Seven weeks after the storm, the signs tell the story of two different roads to recovery.
“Help!” “Help!” scream the spray-painted messages still scrawled on the side of a barber shop on the way to the drawbridge separating the Lower Ninth Ward from the rest of New Orleans.
Six miles west, in the neighborhood called Uptown, a smiley face peers out from a poster saying, “Creole Creamery Now Open. Eat Ice Cream. Be Happy.”
From her porch on South Salcedo Street, Sheila Gregory looks toward the curb and sees a waist-high mound of trash hauled out by Church of Christ volunteers. They carried out Oriental carpets and books sheathed in muck, then began tearing down walls covered floor to ceiling with green-black mold, making a week’s worth of progress in a matter of hours.
Over the bridge in the Ninth Ward, no volunteers helped Edwin Jackson and his friend, Melanie Slack, as they carried whatever their arms could hold from Jackson’s house on Praro Street. The items included his high school yearbook and granddaughters’ pictures. Jackson had to talk his way in past a roadblock.
Long before Hurricane Katrina came and went, much more than a drawbridge separated these two neighborhoods and their people. Color, class, misconceptions, fear — differences of the heart and mind, as much as the pocketbook, made these two places two very different “New Orleans.”
Now there are other differences. In Uptown, a booming ballet of bulldozers scoops up tree limbs and drywall as workmen in hardhats direct traffic. Homeowners have hired crews to clear out and sanitize houses. Smiles have returned, along with some optimism.
In the Ninth Ward, an eerie silence prevails as residents slowly arrive home. Officials only allowed them back in beginning this past Wednesday, so long as they’re gone each night by sundown. A few insurance adjusters roam deserted roads, but there are no humming generators nor pile after pile of debris awaiting curbside pickup. Tears are still here, and much concern about the future.
Differences of opinion
There also are differences of opinion regarding how the city should go about starting over and what has happened so far.
In both neighborhoods, people wonder whether the city isn’t ignoring them while paying attention to others. And there’s a question they share: Will the comeback in New Orleans be fair for all?
Their houses are both still standing.
Gregory’s is a one-story peach cottage in a middle-class slice of Uptown — nothing nearly so fancy as the columned mansions on either side of the streetcar line along St. Charles Avenue.
Jackson’s is a red-brick house that once was his father’s, with a second story, wrapped in vinyl siding, that he added himself.
Whether they will be saved is another matter.
The water rose shoulder-high inside Gregory’s place, washing away the former teacher’s prized collection of books: Victorian literature, writings on religion and politics, the vampire stories of Anne Rice.
At Jackson’s, the entire first floor was swamped and a telling scar of mold rims the second-floor bedrooms, though the water didn’t reach his grandbabies’ clothes, still folded on a sofa upstairs, or the smiling portrait of Louis Armstrong on one wall.
Gregory has had time, luck and connections working in her favor. In the tiny Alabama town where she evacuated, she met a fellow member of the Church of Christ who promised, “I’m gonna help you.”
When Uptown residents were told they could return and Gregory arrived back in New Orleans a week ago, Tammany Oaks Church of Christ in nearby Mandeville immediately dispatched a crew of five, out-of-state volunteers, including a contractor, to start breaking down her house.
The mold inside had already crept to the ceiling, but getting the walls out so fast might have prevented it from penetrating the frame and the foundation. Gregory calls it “the golden hour” that could make the difference between salvaging her home or razing it.
Jackson lives in the worst-hit section of the worst-hit neighborhood of New Orleans, the northernmost part of the Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood of poor and middle-class, mostly black residents that was deluged when levees were breached. Its streets remain manned by National Guard troops.
‘That black area’
A mammoth tree still blocks Jackson’s street. An engineer at the University of New Orleans, where he now sleeps, Jackson has driven around town, seen other homeowners shuffling back and forth from house to street with wheelbarrows filled with debris, city and government crews picking up trash.
His question: Why not us?
“Excuse the expression,” he says, “but they see it as ‘that black area.’ They’re really hoping most of us people don’t come back.”
Officials with the city and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, together coordinating debris removal, note many factors have put cleanup efforts behind in the Ninth Ward.
Hurricane Rita caused renewed flooding there, which lengthened the search for victims. Only a few days ago, a search team with a cadaver dog was still scouring debris. Environmental samples also are being collected from the muck to test for contaminants, says Corps spokeswoman Mary Beth Hudson.
