A big sign at the harbor here encourages: "Think Positive, St. Bernard!" But after three years in a government trailer, Beth Basile is finding that hard to do.
Nearly every structure in St. Bernard Parish, east of New Orleans, was damaged or destroyed when the earthen levees protecting the area failed during Hurricane Katrina. Basile was about a month away from finding out whether a grant would come through to finally redo the floors and replace the asbestos siding on the two-bedroom house she and her husband, Bubby, were renting to own.
Hurricane Gustav — predicted to be at least a Category 4 when it makes landfall along the Gulf Coast — was just a few days away from striking. As she prepared to evacuate, she wondered whether there would be anything left.
"If it's like Katrina, they might not let us back," says the 52-year-old old Wal-Mart cashier, her eyes baggy and smudged with worry. "They might put a fence around the whole parish and say, 'Go away.'"
In places like St. Bernard Parish, the Lower 9th Ward, and trailer parks along the Gulf Coast, those still reeling from Katrina are now the most vulnerable to Hurricane Gustav.
About 1 million people along the Gulf Coast took to the highways Saturday amid forecasts that Gustav had strengthened into a Category 4 storm and was on a course to hit somewhere from Mississippi to Texas as early as Monday afternoon.
In St. Bernard, Gary Sass wasn't taking any chances. He performed last-minute oil changes on the family's car and truck in preparation for leaving. His wife Deana's shirt was soaked through from her efforts to make room in the truck for their belongings, two dogs and four rabbits. They left two rabbits behind in 2005, and they drowned.
The family's red and white house looks as good as new. But Sass owes a $40,000 small business loan, and his mortgage isn't getting any lower.
"I'm trying to be optimistic," the 46-year-old construction worker said, rubbing grease from his hands. "But Kentucky's looking better and better."
'X' marks still on some homes
The Sasses' neighborhood, like most in St. Bernard, is still a patchwork of renovated homes, government trailers and empty slabs. The gate on the house next door to the Sasses still bears a bright red "X" left by rescuers searching for survivors after Katrina; a yellow sign with another red "X" hangs in the window, marking the home for "involuntary demolition."
Across the street, Maria DiMaggio lacked just a little electrical work before being able to move back into her two-bedroom home. The 42-year-old disabled woman was working to beat a Sept. 15 deadline to vacate the government trailer she shares with her 83-year-old father, Joe.
"We've got floors — beautiful brand-new floors," she said as her three dogs milled around the kitchen cot where she sleeps. "I mean, my house is not even finished and, then, what? It's going to float away again?"
All but one of her four siblings left the parish after Katrina. If Gustav destroys her house again, she says she will follow them.
"I was hoping to get all the way right at least before another hurricane came and ate up my world," said DiMaggio, who lost $22,000 to unscrupulous contractors. "If I would have been in my house for a day it would have been OK. Then I could have dealt with it. ...
"But I can't do this again."
Strategies vary in 9th Ward
New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward was the symbol for all that seemed to go wrong after Katrina — poor residents, many without a means to get out on their own, stayed behind. As the waters rode, many sought refuge on their roofs and had to be plucked away to safety.
Peter Scott was one of those who was rescued from a rooftop. This time, the 61-year-old left his 9th Ward home at 7 a.m. Friday to get to Union Station for the evacuation.
"I don't have a car, I had to come with my neighbors," Scott said. "But I wasn't going to wait. Not after Katrina. These things can be killers, we know it now. You'd have to be a fool not to get out while the getting's good."
But some of his neighbors were refusing to budge.
"I was here three days in this house after Katrina. The water was over my head. I floated out on an ice chest to get away," 47-year-old Donna Tate said as she sat on her porch.
During Katrina, Tate went to the Superdome, then to Texas and to Murfreesboro, Tenn., and it took her eight months to get home again.
"I'm not goin'. They aren't gonna scare me or run me out. I'm tired. I'm too tired to go through it all again," she said.
In neighboring Mississippi, Scott Sundberg and his wife, Caroline, are less than a month away from moving back into the house in Pass Christian that Katrina tore apart. With Gustav threatening, the Sundbergs were preparing to suspend the renovation project, tamp down stacks of building material, unhook their trailer home and drive east to safer ground.
A structural engineer, Sundberg built one of the few beachfront homes in Pass Christian that wasn't flattened by Katrina. They stayed at home for Katrina, but won't make the same mistake with Gustav.
When Katrina started to rip their home apart, the Sundbergs found refuge in a boat. They bobbed in Katrina's violent surge for several hours before the flood waters receded.
"We watched Katrina from the cockpit of a 19-foot sailboat," he said.
Sundberg has rebuilt much of his home by himself, but he still needed some expert help. With the Gulf Coast in the grips of a post-Katrina labor shortage, it has taken Sundberg three years to restore what Katrina damaged.
"That's why I'm so hesitant about dropping everything," he said.
So close to moving in
A paint job is all that's left for Rodger McRee to do before he and his wife can move into their new home in Waveland, Miss. They were living in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans, when Katrina struck and flooded their home with two feet of water before a fire caused even more damage.
McRee regrets staying and not evacuating before Katrina hit.
"I don't recommend it," he said. "It was poor judgment."
But he doesn't regret building a new home only 300 yards from the same Mississippi Sound waters that erased most of Waveland on Aug. 29, 2005.
"That's what we do: We rebuild. That's the nature of mankind," he said. "To leave is not human nature."
Courtney Rich, 25, joined her husband and mother at her grandparents' home in Bay St. Louis, Miss., as Katrina approached. More than 20 feet of storm surge forced them to seek refuge on the roof for several hours.
"We won't be doing that again," she said, noting that the family had booked hotel rooms in Meridian, Miss., after Gustav formed. "Katrina was hell. There is a reason to have anxiety" if Gustav threatens.
Friday was not just the anniversary of Katrina. It was also Beth Basile's 52nd birthday.
Her older son surprised her with a cake topped with Oreo cookies. She was in no mood to celebrate but she choked down a piece to please her grandchildren.
St. Bernard Parish's levees have been largely rebuilt, but Basile has little faith in them. After all, the old ones were supposedly built to withstand a Category 3 storm.
After Katrina, Basile and her family spent "23 weeks and three days" in a Bossier City hotel room, some 340 miles northwest of New Orleans. She's not ready to do that again.
"It's GOTTA go west," she said, her voice cracking. "We've paid our dues as far as I'm concerned. I know it's selfish, but that's the way it is."