Finding Home Again In The Big Easy

Washington Post staff writer Ylan Mui recently traveled to New Orleans and wrote about rediscovering her hometown five years after Hurricane Katrina. Mui’s parents fled the city and have settled in Houston. But Mui says the city still feels like home. She tells the story of visiting and meeting the new owners of her childhood home in St. Bernard Parish.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

Now we open up the pages of the Washington Post magazine, something TELL ME MORE does just about every week to find stories about the way we live now. This week, a story about going home again. In this case, home to New Orleans. For the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Washington Post staff writer Ylan Mui wrote about returning to the Crescent City, her hometown. She joins me now in our Washington studio. Welcome.

Ms. YLAN MUI (Staff Writer, Washington Post): Thank you for having me.

KEYES: So I want to start with having you read some of this beautiful piece.

Ms. MUI: I'd love to.

I bumped into my past one steamy afternoon in June at a snowball stand just outside of New Orleans. As I pulled into the Shell parking lot in front of Sal's Snowballs, I debated flavors: watermelon or wedding cake? Should I go for broke and get sweetened condensed milk poured on top, another local specialty? The stand, a little brick house with two walk-up windows and a few big wooden logs serving as seats out front, has been in the same spot for half a century. It even still uses the same ice machine, a small-but-determined stand against the passage of time.

KEYES: I was in New Orleans recently for the BP oil spill, and so were you. What's changed there since your last visit?

Ms. MUI: Well, I think that a lot has changed, and a lot has remained the same. I grew up in New Orleans. I was born and raised right outside of the city. And I've been going back almost every year since Katrina. And each time, I see a little bit more rebirth, but each time I also see places that haven't entirely been rebuilt yet.

And what really struck me when I was down there covering the oil spill - I was down there for about three weeks, a really good chunk of time - was that so many of the touchstones that were important to me were still there, and that made me really happy. And I felt that, a lot of times around fifth anniversaries, since it was such a devastating hurricane, when you think about all the things that are different and all the things that haven't come back. And so I wanted to write about what I felt was still there, and why I felt like New Orleans was still the same city that I left.

KEYES: So yay for the snowballs.

Ms. MUI: Yay for the snowballs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: What other things were there, that you remember, that made you think, uh, I'm still at home?

Ms. MUI: Well, one thing that I was very happy to see was that one of the most popular local bands, Rebirth Brass Band, they play every Tuesday night at the Maple Leaf Bar.

KEYES: Yes, they do.

Ms. MUI: And - yes, they do. And I used to go there when I was in college. You know, sometimes maybe I was under 21 at times when I tried to get in there. But I went there, and it was so exciting for me to be there, and the atmosphere was so electric and the band was playing so loudly and everyone was sort of friends and dancing together. And that, to me, was a real New Orleans moment that still continues to this day.

KEYES: You grew up in St. Bernard Parish, right outside of New Orleans, right?

Ms. MUI: Yes, I did.

KEYES: Your family's home there was flooded, 10 feet of water during the hurricane.

Ms. MUI: Ten feet of water. St. Bernard Parish was one of the areas that was the worst-affected areas by the hurricane. Really, the neighborhood has struggled to come back. I was looking at some statistics that showed the population with something like 60,000 before the hurricane, and the year after, it was something like 14,000. Really...

KEYES: Now, they're like big empty spaces as you go down the highway out there.

Ms. MUI: Yes.

KEYES: It's really kind of eerie.

Ms. MUI: There are. There are a lot of vacant lots. And, you know, my family had struggled a lot to get to St. Bernard. They're from Vietnam, and they had to leave everything once when they emigrated to this country, and they built a new life in St. Bernard Parish. And, you know, when the hurricane came and took it all the way again, they said, you know, we're not going to risk it. We're -they decide to move to Houston, and they left St. Bernard. But I wanted to find the pieces of myself and my family that were still there.

KEYES: In your piece, you write a bit about going to see your old home. Could you read a little bit for us?

Ms. MUI: Sure.