Ninth Ward gets left behind
“It’s just very slow getting started in the Ninth Ward because of the health and safety aspects,” Hudson says, although she adds that city officials directed the Corps to concentrate its efforts on parts of the city that could be more quickly repopulated.
The Corps has removed 15,000 cubic yards of debris, or 500 loads, from the Ninth Ward, she says. In New Orleans’ 70125 zip code — or Gregory’s Uptown neighborhood — 49,000 cubic yards have been removed, or 1,345 loads.
“Work is progressing all over the city,” Mayor Ray Nagin’s spokeswoman, Sally Forman, says. As for those who fear the Ninth Ward might be left behind: “Not at all. It will not happen.”
State Rep. Charmaine Marchand, who represents the Ninth Ward and lives there, understands that flooding and safety concerns have slowed efforts, but she others, such as residents of Lakeview to the north, were allowed to return home before those in her neighborhood.
“It took me a whole week to get my residents in,” she says. “I literally had to fight.”
Once any neighborhood reopens, money is a factor in its rebirth.
In Uptown, the day after Lyle and Walker Sullivan made it back to their raised cottage on Fontainebleau Drive, Walker, a retired engineer at Entergy, hired a seven-man team that was repairing a neighbor’s house. They got to work two days later, after the Sullivans obtained a line of credit from the bank. Forty-eight hours after that, the Sullivans’ entire basement was gutted. Old record albums, crystal and books were stacked on a pingpong table in the backyard, Lyle and Walker deciding what to keep or toss.
“We basically wrote them a check from our own pocket,” Lyle Sullivan says. “It’s expensive to do this,” adds Walker.
Downtown New Orleans, the French Quarter and more well-to-do areas such as Uptown got up and running faster not only because the damage was less extensive, the Sullivans say, but also because the city needed to reopen its tourist hub to start rebuilding a tax base so the reconstruction can move on.
“This is where the money is. (The mayor) needs to bring in the money to work out from here,” says Lyle. The cleanup effort, adds Walker, “it’s just working its way out.”
No one knows that better than Ron Farve and his son-in-law, Silas Bettie. Farve is a sheetrock finisher; Bettie pours concrete. They lived only a few blocks away from each other in the Lower Ninth Ward. Farve’s house is gone. Bettie’s is intact, though the ceiling collapsed and someone else’s home — neither man knows whose — lies in pieces in the front yard.
‘I've still got to live’
The day their neighborhood reopened, they stood outside Bettie’s house with a packed trailer: generator, saws, shovels, hoses and more.
But all this equipment was not to start cleaning out Bettie’s place but for jobs they’d lined up in other parts of New Orleans.
“I’ve still got to live,” says Bettie, and living means working. Besides, he can’t start filling his curb with ruined possessions until a bulldozer removes the splintered house sitting on top of it. “They ain’t working down here — period. I guess they got to choose and pick where they want to start. Why can’t you start on this end and start on that end and meet in the middle?”
Farve nods in agreement.
“People say, ‘Oh, look at this mess.’ I say, at least you have a mess. Believe it or not, we were working for some people today who wanted their yard cleaned. They had grass!” says Farve, who doesn’t even have that and bristles at the idea of being allowed in his neighborhood for only 10 hours a day. “People got electricity, are already living in their house, and they’re gonna LET us come down.”
The dreaded ‘B’ word
When the word “bulldoze” comes up, Bettie and Farve get more fired up. They have reason to. In some other parts of town, some folks wonder whether demolished homes in the Ninth Ward should be rebuilt, because the community sits in a flood zone.
“That would be for a study — a good engineering study, not a political study,” Walker Sullivan says.
In the Ward, those residents who want to rebuild can’t imagine why others wouldn’t want them to. Jackson, Farve and Bettie all owned their homes; Farve, like the Sullivans, finished paying off the mortgage a few years ago.
“I might not have paid as much as other people, but I own mine same as they do,” Farve says.
“This is home,” Bettie adds.
Bourbon and Budweiser
Even with the day’s work done, things are different in the two neighborhoods. In Uptown, the Sullivans shower after toiling on their basement, then sip bourbon inside their house by candlelight. A neighbor stops to visit while walking her dog, Sam, on a leash.
The following evening, in the Ninth Ward, Farve opens up the equipment trailer and takes a Budweiser from a cooler. He stands in front of what is left of his son-in-law’s house, savoring the beer as the sun dips low.
But at 6:21 p.m., a National Guardsman in a Humvee pulls up and says: “It’s time to leave, guys.”