NEW ORLEANS — Just before Christmas, Ed Spears returned to his East New Orleans neighborhood. What's the thing that strikes him most?
"That it's empty," Spears says.
It’s empty because this is one of the sections of town where the houses are all ruined and where thousands of residents are living somewhere else. The Spears family is in Fort Worth, Texas.
For the displaced like the Spears, a terrible day of decision approaches: move, for the indefinite future, to that "somewhere else" or commit to a long shot — putting it all back together in New Orleans.
"New Orleans has been my home," Spears says. "Not just the house here, but New Orleans itself, and there's no place like it."
To keep his options open since Katrina, Spears bunked at a friend's house in the city while continuing to work his Chamber of Commerce job. His wife, Suzette, and their five kids stayed in Texas, with the man of the house only visiting occasionally.
"We've just been miserable being apart," says Suzette.
A few weeks ago, Suzette landed a full-time teaching job in Forth Worth and, she says, "Teachers out here get paid a considerable amount more than teachers back home."
So, with her New Orleans job and home wiped out, no guarantees that rebuilding is even possible and with life apart intolerable, this family's decision was made.
"I said, 'Go ahead, take it,'" says Spears. "We'll make our move to Fort Worth, and we'll live there."
There was a final visit with some pals at the University of New Orleans, where Spears was pursuing an advanced business degree, then a few last things to throw in the rental car, and then it was "wheels up." For the Spears, the year ended with their hometown in the rearview mirror and, a solitary, sad drive later, a new beginning.
"How does it feel to be here?" Ed asks himself, before answering his own question. "It's kind of like saying, 'How does it feel to breathe?' It's wonderful!"
This is exactly the kind of family New Orleans prayed it wouldn't lose, but now has lost — by the tens of thousands.