Joseph and Kesa Williams have come home once since Hurricane Katrina chased them off to Atlanta. Once was all they could bear.
Inside their ruined house on Delery Street in the Lower Ninth Ward, they found ceilings collapsed, possessions rotted and mold triumphant. They had expected as much from watching TV news. Much more disturbing was the abandoned-graveyard feel of the entire neighborhood, where working-class black families have owned houses for generations.
"From what I could see, nothing was happening," said Joseph Williams, 32, who has a new job as a probation officer in suburban Atlanta. "The only thing I found in my house that was worth taking was my high school class ring. I threw it back on the floor and we left."
Across town, Gary and Bea Quaintance, together with their son, Steven, 16, have moved back into their house on Memphis Street in Lakeview, a white middle-class neighborhood that was also wrecked by Katrina. Theirs, though, is an isolated, post-apocalyptic style of housekeeping. Lakeview is a neighborhood in name only, especially at night. The Quaintances are the only family on their block.
Armed with a portable propane heater and a gasoline generator, they sleep on the unflooded second floor. The house beneath them has been stripped of its stinking contents and gutted to the studs. There's no kitchen, no washing machine, no nearby stores and no neighbors to see the Christmas lights Gary Quaintance has strung around the house. Still, it is home.
"If you can't get back home, then you are living your life in limbo," said Bea Quaintance, 47, who raised her two college-age daughters on Memphis Street and is determined to finish raising her son there.
This is a wrenching holiday season for exiles from Memphis and Delery streets. Local politicians plead with them to come home, even as a panel of urban experts warns that both streets lie in neighborhoods too ruined and too flood-prone for immediate reconstruction.
The future of New Orleans teeters on choices made by families such as the Williamses and Quaintances. The sum of their private deliberations will determine the size of the reconstituted city, reset its racial balance and dictate its politics.
While white families from Memphis Street are more likely to return than are black families of Delery Street -- primarily because houses in Lakeview sustained less damage -- the storm has united evacuees on both sides of the city's formidable divide of race and class. What they share is uncertainty, which, like the mold in vacant houses, has mushroomed in the nearly four months since the hurricane. Decisions about coming home are vexed by fear of another storm, worry about money and doubt about government help. The passage of time and the power of distance also make it more difficult to leave new addresses where, despite loneliness and unfamiliarity, there is no risk of drowning in your attic.
So far, only the Quaintance family has returned to Memphis Street. Most others from their block are waiting. At least four are trying to sell. On Delery Street, where bulldozers will soon raze the many houses now marked with red "UNSAFE" stickers, no one is back and former residents say returning is all but impossible.
"I ain't coming back," said Judith Jordan, 53, a grocery store cashier who lived for 20 years on Delery with her brother and mother before the storm sent them away to Shreveport, La. "None of us is coming back."
Jordan has returned home once, with her brother John in early December. They found their wooden one-story house tilted off its foundation. It had that red sticker of doom on it: "Partial Collapse Possible. Do Not Enter." They took some pictures and drove back to Shreveport.
Politicians have yet to agree on a master plan for redeveloping the city or for deciding which neighborhoods should not be rebuilt.
A shrinking city
What is clear is that New Orleans, which was two-thirds black and one-third poor before the storm, will shrink dramatically. Consulting groups have guessed that the city, once it is rebuilt, will lose about half its pre-Katrina population of 470,000. Right now, less than a quarter of that number live in the city, most in areas that sustained little damage from the hurricane.
As for the rest of the city, the first attempt at a recovery plan was released last month. It said that since the population was certain to shrivel, so should the city's footprint. The plan said safer, higher-elevation and less damaged neighborhoods deserve first crack at limited resources, while terribly damaged neighborhoods are sent to the end of the queue. It roped together the Lower Ninth Ward, which was 98 percent black, and parts of Lakeview, which was 94 percent white, into a kind of no man's land, where reconstruction should be delayed pending "significant study."
"Neighborhoods should be redeveloped as whole units and not piecemealed back together lot by lot," according to the plan. It warned against the "jack-o'-lantern syndrome," with homeowners rebuilding on abandoned blocks.
The plan -- which city leaders requested and which was put together by the Urban Land Institute, a research group in Washington -- kicked up an enormous fuss.
Black leaders, in particular, said it would disproportionately zero out their neighborhoods. The City Council unanimously rejected the plan. Mayor C. Ray Nagin, facing reelection next year along with the council, also backed away from it.
A revision of the plan, expected to be made public next month, cushions the sharp elbows of the Urban Land Institute, said Reed Kroloff, dean of Tulane University's architecture school and a member of the panel working on the revised blueprint.
