ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
And now, a return to New Orleans. Last week, I went back to Honeysuckle Lane, that's the street that we started following back in September 2005 after Hurricane Katrina had sent its residence packing. Honeysuckle is a 20 minute drive from the center of the city, and it struck us as a perfectly average place: middle income people, cops, school teachers in mid-sized homes. It's in a part of the city called New Orleans East, which was undeveloped wetlands until the '60s.
The punishment that Katrina inflicted on Honeysuckle Lane was average: some roof damage, mostly standing water. We drove out to Honeysuckle Lane to catch up with some of the people who live there.
Well, now we're on Bullard Avenue and just a couple of blocks away from Honeysuckle, and most of the homes here appear to be fixed up and lived in. Although every, you know, four or five, maybe six houses, you see one that isn't, and it's boarded up in some way. And we'll make a turn up on Curran and go right here.
And actually at the corner of Curran and Honeysuckle, the first house we'll pass, really, at the end of this road, that's where Gaye Hewitt lives. She used to be a police officer. We met her a couple of years ago, and we saw Gaye who was then off the police force and doing some medical transcription. Let's see if she's home.
(Soundbite of a barking dog)
Ms. GAYE HEWITT: How are you?
SIEGEL: How's life?
Ms. HEWITT: Oh, come on in.
SIEGEL: Okay. Okay.
Ms. HEWITT: We, well, we got a new...
SIEGEL: I hadn't been to Honeysuckle Lane for more than two years. Right after Katrina, it was a ghost town. Most of the houses had flooded a foot or less, but mold had claimed the drywall and the furniture. Every refrigerator was a coffin full of rotten food and had to be replaced. The smells inside the homes were oppressive. Scavengers used to drive through and take what they pleased. And when the water was turned back on, washing machines and dishwashers that had been dislodged in the flooding started spewing water.
Well, a lot has changed. Gaye Hewitt, like most of her neighbors, is living in her house.
Ms. HEWITT: We started rebuilding. We started getting some of the house back together. At least we're back in the house, we're no longer in a trailer. Then Gustav came and we had to start again. We're almost, hopefully, done with everything before the next storm comes. I hope that takes a while. But I think we'll be ready for the next one.
We still have some damage from - with the fireplace and everything, but everything's pretty good. We got us another dog. We lost our first dog with Katrina, so we have another one. The kids are back in school, back in college. I have one son that's now on the police department, and a new addition: a 2-year-old granddaughter.
SIEGEL: Outside the house, Gaye Hewitt showed me the damage from Hurricane Gustav.
Ms. HEWITT: I had a shed right here, where all of that junk is. It tore the shed up. The gazebo was right there, tore the top off. Every time I put another top back on, the wind would come.
SIEGEL: Now, your next door neighbor looks like he's never come home.
Ms. HEWITT: There is Selleck(ph). The neighbors over here, they never came back from the storm, directly, next door to me. The dumpster just appeared day before yesterday, so I'm hoping that they'll have someone coming to fix it up because it's been a haven for animals and anyone else that's looking for shelter.
SIEGEL: Haven't seen you in a couple of years.
Mr. JOHN BROWN (Retiree): Yeah, it's been a few years.
SIEGEL: Down the street, I saw John Brown, retiree and avid golfer, who is living once again in his duplex.
How's the house?
Mr. BROWN: Oh, house coming along pretty good.
Mr. BROWN: Pretty good, yeah. You know, one time when I talked with you, I was saying I wasn't coming back, I believe. But I changed my mind.
SIEGEL: It was off and on there for a while.
Mr. BROWN: Yeah. On and off for a while. But…
SIEGEL: So it's on now, you're saying.
Mr. BROWN: It's on now, staying for good.
SIEGEL: He's got a Tiger Woods model golf bag that he won sitting in front of the fireplace. And he lowered his ceiling to create a room upstairs for his trophies.
Mr. BROWN: Yeah.
SIEGEL: Looks a little better than when I was here the first time.
Mr. BROWN: Oh, no question about it. Yes.
SIEGEL: Nowadays, the homes on Honeysuckle are furnished with the brand new stuff that everyone bought with the insurance money: stainless steel refrigerators, flat-screen TVs, newly installed cabinets and refinished breakfast bars. Some New Orleaneans talk about their Katrinkets.
But the duplex that is attached to John Brown's home is a different story.
Mr. BROWN: Yeah. Yeah.
SIEGEL: So now we're in the back of your neighbor's side.
