MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
In a moment, we're going to talk with Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards. He decided to launch his latest presidential bid from New Orleans earlier this year, so we decided to talk to him about what he thinks needs to happen next. This begins our two days of coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
But first, a glimpse of life in New Orleans two years after the storm. We turn to Gralen Banks. He's a lifelong resident of New Orleans in the 13th Ward. He's on the phone with me now. Thanks for joining us. How are you?
Mr. GRALEN BANKS (Resident, 13th Ward, New Orleans): I'm wonderful, Michele. It's my pleasure.
MARTIN: Tell me where you are now. Are you in your trailer?
Mr. BANKS: Yeah, I'm in the trailer…
Mr. BANKS: …lovely government-issued mobile condominium that is in my driveway. Just let me say that I am a lot better off than a whole lot of folks, because at least my trailer is in my driveway. I'm next to my house, which is gutted. I'm not in the FEMA trailer park, and thank God I'm still in my hometown of New Orleans. So I could complain, but I won't.
MARTIN: Okay. And who lives with you there?
Mr. BANKS: My wife, my daughter, my grandbaby and my dog.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Okay. Little tight. Fingers are a little tight, huh?
Mr. BANKS: It's a little tight. It's literally six steps from the bedroom to the bathroom, which is the entire length of the trailer. Now it takes the baby, Jalen(ph), a little longer to get there because her steps are shorter. But, for me, the tallest one in the house, it's six steps from the front to the back. We're New Orleanians and, you know, Michel, you adapt or you die. So we're not planning on going anywhere. So we're going to be here for a while.
MARTIN: Can you take us outside and tell us - what do you see outside your door?
Mr. BANKS: Sure. Let's get up and walk outside right now. As soon as I open the door, I am looking at the side of my mother's house, because my house is next door to my mom's, and we have a shared driveway. And that house that my mother lives in actually belonged to my grandparents. It was the house that I was brought home to when they brought me home from the hospital. That's the first thing I see when I walk out of my trailer.
Now I'm standing on in front of the house, right on the corner of Loyola and Appeline. And I'm looking at my house, which is - from the outside looks like a typical New Orleans shotgun double, unless you go inside, and it's still like a typical New Orleans shotgun double post-Katrina, because it is gutted. It is waiting to be repaired.
My neighbors across the street, they are relocated to Texas. These are neighbors that was there when I came home from the hospital, and that's why I like where I live because it is a true neighborhood. There are folks here who love you, who look out for you. That's how it was before the storm.
MARTIN: Why aren't you back in your house? And why is your house still gutted? You haven't been able to make any headway on building at all. What's going on with you?
Mr. BANKS: The only thing that has been done to my house is that it has been -the roof had to be replaced, because that's where all my damage came from. In the parlance of the insurance company, I had good damage, because my water came from the top down. And that might make you think that I would be treated differently, but I'm lumping to the same boat as everybody else.
The bottom line is the insurance money that we did receive is not enough to redo the house. And the last thing that I want to do, Michel, is to get started on a rebuild of my home and then get stuck without enough money, because post-Katrina, everything has gone up 20, 30,40 percent. Sheetrock gone from $8 a sheet to $12 a sheet.
I mean, the rebuild costs are astronomical right now. And the contractors -from the electricians to plumbers to trade workers - those guys are sitting in the cat's bird seat. You need them, and you really can't have any room for negotiation. If they tell you it's cost X, it's going to cost X. So, you know…
MARTIN: What's that like for you as you're sitting in a - you're living in a trailer, looking at the house you live in, you looking across the street at the house - you're looking at the neighbors who saw you come home from the hospital as a baby and they're not there anymore. And you're looking at your mother's house and - what's that like to be so close to everything you care about but not to be able to live in it or live the way you were?
Mr. BANKS: It's frustrating, but it's a blessing at the same time. It's New Orleans personified. It's an oxymoron. It's beautiful and it's horrible. It's everything because I - believe it or not, Michel, I would not rather be anywhere else in the world. I'd rather be in a FEMA trailer in New Orleans than in the penthouse anywhere else. That's just…
MARTIN: You never think about leaving?
Mr. BANKS: You know, there's a culture here. There's a life here. This city is older than the United States of America. New Orleans has been here. And my family, I'm fourth generation. You know, I mean, I'm - I'd missed the good mornings. I'd missed the conversations. How are your mom and them? How are, you know, how are your daddy doing? Boy, are you doing all right? Yeah, you know, people take the time to talk to other folks here. And I find that in my travels, it's not a lot of that. Folks are very busy.
MARTIN: What do you think it's going to take to get New Orleans back to what it was? And do you, honestly, when you really, you know, alone with yourself and thinking your thoughts, do you ever think New Orleans is going to get back to what it was?
Mr. BANKS: I think we're just going to have to get ready for a new normal. The first casualty of Katrina was normal. In answer to your question what's necessary, what's necessary is the grease that turns the wheels of America - money. There's so much red tape.
The president made a promise in Jackson Square when they lit it up that he would not turn his back on this wonderful, unique American city. Money has been allocated from the government. It has gotten to the state level, (unintelligible) and political b.s. and red tape.
But I just - I know that it's going to be okay. I mean, we got through Katrina. The fact that I'm still here, standing here between Katrina and between the man-made disaster that was the breach of the levees and the flood, we're still standing. So I'm pretty sure that he didn't bring me through all of that to let me go now.
So in my heart of hearts, it's going to be different. There's no doubt about that, but it will still be New Orleans in the hearts of a lot of natives. And I'm going to see New Orleans come back.
MARTIN: So what do you mostly feel? Do you feel hopeful? Do you feel angry?
Mr. BANKS: When you get out on the street here, you hit a brass band strike up and you see the smiles on the face of the people the same way that it would have been in a pre-Katrina world. That lets me know that the spirit that New Orleans is is never going to go away. The spirit of the people that is here that is joie de vivre, that love just thanking God that he woke you up this morning so you could see another day. That is a part of it.
But the next day, when you have to get with your attorney and go down to the clerk of court's office and file a suit against your insurance company is a reality. Everything that we do is affected by Katrina and by the flood, from buying a galloon of milk to buying a truckload of sheetrock and trying to do your house. Everything has been affected. In answer to your question, yes, angry, hopeful, mad, happy. Every emotion that you can imagine, we run through every day, every day.
MARTIN: All right, Mr. Banks. It's been a pleasure to speak with you.
Mr. BANKS: Call me any time, Michel. It's my pleasure. You take care. God bless you.
MARTIN: All right. Take care. You, too. Gralen Banks from uptown New Orleans in the 13th Ward. Mr. Banks and his family are living in a FEMA trailer next to their house, and he joined us by phone.
Thank so much, Mr. Banks.
Mr. BANKS: Thank you.