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Isaac stirs up horrible memories for New Orleans residents

As Isaac lingered outside her door, Connie Uddo was busy Wednesday calling elderly friends in her neighborhood to make sure they were holding up. She, like the majority of New Orleans residents, had no power.

Connie Uddo on Thursday, Aug. 30, stands at the non-profit center she started after Katrina.
Connie Uddo on Thursday, Aug. 30, stands at the non-profit center she started after Katrina.Kate Snow / NBC News

“It’s just a tedious, long, arduous storm,” she said.

Storms are a big part of life in New Orleans. They always have been. There are records of hurricanes hitting the Crescent City as far back as the 1700s.

But things changed when Hurricane Katrina struck seven years ago — especially for Uddo.

“Our neighborhood, it was condemned, uninhabitable and unsafe. You had to have a pass to get in,” she said.

That is something she never wants to live through again — she doesn’t think she could handle it. As Isaac was bearing down, she felt a familiar mixture of dread and anxiety.

“The wind had me a little freaked out at points last night because our house was shaking a lot and the windows were rattling,” she said.

Related: Isaac loses steam, but brings flooding, power outages
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Uddo and her kids had evacuated just before Katrina hit. In October of 2005, when she returned to her 90-year-old wood and plaster home, she found a mold-infested mess. The first floor, which they had renovated as rental units, had been under eight feet of water, which took a month to drain out. 

A downgraded Isaac floods coastal communities and forces new evacuations, but levees still hold.
A downgraded Isaac floods coastal communities and forces new evacuations, but levees still hold.

“It was horrific. It was shocking. It was something that I never thought I would ever see in my lifetime ... everything was gray.," she said. "It literally looked like a nuclear disaster. There were no birds, insects, squirrels. The silence was just deafening.”

Uddo thought about leaving for good. She cried — a lot.

“It wasn’t just the physical loss,” she said. “It was the emotional loss of your community, your social network, your children’s friends.”

But Uddo decided to move back and rebuild. In January 2006, her family was the first of 10 families in her neighborhood to have electricity.

Lakeview, she said, was a “green dot” on a city planning map — a place that some planners thought would become nothing but green space with no residential homes. 

She wouldn't hear of it. "We’re a hundred-year-old neighborhood. You don’t tell a hundred-year-old neighborhood that."

So she rebuilt, and she convinced others to do the same. Uddo would walk around the neighborhood asking plumbers, roofers, builders and other tradespeople for their phone numbers. Since phone books no longer worked, she compiled a list. She counseled her neighbors at her dining room table. She recruited teen-aged volunteers to come to the neighborhood and clean up the front yards so that returning residents wouldn't be as shocked as she had been when she first drove in.

Eventually, Uddo opened St. Paul’s Homecoming Center, which still operates and helps residents who fled Katrina. The center has coordinated more than 50,000 volunteers.

As soon as Isaac lets up enough, probably on Thursday, Uddo plans to go back to the Center and start the cleanup. So far, she hasn’t seen any major flooding in her neighborhood. On a walk earlier Wednesday she checked on the trees she recently planted. They’re tattered, but still standing. The elderly neighbors she called are doing all right too. And for that, she’s thankful.

“Hopefully tomorrow we’ll be back in action,” she said.

Wednesday was spent napping, having tea, catching up on laundry and house chores.

“I really feel blessed. I don’t want to jinx it. It’s not over. But it could’ve been worse.  So many things could’ve happened.”

Uddo thinks a storm like Isaac solidifies her community.

“Once again we’re a stronger, more unified community because of it. And that’s the silver lining. You come out stronger."

One of the biggest lessons of Katrina, Uddo said, is that neighbors have to look out for each other. Before Katrina, they never would have coordinated before a storm. On Tuesday night, before the power went out, Uddo and her husband went up the block for a neighborhood gathering. They made plans together about what they would do if the water rose on their streets.

“At the end of the day, all we have is each other,” she said.

To contact Uddo's organization, St. Paul's Homecoming Center, please visit their website, or call: 504-644-4125.

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