Mr. BROWN: That's the neighbor's side.
SIEGEL: Hiss attached duplex and he's done nothing.
Mr. BROWN: Done nothing.
SIEGEL: Suddenly, it's - feels like it's 2005 again.
Mr. BROWN: Right…
SIEGEL: But Mr. Brown has a bigger problem. We talked several times in 2005 and 2006, and one thing he never told me then was that he'd been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He's been treated and he's doing well. But Methodist Hospital, which was nearby, has never reopened.
Mr. BROWN: One problem was when I got my prostate problem, I had a little setback. I had to go all the way to Houston, Texas, after I had my procedure. I started out at Amschwand Foundation, and Amschwand was taking all the patients from around. And their emergency room wait was like about eight or nine hours.
SIEGEL: There's just no hospital around here.
Mr. BROWN: There's just no hospital in the east part of New Orleans for sure.
SIEGEL: The lack of a hospital in New Orleans East was the biggest problem the people on Honeysuckle talked about, also the lack of stores. There used to be a Wal-Mart. There's now one supermarket open in the east.
I talked with Lionel Bazanac(ph) who lives across the street from John Brown. He's a telephone company installer, and that is the sound of his aquarium, which is home now to just one surviving fish. A fish who made it through the storm a few years ago, and who is appropriately named.
Mr. LIONEL BAZANAC: For some reason this particular fish won't die.
SIEGEL: So the fish is now named Katrina.
Mr. BAZANAC: Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIEGEL: I asked Lionel Bazanac how close to normal things are.
Mr. BAZANAC: It's a fraction of what it used to be, as far as normal. I mean, like this - the whole area of shopping area over there, it's still - it's starting to come back, but it's not quite back yet. And friends moved away, never come back, you know? Schools never opened up again. It's, you know, so we're still waiting for that normalcy to come back, but we don't know if we'll ever get it.
Mr. ERNEST VINCENT WILLIAMS (Singer-Songwriter, New Orleans): Everything is not complete but, you know, at least you're back in New Orleans. You know, so that's a good start - beginning, you know?
SIEGEL: That generous assessment of how long a beginning takes is from Ernest Vincent Williams, resident of Honeysuckle Lane and singer-songwriter who performs and records as Ernie Vincent.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Levee broke, we got soul down in New Orleans. (Unintelligible) and pain when it rained down in New Orleans…
SIEGEL: Ernie Vincent is 67, and he says a lot of older folks just won't come home to New Orleans East until there are services, a hospital, big stores.
Mr. WILLIAMS: They're not going to come back if they don't have some type of facility. Then the other side of the coin is if they're not back, then the people who put the facility up say there's not enough people.
SIEGEL: A conservative estimate of the current population of New Orleans East is 60,000 people and that is a little more than half the pre-Katrina number.
Cynthia Townsend(ph), who is widowed, working two jobs as a nurse's assistant, attempted to move nearer to her five grandchildren in Texas, wants to know what's wrong with the recovery effort. They all remember one study that said let New Orleans East revert to wetlands. That's not city policy. But the slowness of things makes Cynthia Townsend wonder.
Ms. CYNTHIA TOWNSEND: We really need to know what their intentions are. Are you all working on our behalf or are you not? If you're not going to be able to do it, then tell us that we can't live here. Put us out.
SIEGEL: And Cynthia Townsend's friend and neighbor Jeane Wooten(ph) says pretty much the same thing.
Ms. JEANE WOOTEN: What's the master plan? What are they going to do to bring businesses to this area? The residents have been back.
SIEGEL: Ms. Wooten is a fourth grade science teacher who retired from the New Orleans public schools a few years ago. That was before all the teachers were fired after Katrina. She now teaches at a charter school just around the block. Her house is beautifully furnished and fixed up, but she's impatient.
Ms. WOOTEN: Why is the recovery taking so long? You know, what's stopping the progress? And it's usually money, and it's usually red tape, and it's usually politics.
SIEGEL: I put the concerns of the residents of Honeysuckle Lane to the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, and you can hear what he had to say on tomorrow's program.
There is a contrast that's evident on Honeysuckle. As individuals looking out for their own property, the majority who came back did heroic duty. They cut through red tape with insurance companies, they won their claims from FEMA, they rebuilt from a distance when their homes weren't habitable, and some then lived for months in FEMA trailers parked in the driveway.
But all that individual enterprise still adds up to something less than the community they knew before the storm.