Stay or Go? Honeysuckle Lane Residents Decide

Charles Jenkins i i

hide captionCharles Jenkins' frustrations with the slow pace of recovery echo those of his neighbors on Honeysuckle Lane.

Charles Jenkins

Charles Jenkins' frustrations with the slow pace of recovery echo those of his neighbors on Honeysuckle Lane.

All photos by Cheryl Gerber for NPR except photo of Judith Talmon by Art Silverman, NPR.

Scroll down to read the personal stories of Honeysuckle Lane residents.

Katrina: One Year Later

Businesses reopening near Honeysuckle Lane i i

hide captionSlowly, businesses are reopening in New Orleans East.

Businesses reopening near Honeysuckle Lane

Slowly, businesses are reopening in New Orleans East.

Eric Arnaud in his house i i

hide captionEric Arnaud surveys rebuilding inside the portion of his home that was gutted after Katrina.

Eric Arnaud in his house

Eric Arnaud surveys rebuilding inside the portion of his home that was gutted after Katrina.

Kelli Wilkerson doing hair i i

hide captionKelli Wilkerson watches while her friend Catrina Wallace does Lashandra Mack's hair in Wilkerson's cramped FEMA trailer on Honeysuckle Lane.

Kelli Wilkerson doing hair

Kelli Wilkerson watches while her friend Catrina Wallace does Lashandra Mack's hair in Wilkerson's cramped FEMA trailer on Honeysuckle Lane.

For the residents of Honeysuckle Lane in New Orleans East, a few things have returned to normal: Street lamps are working, and some shops, a motel and one nearby gas station have reopened.

But the neighborhood still lacks telephone service. And even among the residents who, for the time being, have returned to their homes, uncertainty hangs over their future — and that of their neighborhood.

Honeysuckle Lane is a few blocks south of the levee that keeps Lake Ponchartrain in its place. The area is relatively elevated, so the damage there was less severe than in many other parts of the city.

Sherman Copelin, a local politician who lives in New Orleans East, remains optimistic about the neighborhood's rebirth.

Copelin represents businesses and homeowner associations. He points out that big retailers such as Wal-Mart are signing contracts to build on the local mall.

He likens New Orleans to a war zone and says he is not upset about how much — or how little — progress has been made a year after the storm.

"Wherever there's devastation, that's what you see until it's cleaned up," Copelin says. "Does that mean you stop living, you stop breathing, you stop functioning? No."

But a neighborhood needs more than a Wal-Mart.

Before Katrina, Methodist Hospital near Honeysuckle Lane had more than 300 beds and more than 1,000 jobs. It's been closed since the storm, and there's no sign that it will be in business any time soon.

Fred Young used to run the hospital. He says it would take at least 12 to 18 months to reopen the hospital, and that's under the best of circumstances.

But most doctors can't afford to wait a year and half, says Dr. Donald Palmisano, a surgeon who practiced at Methodist for decades.

"They have current obligations, they have children in school, their home may have been destroyed, and so as they regroup and decide where should we buy a home, should we rebuild our home?" Palmisano says.

"The debate that goes on, and the rebuilding, and they get very frustrated and believe there's a lack of leadership," he says. "It's a sad statement, but we're losing many, many of our young doctors as well as the older doctors who were near retirement."

It's in this context that the more than 20 middle-class families who live on Honeysuckle Lane are reassessing and rebuilding their lives. Here are some of their stories.

Eric and Joann Arnaud: The Waiting Game

Eric and Joann Arnaud

Eric and Joann Arnaud fled to San Antonio and are now back on Honeysuckle Lane, living in a FEMA trailer in their driveway with their teenage son, Eric.

The roof of the Arnauds' house suffered major damage during Katrina. Since returning, they've done quite a bit of work on their house, which has been cleaned and gutted.

But they've run out of money and the repairs have stalled. They still have savings but don't want to dip into the money until they know what the Louisiana Recovery Authority is going to pay them for the damage to their house.

They're frustrated with the waiting.

"We applied, we got a number, and that's all we know," says Joann Arnaud. "We haven't heard anything from them since the day that I went down and I called and spoke to the lady and registered us as homeowners in the area."

Discussions about how the authorities will assess property values are a source of tension between the Arnauds. Joann is trying to stay positive, while Eric is less hopeful.

That wasn't always the case.

In February, when the couple first returned to New Orleans, Eric Arnaud said he felt optimistic. "If you're off and running, doing it for yourself, you're going to get it done," he said then about rebuilding his home.

He also has had strong words about the local, state and federal governments' response in the wake of Katrina.

"Wasn't Katrina that did damage, but breaching of the levees and locks," he said.

"The people fail to realize this, but who's at fault is the government, because we're paying money to the government to protect us and they're not doing it."

The aftermath of the storm has been particularly difficult for Joann Arnaud, who had been a public school teacher. After Katrina, all the teachers were laid off.

"It's just been horrible, to say that you've given up 15 years of your life and then you're just stabbed in the back," she says.

Now, she is applying for jobs in local charter schools; her husband is retired.

Gaye Hewitt: 'I've Gotten Meaner'

Gaye Hewitt

Gaye Hewitt and her family moved to Honeysuckle Lane 16 years ago. After Katrina, they stayed in Houston for six months. Now, she and three of her children are living in two FEMA trailers on their lot in the neighborhood.

In Houston, Hewitt says she and her children were robbed and menaced repeatedly. That and the dislocation have taken a toll.

"I've gotten meaner. My outlook on things has changed a lot," Hewitt says.

She no longer gives people the benefit of the doubt, and she's more cautious and clingier when it comes to her children: "I'm Velcro. You can't peel me off."