If approved by the mayor's Bring New Orleans Back Commission, it would give residents a year to prove which neighborhoods are viable. They would do so by voting with their feet, moving back home and spending money to rebuild. After a year, the city or a yet-to-be-created redevelopment authority would decide if a neighborhood is on the road to recovery or should be bought out.
If anyone should be able to figure out when to return home, it is Ron Martinez, 49, an architect who grew up in the city. He has been all over New Orleans since the flood, helping clients decide whether to rebuild.
Yet, as he weighs the risks of bringing his wife and two children back to Memphis Street, he says he cannot make an informed decision.
"I flat don't know what to do right now," said Martinez, who shortly after the storm bought a house in the suburb of Destrehan, about a 40-minute drive west of New Orleans. "A lot of things that are out of my control have to happen before I say I am rebuilding my house."
When the White House and Congress moved decisively this month to pay to rebuild the city's levees, the overriding concern of Martinez and of many of his Lakeview neighbors was finally addressed. The 17th Street Canal, just half a mile from Martinez's house, was breached during the storm and deluged Lakeview. Levee reconstruction would include barriers and pumping stations to stop a storm surge from pouring into Lakeview through the canal.
"That put me a little more at ease, but it really didn't change my thinking," Martinez said.
No word on reconstruction loan
He has not yet heard whether he will receive a low-interest reconstruction loan from the federal Small Business Administration, although many of his neighbors in Lakeview have had their applications approved.
More important, Martinez and his wife worry that their block and surrounding streets will not be rebuilt as the comfortable and serene neighborhood they loved.
"We don't want to be surrounded by a bunch of nasty, empty houses," Cathy Martinez said.
She and her husband have settled, for the moment, on a holding pattern. They plan to use their flood insurance money, combine it with a loan and pay off the mortgage on the Memphis Street house, which was worth about $600,000 before the storm.
"I will own the place outright, and that will take pressure off me to decide when to get back in," Ron Martinez said.
Next door to the empty Martinez house, Gary and Bea Quaintance said they never considered waiting to see whether Memphis Street would come back. They have lived there for 29 years and think the best way to get back home is simple.
"Just come back," said Gary, 53, a retired police officer who with his wife owns a dry-cleaning business and print shop, both wrecked by Katrina. "If I got to get up in the morning and it is vacant lots around here, it is no big deal."
He laughed when informed that a plan by urban experts does not approve of his rush to return home to an abandoned street.
"The city gave me a building permit," he said. "Why should I wait until the whole block is ready to rebuild? It is hard enough for me to coordinate with a Sheetrock man, a plumber and an electrician."
Nearly every day since the Aug. 29 storm, he and his wife have been plotting their return: hiring contractors, collecting insurance, securing permits, clearing trash, cleaning the pool.
They rented a duplex about 35 minutes away on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, but mostly they work out of their Chevy Suburban, which is stuffed with rebuilding supplies, snacks and cold drinks. Bea keeps a running to-do list on the dashboard. On a recent day, it told her to order kitchen cabinets, price drywall and have a mammogram.
Since Gary knows carpentry (he built much of the house himself), he and wife say that a $150,000 flood insurance payment should cover rebuilding costs. They have not heard whether their application for a $75,000 rebuilding loan from the Small Business Administration will be approved. If not, they will rebuild anyway -- no matter what the neighbors do.
The Quaintances will not be lonely pioneers for long, said Jay Batt, City Council member for Lakeview.
"Even before the federal government announced that it would rebuild the levees, we printed up 3,000 signs for people who are rebuilding and coming back," he said. "We quickly ran out of signs."
On a recent cold, wet Saturday in Atlanta, Joseph and Kesa Williams left their two kids with a babysitter in the suburbs and drove downtown to Morehouse College to hear Nagin make a pitch for them to return home.
"The New Orleans swagger is coming back," the mayor told the Williamses, along with more than 2,000 of his displaced constituents, most of them black.
In a promise that cuts to the core of racial politics in the city, Nagin said every neighborhood would be rebuilt. While there are no precise numbers, New Orleans is now a much whiter place than it was before the storm.
When time came for questions, it seemed that the mayor's upbeat tone had infuriated the exiles. Their questions were tearful and accusatory, and many of them were driven by racial suspicion. One woman wanted to know why a black mayor has so many white staff members.
"I don't see where that meeting had any results whatsoever," Williams said after he and his wife had driven back out to their sparsely furnished apartment in the suburbs, collected their kids and eaten pizza in the dining room. "It was just a rant-and-rave kind of thing."
Joseph and Kesa Williams have the cold comfort of clarity. They say they won't go back home.
It's not that they have fallen in love with Riverdale, their new home town south of Atlanta. Kesa commutes 2 1/2 hours round trip a day to the city and says traffic is "horrible." Joseph misses his kin from the Lower Ninth Ward. They have moved to the Dallas area, and he wants to join them there.