(Reading) I passed my house three times before I found the courage to stop and ring the doorbell. When we moved in during my fifth-grade year, I was over the moon. The house was two full stories with massive columns and a built-in pool. My room upstairs - upstairs - was all pink: pink floral wallpaper, pink carpet and pink chandelier. Later, during my rebellious teenage years, I covered the pink with psychedelic posters of the Beatles and stuck glow-in-the-dark stars on this popcorn ceiling with putty.

The house sat empty for a few years after the hurricane as my parents dealt with paperwork and tried to find a buyer. In the meantime, looters stripped it of every useful piece of equipment: copper pipes, electrical wire, light fixtures. But on this afternoon in June, the grass was mowed, the front door was repaired and cars were parked in the driveway. Someone else was living there.

KEYES: So did you knock on the door?

Ms. MUI: I did knock on the door.

KEYES: What happened?

Ms. MUI: I found that the family that was living there was actually another Vietnamese family, and turned out to be friends of my parents.

KEYES: Really?

Ms. MUI: I told them that I had a very strange request, and I wanted to look around. And they said, who's your dad? And I said, well, my dad is Dr. Mui. And he said, all right. You're good. Come on in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MUI: So I came in and I toured the house, and they had completely redone everything because the house has been stripped. And it was a beautiful home, and they're a very, very nice family, so nice for taking me in. But it was also a little hard, because it wasn't the house that I had grown up in, and it wasn't the house that I had intended to come back and visit many years later.

KEYES: So many Vietnamese did go back, actually, after the hurricane. Are you sorry that your parents didn't?

Ms. MUI: I have mixed feelings about it. I mean, I had already left. You know, I had already made my decision, and this was really something that was their choice. But I do wish that I still had family in New Orleans, because it's not a great feeling to go back to the place that you feel like is home and have to stay in a hotel room.

KEYES: What's the neighborhood like now? Does it - I mean, besides the places that you remember, is the feeling the same? Is the ambience the same, kind of?

Ms. MUI: Well, I think that in St. Bernard Parish, it has been a struggle to come back. It's sort of patchy. I found that even just driving down my street, there were several houses that had been rebuilt, but there were a lot of for-sale signs, which kind of indicated to me that developers were at work or some families had rebuilt but decided not to come back to the house that they rebuilt. So that makes it a challenge to find that sense of community that was there previously.

KEYES: Do you yourself want to move back?

Ms. MUI: I have grand visions of retiring one day and living in a house in the Garden District with a gin and tonic and a floppy hat on my head and watching life go by. You know, whether or not that will actually happen, we'll have to wait and see.

KEYES: There's a lot of talk about whether or not New Orleans will emerge as kind of a new city - I mean, I don't know, maybe some less of the character that made it so special. Does it still, when you're walking through it, feel like the place that you grew up in?

Ms. MUI: I think that your experience of the new New Orleans will depend largely in where you're from and what situation you were - found yourself in after the hurricane. So I think that that is one thing to be aware of. But I don't think that the city has lost any of its soul. If anything, I find that the people who were still there are so proud...

KEYES: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MUI: ...to be there, and they're so invested in the city in a way that is maybe even stronger than it was before that I don't think that any bit of New Orleans' culture will go away.

KEYES: I'm curious. What do you think about the way the city is being rebuilt? There's been a lot of talk about whether some neighborhoods are getting more help than others. Does it seem fair to you? Does it seem like the city is committed to bringing it all back?

Ms. MUI: . That is loaded question. And I actually recently wrote a story about some of the changing racial demographics in the city after Katrina. And we had a story recently also in the newspaper about the city being more affluent than it had been because some of the poor residents didn't have the wherewithal to come back.

I think it's really important that New Orleans be diverse, and I think that the people who are there recognize, at least in talking to the locals, in talking to residents, they recognize that New Orleans history has always been a mix of many different cultures and a mix of many different income levels and a mix of many different societies. And I think that they're really committed to making sure that that comes back.

KEYES: Okay. Ylan Mui is staff writer for The Washington Post. Her story of returning to New Orleans is in this week's Washington Post Magazine. If you'd like to read the story, and we hope you will, go to npr.org and go to the TELL ME MORE page. Thanks, Ylan, for joining us.

Ms. MUI: Thank you.

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