NEW ORLEANS — Kenny Charbonnet saw a hurricane turn his beloved city into a bug-infested swamp with floating mounds of rotting trash and houses buried in sewage. He knew then he had to flee — just as he knows now he has to come back.
"There needs to be someone to reclaim this city," he says. "That's going to be me."
Tens of thousands of survivors of Hurricane Katrina forced out of New Orleans are now scattered around the country, pining for their lost city and counting the days until the floodwaters have receded, the lights are on and they can begin their journey home.
"I'm homesick," says Charbonnet, a 57-year-old lawyer who longs for the sweet smell of honeysuckle and his morning coffees with friends. "I miss the camaraderie. I miss the daily routine. A lot of things that you take for granted are just gone. I have no doubt that it's coming back. ... I'm not giving up on New Orleans."
New Orleans residents have long histories
It's far too soon to know how many Katrina refugees will start over here, but history has shown this is a resilient city of people with fierce loyalties and deep roots — some can trace their families back five or six generations to the days when the French and Spanish ruled New Orleans.
"You look around the U.S. and the nature of the people who settled in New Orleans is such that you couldn't go to another part of the country and find that mixture," says Paul Farmer, executive director of the American Planning Association. "That's one reason the ties are so strong."
Many people believe New Orleans will be much smaller — at least, at first — and the poor will have the hardest time finding their way back. But family bonds will be a powerful lure. And others will simply want to live again in a city filled with so many intoxicating sights, sounds and smells: the drooping live oaks that canopy the broad avenues, the romantic cast-iron balconies, the spicy jambalaya and crawfish etouffee, the brassy jazz, the let-the-good-times-roll attitude.
"It's a haven for bohemian free spirits," says Carlos Adame, a New Orleans resident eager to return to that world as soon as he can. "People are not afraid of saying what they want. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone has a story to tell."
Adame is one of the lucky ones — his house wasn't damaged, so he can rebound quickly, unlike so many thousands who lost everything but the clothes on their backs.
New Orleans native: ‘My soul belongs there’
Lore McPeek, too, will be able to settle into her century-old double shotgun house spared by the storm. She wants to sing again in her gospel choir, Shades of Praise, dine once more on mussels fondue and butternut squash soup, reopen her manicure shop and tend to her country garden.
"I just know that my soul belongs there," says McPeek, who is staying at her sister's home in New Jersey with her husband and their two sons.
McPeek's husband, Robert, is a contractor, so there likely will be months, even years of work for him in a city where thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed.
Lack of work driving people away
But others won't find job prospects nearly as inviting.
Bru Bruser, a bassist whose group In'Stankt had a following in clubs along Frenchmen Street, says even though he'd love to stay, he's worried there won't be enough gigs to survive. So he's thinking about relocating, maybe to Atlanta, New York or Austin, Texas.
"It was a wonderful place to live," Bruser says wistfully. "I never planned on leaving. I had the best job I ever had. I had the best fans I ever had. Things had been getting better and better."
Bruser recently renovated a 105-year-old house and converted a shed into a music studio on the ground floor in his back yard, which is now flooded. He's not sure about his home, but if it's badly damaged or his treasured musical instruments have been looted, he says he doesn't have the heart, the energy — or the money — to rebuild.
"I don't think I'm ready to get my hands that dirty again," he says. "I'd rather be making music."
Jazz lovers expected to return
Jason Berry, an author who has written a history of New Orleans music and is working on a book about the history of jazz funerals in the city, thinks there will be a "great sentimental rush" of people coming back but he's unsure of his own future.
"I love that city with a passion that is indescribable," he says. "I have great doubts about returning. Look, there's a whole question about how many of these houses can be restored. There are environmental and toxicity issues. ... Do we want to go back to a place that's been poisoned? ... You think I'm going to go back because the Bush EPA says, 'We've cleaned it up'?
There's yet one more reason that may keep some people away — money.
Many of the poor may find better jobs and housing where they've found temporary homes.
But Marie Taylor, a barmaid who lived in an efficiency apartment above Glady's Bar, insists she'll be back. She fondly remembers the lush trees that lined Saratoga Street and her regulars who came in for turkey necks on Mondays, fried catfish on Tuesdays and pork chops on Wednesdays.
"It was old school," she says from her new temporary home in the Houston Astrodome. "Everybody knew everybody. It's all we knew. ... I miss it a lot."
Returning with a new perspective
Randall Mitchell, a self-styled minister staying with his two children in Dayton, Texas, is also yearning to go home.
"I'm not a coward," he says. "I'm not going to run from what happened in New Orleans. I think everyone who is living was spared by God to get the benefit of rebuilding the city. I think the spirit of New Orleans will change. I think the 'haves' have a different perspective now."
Mitchell says as soon as he gets the word, he'll be on his way and once he arrives, the first thing he'll do is say a prayer in a chapel in his building.
"I'm hoping that all the people who lived there with me come back," he says. "We stuck it out together. We can come rebuild together."
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