As they see it, the deck is stacked against blacks returning to New Orleans.
‘First in line’
"Your upper-class white neighborhoods are first in line and we are very last," said Kesa, who works in Atlanta as an accountant.
While she and her husband insist they are not going home, the family histories of most of New Orleans's black exiles suggest that ties of blood, time and culture will draw many back.
"This is one of the most rooted black populations in the United States," said William H. Frey, a demographer at the University of Michigan. Nearly nine out of 10 blacks in New Orleans were born in Louisiana, according to Frey's analysis of census figures. He said that nearly all of them have family ties to the city that reach back several generations.
"I think these people in exile will hold out, hoping to return, longer than residents of any other city might," said Frey, adding, though, that there are limits. "Once they get a year down the road, and they still can't come back, I would say the chances of return fall sharply."
Joseph and Kesa Williams have found higher-paying jobs in Atlanta than they had in New Orleans, and their daughter, Kayla, 8, is in what they say is a better school. Being chased out of town by a hurricane has turned out better than they thought it would. But that doesn't make them any less upset about what they see as the bizarrely inequitable treatment of their ruined neighborhood.
The low-lying section of the Lower Ninth Ward where the Williamses lived was the last neighborhood in the city to be reopened, in part because a second flood, caused by Hurricane Rita in September, inundated the area.
Even after that water was gone, though, authorities did not allow residents to even look at the houses until the first week of December.
"Why did it have to take three months?" Joseph Williams asked on the night after they listened to Nagin's come-on-home speech. "Was it really that much of a hazard in the Ninth Ward, or was it political?"
School draws families back
Before Katrina, nearly all elementary-school-age children on Memphis Street attended St. Dominic School.
Without the Catholic grade school, Ron and Cathy Martinez, along with several other parents who have been forced from Lakeview, feared that the neighborhood would not come back to life. It was social glue for parents, with an endless offering of dinners, holiday parties and after-school meetings.
Now the school is coming back, defiantly so, even as politicians and urban planners bicker about redevelopment mechanisms.
"Our community has a pulse," Ron Martinez said.
After Thanksgiving, he and his wife pulled their children, Evan, 11, and Marcelle, 10, out of a Catholic school in suburban Destrehan -- and began driving them to St. Dominic's temporary location at Holy Rosary Academy, about two miles from the ruins of Lakeview, in a part of New Orleans where flood damage was not severe.
By the first of the year, St. Dominic will have lured back about half of the 625 students it had before Katrina, along with 27 of its 42 teachers. Students and teachers are back in class because the school's principal, Adrianne LeBlanc, decided in the days after the storm that any long-term closing was unacceptable.
"If we had waited for the city and the federal government to do everything for us, we would be waiting for a good long while," she said.
LeBlanc lived in Lakeview, and her one-story house was wrecked by the storm. "It's as ugly as sin and will have to be knocked down," she said.
But she has not had time to deal with it. Five days after Katrina, she began rounding up displaced teachers and parents, finding a temporary school building and lining up contractors to fix the flooded school in Lakeview.
"In the first weeks, I would start answering e-mails and making phone calls at 6 a.m. and turn off the computer at 2 a.m.," she said.
Since the school reopened at its temporary location in late October, she has cut her hours. She now works 6 a.m. to midnight. Her new urgent mission is finding Catholic schools around the country to send desks, books and other supplies.
LeBlanc said it would be wonderful for Lakeview -- and St. Dominic -- if the government could guarantee that by next summer the city won't flood again. Wonderful, she said, but not necessary.
"We are going to be back in that school come August, come hell or high water," she said.
St. Dominic is a magnet pulling displaced Lakeview families back into the geographical orbit of New Orleans.
Ron and Cathy Martinez are considering selling their house in Destrehan and buying one in nearby Metairie or in a higher, safer neighborhood of the city. Their three closest Lakeview friends, who also had children at St. Dominic and fled the storm for Texas, Florida and Baton Rouge, La., will also be moving back to the New Orleans area come January.
This clustering around the edges of the city is part of a pattern documented by a recent Los Angeles Times analysis of address changes after the hurricane. It showed that about 60 percent of white middle-class residents of the metropolitan area did not flee for distant parts of the country.
There is a stark difference, though, between suburban life in greater New Orleans and the desolate homestead existence now on offer back on Memphis Street.
On a recent evening in Destrehan, Ron Martinez made it clear he had no immediate intention of hauling his family back there. He said he admires the grit and determination of the Quaintance family, but he will not join them, at least for a while.
"I am not so tied to that piece of property that I cannot live somewhere else," he told his family.
His daughter, Marcelle, heard him and said, "But I love that house."
"You can love another house," her father said.
Database editor Sarah Cohen in Washington contributed to this report.