MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

And I'm Melissa Block. It's now four and a half months since Hurricane Katrina and many New Orleanians still face an uncertain future. The Bring New Orleans Back Commission, empanelled by Mayor Ray Nagin, has produced a recovery plan, but it includes some weighty question marks. Will low-lying neighborhoods be rebuilt, or will they revert to green space? No one knows.

NORRIS: It depends on FEMA and its decision about which neighborhoods will be able to buy flood insurance and which will not. It also depends on thousands of independent decisions by homeowners to come back or stay away. We've been following the fortunes of one street in the sprawling district called New Orleans East. Our colleague, Robert Siegel, is back on Honeysuckle Lane this week, and here's what he found.

ROBERT SIEGEL: At midday Wednesday, Honeysuckle Lane was a beehive of activity by post-Katrina standards. A car drove up past the first cul-de-sac on the right, up to the second cul-de-sac at the end of the street. It was a young man from Texas who said he was looking in on his aunt's house. She's still in Houston.

Inside number 38, a duplex, Stephen Louis DeHassup (ph), also known as Marino, also known as Slingshot, he says, ripped sheetrock off the walls between beers.

STEPHEN LOUIS DEHASSUP: Oh, man, I've been gutting houses for God knows how long. See, I got one here and I got one around the corner.

SIEGEL: The water obviously came like three feet up the wall, looks like, or something like that.

LOUIS DEHASSUP: No, no, it's about five feet. But it's about up to here, though, but this is where it settled at.

SIEGEL: Right.

LOUIS DEHASSUP: But what I'm telling you is, see, this lasts, this concrete.

SIEGEL: He is gutting the place for the owner. Mr. DeHassup is from an old Creole neighborhood in New Orleans. He says Katrina was the best thing that ever happened to him in terms of work. He also says he's looking forward to Mardi Gras, the one day you can do anything.

LOUIS DEHASSUP: The whole wall come right out of there.

SIEGEL: You're just pulling the wallboard right off here.

LOUIS DEHASSUP: See, you just pull it right off. Look, the whole wall come down. Oh, my Lord, the wall finished now. See what I'm saying? I'm a professional.

SIEGEL: It's hard to imagine this man when he's uninhibited.

Then, a man drove by in a pickup with a trailer in tow. He claimed he was a contractor. Pulled up to a pile of trash in front of number 35, took one piece of scrap metal, threw it into the trailer, and left the rest behind on the curb. According to other contractors, he was probably scavenging. That's not uncommon.

Then, a dump truck and a Bobcat pulled up to number 10. It's the one house on Honeysuckle with its sodden, moldy furniture still out at the curb. Most of the other yards have been cleaned up already, and a couple didn't have to be. The Bobcat driver spun and pivoted between the curb and the dump truck. A sofa and armchair, an ironing board were trapped and hoisted in the jaws of the Bobcat's crane, and the dump truck, loaded up, headed off to the local landfill.

There are other parts of New Orleans, Uptown, the French Quarter, where you would hardly know there was a flood here. And then there are places here in New Orleans East which have barely revived from the early September deluge. The gutting and the carting set the stage for the next step, and many residents of Honeysuckle Lane don't know where that step will take them. For now, they've been urged to hold off on serious rebuilding for a few months. That's the advice of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMISSION MEETING)

Unidentified Woman: I'm going to open this up for public comment, and...

SIEGEL: The Bring New Orleans Back Commission, which was appointed by Mayor Ray Nagin, has proposed a scheme that's missing some vital information. Where in the city will FEMA sell flood insurance? The inability to get federal flood insurance is a death knell to a neighborhood, and so far, there is no updated FEMA flood map.

Joseph Canizaro, a New Orleans banker and well-connected Republican contributor, chaired the Commission's committee on urban planning. They came up with a scheme to guarantee pre-Katrina housing values using federal funds on the theory that New Orleanians are not at fault for Katrina, the public systems that should have protected them were. And since the Congress and the administration would have to pay for it, do they share Joseph Canizaro's theory of federal responsibility?

JOSEPH CANIZARO: I haven't gotten that conclusion from them directly. I will tell you that we're just finishing our plan. There are a few more committees reporting between now and Monday, at which time we will put together the complete plan. And when we have that complete plan, I intend, with others, to take it to Baton Rouge and to take it also to Washington to explain our reasons for asking for what we're asking, with the hope and expectation that America is going to be fair to the people of New Orleans.

SIEGEL: Joseph Canizaro is not expecting a new FEMA flood map until March. I asked him whether FEMA hasn't been too slow in producing the most important document on the future of low-lying areas.

CANIZARO: You might think so. But, you know, New Orleans is different from the Gulf Coast, which has already seen their preliminary FEMA maps, in that water sat for four weeks on this ground. And in order to come with their numbers, I'm assuming, now, nobody's told me this, that FEMA has to make sure of what subsidence has taken place in the soil as well as what the level of the water was when it came in. And they also have to take into consideration that our water damage is principally from a breach of a levee that, given the president's commitment to rebuild better than before, will not happen again.

So I think there are a lot - there's a lot more data that they need to pull together to come to the people and give them something that will be safe in the future. And they have a huge responsibility there, and I think they're probably doing their best to get it out as quickly as they can.

SIEGEL: There are other questions to be answered about the urban recovery plan that Joseph Canizaro's committee proposed. The plan says if 50 percent of the residents of a neighborhood come back, then the city will plan for the whole array of municipal services. But what is a neighborhood? Reed Kroloff, the dean of Tulane Architecture School, is working on this for the Bring New Orleans Back Commission.

REED KROLOFF: It's a really good question. There is no single answer.

SIEGEL: Well, is it 20 houses and 100 people, or is it 200 houses and 1,000 people? I mean, how big is a neighborhood?

