Sharon White Regains Her Determination to Rebuild

Sharon White stands in the doorway of her duplex. i i

hide captionSharon White stands in the doorway of her duplex.

Photos by Andrea Hsu, NPR
Sharon White stands in the doorway of her duplex.

Sharon White stands in the doorway of her duplex.

Photos by Andrea Hsu, NPR
White stands in her daughter's room in her house on Bonita Drive. i i

hide captionWhite in her daughter's room in her house on Bonita Drive.

White stands in her daughter's room in her house on Bonita Drive.

White in her daughter's room in her house on Bonita Drive.

New Orleans resident Sharon White is more determined than ever to rebuild her home. Back in January, she was devastated to learn that her neighborhood wouldn't be revived

But now she's got a building permit and she wants a FEMA trailer so she can go back and begin the restoration.

White admits there's a lot of work to do. "When I look at [my house], I see potential… I'm a visionary, I guess. I see brand new sheetrock, brand new ceiling fan and I see a better room."

On a recent visit to her neighborhood, White was thrilled to see FEMA trailers in neighbors' yards. The trailers are a sign that maybe the city has not written off her street, White says.

"To me, that's an opportunity... my neighborhood is coming back," White says. "It's gonna happen. I'm excited."

Sharon White's Resolve

Sharon White, left, and Michele Norris. i i

hide captionSharon White, left, and Michele Norris.

Photos by Andrea Hsu, NPR
Sharon White, left, and Michele Norris.

Sharon White, left, and Michele Norris.

Photos by Andrea Hsu, NPR
The kitchen in one of White's units. i i

hide captionThe kitchen in one of White's units. She’s waiting for help to remove the refrigerators, which haven’t been opened since Katrina.

The kitchen in one of White's units.

The kitchen in one of White's units. She’s waiting for help to remove the refrigerators, which haven’t been opened since Katrina.

Sharon White and sign on her backyard fence. i i

hide captionSharon White had a sign printed to display her determination to bring her neighborhood back.

Sharon White and sign on her backyard fence.

Sharon White had a sign printed to display her determination to bring her neighborhood back.

Most reporters who have covered Hurricane Katrina will tell you that there is one image or one individual whose story will always stay with them, long after they've filed away their Katrina tapes and notebooks. For me, that person is Sharon White, the New Orleans evacuee whose story we've been chronicling.

I first met Sharon at the Istrouma Baptist Church in Baton Rouge just after the storm. The church had transformed its children's center into a temporary shelter. Its main hall there was divided into a series of small grids, with different families assigned to each number. It was there that I spotted Sharon White furiously sweeping up space 26. I was working with producer Andrea Hsu and engineer Ivan Burketh, and we all looked at each other and agreed that she was someone worth talking with.

Her space was a model of organization. Comforters were stretched tight over the makeshift beds and her clothes and plastic bins were stacked just so. That constant sweeping made for good radio sound and it offered an irresistible metaphor — an evacuee trying to sweep her troubles away.

The only problem was this evacuee had no interest in talking to us. She had a beef with the national media. She said we made it seem that everyone in New Orleans was poor and on welfare. As I tried to introduce myself, it was me she tried to sweep away, swatting at me with her broom. I was polite yet persistent and eventually convinced her that we wanted to hear her story, even if it meant that she would blast the press corps that we were a part of.

Well, it turned out that for someone who had no interest in talking into a microphone, Sharon sure had a lot to say. I am not sure if it was timing or pitch, but after a week of reports about the hurricane, her statements resonated with so many listeners. She expressed a fierce determination to rebuild her home and make it bigger and better. And she made clear that she was not a refugee. Sharon White said she was a taxpayer, a homeowner, and a proud American… and all that meant that she was a Katrina survivor — not a refugee.

We kept in touch with Sharon, calling her occasionally to find out how she's was. Over the past six months she's shared her story and her heart with our listeners.

We've heard her sorrow when she could not locate her sick mother who was evacuated from the Superdome and when she returned home to Eastern New Orleans to discover that eight feet of water had ruined everything she owned. We later heard her elation when one of our listeners helped Sharon White track down her mother in a nursing home in Northern Louisiana. In that conversation her repeated pleas of "I'm coming, Mama… just hold on, I'm coming," touched our listeners and elicited a mountain of e-mail.

We checked in with her around Thanksgiving and heard her frustration in dealing with the insurance company and FEMA and her loneliness when all of her children scattered to other states.

And we heard White's grief after her mother died. Sharon was able to spend a short time with her mother Bessie White before she passed away. She said she was able to climb into bed next to the frail, diabetic woman and to talk about old times. But she did not have the heart to tell her the truth about New Orleans, that 80 percent of the homes were damaged and that some areas in their beloved hometown never would be the same again.

Throughout our conversations we have heard her rock-solid resolve to rebuild. Sharon wavered at one point when the city released a map that showed her home in a potential green space because of its low lying terrain.

She said, "I love New Orleans but the city doesn't love me." She thought about leaving but that didn't last. She's once again determined to rebuild her home and her city. She has a sign on her fence now that reads, "Ain't no politician high enough… Ain't no commission low enough… to keep me away." She forked out $75 for that sign. It encourages her neighbors to "unite for what's right," she says, and encourages them to get in touch with her by e-mail.

Many of our listeners told us that Sharon White's story helped put a face on a tragedy often relayed through massive numbers: 50,000 homes that may need to be demolished, 1,300 people who died in Katrina. Before the storm, there were about half a million residents of New Orleans so there are half a million stories to be told.

By focusing on one of these stories over the long run we've been able to help our listeners more fully comprehend this unfolding tragedy. We introduce you to hundreds of compelling people each year at NPR, but we don't always follow their stories over time.

But the only way to comprehend Katrina and its aftermath is to continue to follow people like Sharon White.

The Sharon White we met at the Istrouma Baptist Church is not the Sharon White we encountered in Gretna across the river from New Orleans this week, sleeping on a friend's sofa, surrounded by her collection of angels.

Sharon is the first homeowner in her family. Her financial well being and her pride are tied up in that little brick house on Bonita Drive. She worked several jobs, saved like a miser and climbed her way out of the housing projects. Now she's paying a mortgage on a home she can't live in… she's watching her savings slip down to nothing… and she's trying to make sure her dreams of a comfortable middle class life don't slip away, too.

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