Right about the time the NFC championship game got away from the New Orleans Saints, Robert Green sat outside his FEMA trailer, the one upright structure in his section of the drowned Ninth Ward, and talked about home. Reaching into the distance behind him was a field of listing wreckage: crushed houses with roofs peeled back, jagged edges of broken scrap wood, twisted rusting aluminum, and, in the distance, the repaired gray levee. To see Green's home is to understand why the Saints were so meaningful to this town. "They embody the spirit of people to rebuild," Green said.
The Saints gave optimism to people here, and they gave them a break. For a handful of afternoons, the people of New Orleans could watch ballgames and believe that recovery is not impossible. As one sign read along a highway, "Think Positive, St. Bernard's Parish!" At the elegant Brennan's Restaurant in the French Quarter on Saturday morning, a large, giddy party sang, "When the Saints Go Marching In" in the midst of their brunch.
But the success of the Saints gave a false impression, too: they made it seem that New Orleans was all right. If the football team could fashion such a turnaround, going from the basement to the NFC championship, then the city must really be on the mend. But New Orleans is not all right. With the Saints' loss to the Chicago Bears in a rout, 39-14, the focus will shift back to the real and relentless plight of this city again.
The population is half what it was, and recovery is at a standstill. To visit here is to be soul-blasted by the destruction: plywood still covers many of the buildings and glass panes are punched out, even on Canal Street, the main boulevard downtown. The traffic is sparse, and only 17 percent of the buses operate. Small clusters of people stand at bus stops that take them to low-wage jobs. People here are tired and worried, and feel "abandoned by the country, the state, and the city," says Green. The promised reconstruction aid has gotten stuck at various government levels.
In St. Bernard Parish, where oil refineries line the main boulevard and shoot flares and plumes of smoke, the FEMA trailer parks take up vast fields. Whole neighborhoods of small, brick middle-class homes sit empty. Many of them have signs posted on the front doors: "Don't Bull Doze!" or, "Bull Doze." Or, the sure sign of someone who has surrendered, "For Sale By Owner." Before Katrina, the average sale price of a home in St. Bernard parish was $115,000. Now it's $48,000. The population of the parish before the storm was 64,576. Now there are no more than 25,296 people here.
One of them is Craig Mackles, a 46-year-old electrician who has been living with his family of five, along with the family dog, in a FEMA trailer in the driveway of his gutted brick house. The trailer is only about eight feet wide, and two people cannot squeeze past each other in the aisle. "We're sick of it," he says. His 15- and 13-year-old sons, Josh and Blake, sleep in bunks that look more like compartments than beds.
Mackles put charcoal on the grill to cook ribs, while inside the trailer the family watched the game on a small flat-screen TV. The three-bedroom home, which he has owned for a decade, remains a shell, though he is slowly bringing it back from the wreckage left by 12 feet of water. He has gotten no help. He did collect some insurance money — but it paid to fix only three sides of his four-sided roof. "We had insurance, but like everybody else, not enough," he said. "You try to do the right thing, all these years. . . . You wonder, am I doing the right thing by rebuilding?" He has done 90 percent of the work on his house himself. Sometimes his kids sleep on army cots in the un-insulated house, just to get out of the trailer.
"Everything we're doing, we're doing on our own," he says. "You just get tired of the bureaucratic crap. You get fighting with them."
When he hears people say that his part of New Orleans shouldn't be rebuilt the way it was, he wants to know why people build on the sides of hills in California that have mudslides, or earthquakes, or brush fires. St. Bernard Parish is where he was born and bred, and to him it's as valuable a community as Malibu. "For the most part it was working-class people, it wasn't a slum," he said. "You can't just shut these people out."
All up and down the storm route, people in Saints jerseys watched the game. Ray Clement, 70, sat in his FEMA trailer across the road from the Chalmette oil refinery, a brilliant Saints pennant fluttering from his trailer, reflecting the same shade of gold from the refinery flares. Clement, a widower who is retired from the St. Bernard Parish sheriff's department, is one of just 11 or 12 people left in his subdivision.
Clement's wife, Mickey, was a member of the Saints' booster club before she died, and Ray wore a pendant with her picture around his neck in her honor. A wedding picture, her ashes, and her Saints Booster jersey were among the few things he saved from the hurricane. On Sunday morning, he went to church at Our Lady of Prompt Succor, and found that most members of the congregation of 300 or so who came to mass were wearing their Saints gear, too. "It's given us something to do," he said, "It's what keeps us going. There's nothing else to do."
In the Ninth Ward, the NFC championship game was the occasion of the grand opening of the Goin' Home Community Cafe, a volunteer relief center that offered food and services for residents trying to rebuild. The center was just a flat warehouse with a slippery slab cement floor, and a projector TV beamed the game against the cinderblock wall while volunteers flipped chicken and burgers on a large grill outside. About 25 people came to watch the game, including Robert Green, a 52-year-old tax accountant and lifelong resident of the Ninth.
Green lost his 73-year-old mother, Joyce, and a 3-year-old granddaughter, Shanai, in the Katrina flood. His family did not evacuate their 10-room shotgun house on Tennessee Street because they couldn't get into the Superdome, and his mother, who had Parkinson's disease, was too ill to travel. He kicked a hole in the attic, and pulled six members of the family to the roof, where they sat as the house, which his mother had owned for 38 years, was carried by a storm surge down the street.
During the third quarter of the game, Robert gave a tour of his neighborhood. Tennessee Street is not doing all right. There is nothing left but empty lots or the slabs of driveways, and some listing shells. "Everybody here had a job," Robert says. "Everybody here had kids in school. . . . Every driveway you see had a family, and a house, and people in it that worked. People who had lived here 30 and 40 years, people who had children, and whose children had children."
For a while, Green relocated to Nashville, then thought better of it. He had raised five children in the Ninth Ward and he resented the rumors that it would be bulldozed, or that Donald Trump would buy it. He got a FEMA trailer and parked it on the old family property. "I feel so much better being home," he said. "The grass is brown and the house is gone. But I don't see the negatives."
After touring the neighborhood, Robert returned to the Goin' Home to discover that the Saints were beaten. He shrugged; it was a minor setback in a town that knows what real loss is. "Just because the Saints lose," he said, "doesn't mean we won't rebuild."