KROLOFF: Well, you know, in New Orleans, there are more than 70 self-identified neighborhoods in the city, a city of approximately, pre-Katrina, half a million people. So that would give you a figure of somewhere in the range of about 7,000 people to make a neighborhood if you looked at each one of them that way. Somewhere 6,000, 7,000. And so we use that as a starting point. Some neighborhoods can have 5,000 people in a very small area, and some would have 5,000 people in a much larger area.

SIEGEL: But our friends on Honeysuckle Lane shouldn't only be concerned about whether 50 percent of the people on their street return, it's whether 50 percent or more of a much larger swath of New Orleans East return.

KROLOFF: Yes.

SIEGEL: Under the plan, people from under-populated neighborhoods could buy homes clustered in more compact quarters of New Orleans. Reed Kroloff is an urbanist in a city with a unique tradition of urban neighborhoods and residential architecture. But the people of Honeysuckle Lane left all that years ago for the more generic, less crowded atmosphere of a suburban-style cul-de-sac.

Judy Talman (ph) may come back to number 23 Honeysuckle. That's the duplex she moved into as a young divorcee with two small kids. It's now gutted and cleaned. She's living in a suburb. If she doesn't come back, she says she'd likely move to Las Vegas to join those kids, who now have homes of their own. For now, she's leaning toward Honeysuckle, but for weeks she didn't even drive out here.

JUDY TALMAN: Of course, that was at a time when we knew nothing about what was going to happen. People were saying they're not rebuilding the east. Nobody's coming back. And now I think as people are getting over the shock of what happened to them, and they're saying, yes, we can stay here, and this is my home, and we are coming back. And they're doing it. Before the city says you can, we're going to go ahead, and we're going to be pioneers, homesteaders in our own property. And we're going to go back and build it up. And then they can tell us we have to leave.

SIEGEL: Homesteading in your own front hall.

TALMAN: Absolutely. Absolutely. That's what people are doing. And they're showing that we're here. We can come back. We can take care of ourselves.

SIEGEL: You're in kind of a suburban frontier.

TALMAN: Absolutely. Like pioneers, starting all over again.

SIEGEL: There are now a few businesses that have started up again. We Never Close is the name of a roadside shop that sells Po' Boy sandwiches and seafood. The name is more sentiment than fact nowadays. They used to be open 24/7. Now it's just 12 hours a day. We Never Close has some contractors to serve, but not many residents.

Sean Lee (ph), the manager, grew up in the Vietnamese community of New Orleans East and he says he at least hopes they can make a go of it.

SEAN LEE: We just have to see, as far as other locals. We don't know if they're coming back or not. A lot of Asians are back.

SIEGEL: Over in the Vietnamese neighborhood?

LEE: Yeah, the community. So hopefully there are more that are willing to come back.

SIEGEL: The Vietnamese neighborhood is coming back much faster than other parts of New Orleans is.

LEE: It's like Little Saigon to them. So moving is tough.

SIEGEL: It was hard enough to get here in the first place.

LEE: Yeah, it was.

SIEGEL: There's also a Vietnamese-owned bakery that's back in business. It's specialty is French bread. And the Vietnamese restaurant next door to the bakery plans to reopen soon. But elsewhere in New Orleans East, The Plaza shopping mall is a wasteland. The fast food franchises show no sign of returning. Methodist Hospital, the big local healthcare provider, is closed. Only one gas station is open. And New Orleans East has no working traffic lights.

Captain Bob Bardy commands the seventh police district, which includes New Orleans East and the lower ninth ward. 126 square miles that used to be home to more than 100,000 people. Now --

BOB BARDY: I would say we probably have spacklings of under 2,000.

SIEGEL: And what will Captain Bardy's precinct look like as people start to trickle back?

BARDY: I think what you're gonna see in New Orleans East, is you're gonna see like lily pads.

SIEGEL: What you don't wanna see is a little community here and then five miles away, another little --

BARDY: Twenty miles away.

SIEGEL: Twenty miles away. That would be the worst.

BARDY: Yeah.

SIEGEL: At this point, the dispersed residents of Honeysuckle Lane don't know whether their street would be a lily pad in a desolate pond or part of a revived neighborhood. 25 homes, damaged by wind and water, but repairable, now with running water and electricity available. One FEMA trailer hooked up to one home and one house whose occupants have actually moved back in.

They are the Mortons at number 20 Honeysuckle Lane. Paul, a retired trucker, and Lorraine, a middle school teacher. Their house was elevated barely more than a foot higher than their neighbors' and on this street, that was the difference between flooding and gutting, and getting away almost unscathed. The major casualty in their household was the refrigerator, which, like thousands of New Orleans refrigerators, stood for weeks with the power off and food rotting inside. This week, a giant step towards normal life.

LORRAINE MORTON: This is the refrigerator. The first appliance we've replaced.

SIEGEL: Brand new?

MORTON: Brand new.

SIEGEL: How many weeks did it take from the time that you bought it to the time it was delivered?

MORTON: When did we go? We went to Lowe's Thursday and they delivered --

SIEGEL: Just a few days.

MORTON: Just a few days.

SIEGEL: That's a pretty exciting moment. We delivered, actually, up into a house on east side of the Lane.

PAUL MORTON: Yes, I guess that's the first one of the day.

MORTON: I would like to see more of us come back in. Make this neighborhood again a neighborhood.

SIEGEL: Five months ago, New Orleans was a city of nearly half a million people. The Bring New Orleans Back Commission is planning for a city about half that side. The question for the people of this street, Honeysuckle Lane, is whether they'll be part of the half that comes back or the half that doesn't. In New Orleans East, this is Robert Siegel.

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