Hewitt's husband died when he was in his 30s, when they both were police officers. Despite the hardships that followed — as she raised her children on her own and switched careers to become a medical transcriber — Hewitt says she remained trusting and optimistic. Katrina has changed that.

In February, when she and her family had just returned to the New Orleans area from Houston, Hewitt described how strongly her children felt about returning to their home on Honeysuckle Lane.

"First thing they said was, 'We have to go back,'" Hewitt said at the time. "And I'm so proud of them that they want to be here and help rebuild and make it stronger. That makes my decision to stay even stronger."

She remembered how closely knit the neighborhood was.

"If our kids do something wrong, the neighbors have permission to just chastise them," she said. "If something happens to someone, everyone is there, and we all stick together. I think that's the best of Honeysuckle Lane. That's what makes it home."

Now, Hewitt says she plans to move back into the house, although she admits that sometimes she feels as if she wants to leave.

She says her children are doing well academically, although they must travel a long distance to attend schools in Uptown New Orleans.

Life is tough financially, too: Hewitt says she's earning less in her new job and has cashed in her IRA to make ends meet.

Charles Jenkins: Sad and Confused

Charles Jenkins

A rarity on Honeysuckle Lane, Charles Jenkins and his wife, Louvader, have moved back into their house after returning from Richardson, Texas, where they went during the hurricane.

While they were away, their house was broken into twice.

The longshoreman at the Port of New Orleans says he has spent all of his savings and has no money to buy furniture; he and his wife sleep on air mattresses.

Life during the past year has been confusing for Jenkins.

"I'm confused about the city itself. It's gonna take years for it to come back," he says, adding he's not sure he can wait that long.

He says he misses his friends, many of whom have left New Orleans East.

"Sometimes I ride through the neighborhood or go to my friend's house, we hang out sometimes," he say. "But nobody's there no more, you know? I don't know what's going to happen. I wish it'd come back, but I don't know. And the way it's looking right now, it's not."

Kelli Wilkerson: Cramped Quarters

Kelli Wilkerson

After staying with friends and family, Kelli Wilkerson has returned to Honeysuckle Lane, where she lives in a FEMA trailer on her lot with her son and a friend, Catrina Wallace.

Part of her time away from New Orleans was spent in Baton Rouge, where, she complained, everything shut down at 2 a.m.

In October, Wilkerson had conflicting feelings about returning to New Orleans.

"In my bones, this is all I know," she said. "I have never been anywhere else, other than to visit. This is my home. This is my town. This where everything I ever had, owned, experienced, it's all right here. … This is where I want to be."

But at the same time, she admitted that she didn't see much hope of New Orleans coming back.

"How long must we go through this? Is it ever going to be the way it used to be? Will there ever be a downtown and Canal Street the way it used to be?" she asked.

Wilkerson was studying cosmetology when the hurricane hit. She lost all her beauty supplies and tools, which she is working to replace.

But one thing the storm took away is irreplaceable: "My dad was cremated. That was on my mantelpiece. And all that got wet. That can't be replaced."

In general, though, damage to her house wasn't as severe as it was for others: She had a few inches of water, mold and lost belongings.

Now, she and her friend cut hair for a living — in the trailer. It makes for very close quarters.

"I try to spend most of my days away from here because it's just too tight," Wilkerson says. "This is not cool. FEMA needs to be slapped across the face."

Cynthia Townsend: Once a Pioneer, Again a Pioneer

Cynthia Townsend

Years ago, when Cynthia Townsend first moved to Honeysuckle Lane, there were hardly any homes on the street.

"When we moved here, this house was not there, that house was not there," she recalls. "We watched a place that was basically wilderness grow up into a nice, big community."

Townsend, who was widowed a few months before Katrina hit, says she was one of the neighborhood's original pioneers — and is prepared to begin again. She is back in her house after a stay in Dallas.

Hers is one of the rare success stories: She has received her insurance money. She now says she waits for contractors to show up to finish post-Katrina repairs — but they never do. Nonetheless, she is good spirits and is looking forward to the rebirth of Honeysuckle Lane.

Judith Talmon: Leaving Honeysuckle Lane

Judith Talmon

Earlier in the year, Judith Talmon was living in a New Orleans suburb; her home had been gutted and cleaned. She was leaning toward returning to her old neighborhood, where she had moved 30 years ago as a young divorcee with two small kids.

In January, she referred to herself and others who were determined to return as "homesteaders on our property."

"We're going to go back and build it up," she said.

But now, she is among the handful of other Honeysuckle Lane residents who has left. She's living in Las Vegas, where her two grown children are.

Although she's gone, she retains ties to her life in New Orleans. She telecommutes to the same job, as an administrator for Universal Health Services, the parent company of Methodist Hospital near Honeysuckle Lane.

Talmon says that Katrina has taught her to appreciate friends and family.

"Relationships are sustaining," she says. "Things are fleeting and temporary and in a heartbeat they can be gone."

When she left on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2005, she drove away with three changes of clothes, a couple of pictures and important papers. She thought she'd be back in three days.

"So basically, everything that was left behind was lost," she says. "And the funny thing is, I don't miss any of it. I miss the people. I miss the spirit of the city."

Talmon used the insurance money she received to buy a home in Nevada and put her duplex on Honeysuckle Lane up for sale. Asking price: $56,000, which she says is half its pre-Katrina value.

She says she has mixed feelings about leaving. But six months after Katrina, there still were no services in the area — no police or fire services, no stores, no medical facilities, no gas stations. And that's what led to her decision.

She says she definitely wants to return to New Orleans, she just doesn't know when.

"A big chunk of my heart is still there, and it always will be," Talmon says.

NPR's Art Silverman produced this piece.

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