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New Orleans Homeowners Fighting Uphill Battle

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New Orleans Homeowners Fighting Uphill Battle

Katrina & Beyond

New Orleans Homeowners Fighting Uphill Battle

New Orleans Homeowners Fighting Uphill Battle

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Fred Johnson, who works with the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Foundation, tells Steve Inskeep the city's poorer citizens need more help than they're getting as they try to rebuild their homes and lives.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This morning, we're continuing to check back with people affected by decisions about the future of New Orleans.

Unidentified Woman: I'm not going to let the city purge me out.

Unidentified Man #1: Right now, the big problem is nobody tells you nothing.

Unidentified Man #2: The city is up against some very difficult issues, and hard decisions are going to have to be made.

Mr. FRED JOHNSON (Community Activist, New Orleans Neighborhood Development Foundation): The waters of Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain put everything on the banks of the city and said, here are the things that you wouldn't deal with, so deal with them now.

INSKEEP: That last voice you heard came from Fred Johnson. He's a community activist in New Orleans, who once helped low income renters become homeowners. Now, many of those same homes are destroyed, and Fred Johnson is among those trying to learn what to do next. He's on the line from New Orleans. Fred, good to talk to you again.

Mr. JOHNSON: Good morning.

INSKEEP: When you're driving around New Orleans, and I believe we found you inside your car on a cellphone, how do things look as you go through the neighborhoods?

Mr. JOHNSON: It's pretty tough. My office is temporarily in Jackson, Mississippi. I come back and forth every week, trying to put our hands around our 2400 homeowners.

INSKEEP: These 2400 homeowners, these are people that your non-profit has been working with, people who had never owned a home before, and that you tried to help get into a home in recent years, is that right?

Mr. JOHNSON: That's right. But since the hurricane hit, we're now trying to figure out how we can be of some great assistance. The insurance companies won't call them back. You have to get in there and make the call, then call late at night, and call, and call, and call, and argue until you can get your point made, you know.

INSKEEP: Where are some of the homeowners now?

Mr. JOHNSON: They're all over the place, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, New York.

INSKEEP: Have people said to you, some of them, I want to come back to New Orleans, definitely.

Mr. JOHNSON: I've had it both ways. I've had people to call me and say, I'm not ever coming back. And I've had people who says, listen, let me know, Fred; you're down on the ground. Let me know when I can come back. I want to come home.

INSKEEP: Since you and I last spoke, the city of New Orleans came out with a rebuilding plan, and one element of that was saying that people in any neighborhood, no matter how devastated it was, will be allowed to come back and try to rebuild, if that makes sense for them. Does it make sense, do you think, to allow people to rebuild in any neighborhood, every neighborhood?

Mr. JOHNSON: I think it makes sense to look at what we have to do to save people's lives.

INSKEEP: You mean, maybe some of the low lying areas should not be rebuilt.

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, if you cannot save someone's life in there, why put them in harm's way? And why lie to them? We have to tell the truth about the situation. Don't give me a moratorium, then take the moratorium back, and then the city say one thing, the state say something else. Those cats need to all be on the same accord.

INSKEEP: As you've been driving through the city of New Orleans, as you and I have been talking, how's traffic?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I came to Tulane Avenue, and traffic was relatively smooth. But I got to tell you, looking at those big, black water marks on the buildings just give you a chill, man. It is very, very chilling to come into your city and see this much devastation, and then have to listen to all of the unorganization that happens. Everybody's bickering. And we're going to have a New Orleans. As long as there's a United States, there's going to a New Orleans. You're going to have people come back in here, whether they're rich or whether they're poor, and there's nothing we can do about it but live with it, and prepare to deal with it.

INSKEEP: We've been on the phone with Fred Johnson of the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Foundation. Thanks for taking the time.

Mr. JOHNSON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: Mr. Johnson has been shuttling between his ruined New Orleans area home, a borrowed hotel room, and a temporary office in Mississippi.

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