was on vacation out of New Orleans when Katrina hit. She stayed with her mother and father in Sebago, Maine until it was safe for her and her two cats to return to their French Quarter apartment. I had seen her apartment in September in the period before residents were allowed back into the city, and her landlord was busy repairing mold-damaged walls and furnishings ruined from water that had leaked down from holes in roofing caused by Katrina’s wind.
Her apartment is now bright and newly repaired, showing none of the damage from the storm. She has returned to Tulane University to complete her degree program, and is working at a hotel on Bourbon Street as a bartender. We had lunch in the Orleans Restaurant on Bourbon one day and over one of the best oyster po-boys I’ve ever had she told me her story.
Arden is now dealing with her third bout with the “Katrina Cough”, or “Katrina Crud” that nearly everyone in the city picks up if they are here long enough. Medical care is still hard to get, there are long delays in seeing a doctor, and she is frustrated at how slow the basic medical services are returning.
She loves New Orleans, but will probably not stay in the city once she gets her degree. In the meantime, however, she is committed to the city and its recovery.
A Metairie neighborhood returns
Tom and I first met Debbie Fox in Denham Springs, right after she had returned from receiving her Red Cross debit card at a financial service sites set up with the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. She is an elementary school teacher and had evacuated from her home in Metairie just before Katrina. The home was flooded with about a foot of water.
While her husband Pat held down the fort at home she was living in a hotel in Denham Springs with her elderly aunt and uncle, her mother, and her daughter and the daughter’s boyfriend. When school opened in early October she commuted the 90 miles each way to her schools in Jefferson Parish.
I met Debbie and Pat at their home in a neat subdivision south of Lafrenier Park, about 2 1/3 miles south of Lake Ponchetrain. “We’re easy to find,” Debbie said. “We have the third FEMA trailer on our block.”
She showed me through their FEMA trailer parked on their front lawn, and then through their house. Although the flooding had only been about a foot deep the black mold had taken hold and grown up the walls four feet or more throughout the house, and they had to strip out all the drywall back to bare studs and redo everything. Carpet and tile were ruined.
”Hurricane Betsey made a believer out of me,” Debbie said. “We were all evacuated to the Municipal Auditorium then (now the Convention Center) and I will never do that again.”
As soon as the weather stations started predicting Katrina was heading towards New Orleans she went on line and made reservations for all of her family at a hotel further inland out of the hurricane’s path. The closest hotel she could find was in Dayton, Texas. They left on the Friday before Katrina hit on the following Monday.
”Everyone needs to be responsible for themselves,” she said. “They shouldn’t depend on help from the government. They should have a hurricane plan and don’t wait for the last minute.”
This area west of New Orleans was not too badly hit by Katrina and they were able to come back to their home about two weeks after the hurricane hit. They worked on the house in the weekends, commuting from the Baton Rouge area, until they were able to get a FEMA trailer and move back to work on their house full time. At the same time, Pat had to rebuild his business. He owns Performance Subaru of New Orleans and suffered $1.2 million in losses. Survivors camped out in his building for several days until rescued, and there was considerable damage from the flooding and from vandalism. He has reopened in a smaller building next door and is rebuilding the business.
”All of our neighbors have come back, 100% of them,” Debbie said. “This is a good, solid community and we love it here.”
These four stories of Katrina returnees are typical of the scores of people I’ve talked with on this assignment, and all reflect a pioneer spirit that is admirable. They are dealing with adversity with their own two hands. There are others, of course, who still expect the government or someone to come forward and hand them their recovery on a platter, but these were in a very significant minority.