RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep in New Orleans, beneath the giant clock on the St. Louis Cathedral. This famous clock stopped during Hurricane Katrina. It was still stopped when President Bush used it as a backdrop for a speech. Now, as we record this almost a year later, the clock is just a few minutes past midnight.

It's our starting point for the next 24 hours, one day in the life of New Orleans.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's the early hours of Wednesday morning. The Rebirth Brass Band is playing the Maple Leaf Bar in a neighborhood that escaped the flooding.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Outside, a caterer works the busy sidewalk, grilling meat that you can smell down the street.

BITTLES (Caterer): Well, we have like pork chops, hamburgers, chicken breasts, soft French bread.

INSKEEP: That's quite a selection for one o'clock in the morning.

BITTLES: Well, I mean in New Orleans you try and do a variety of things that they all like.

INSKEEP: As we'll hear throughout this day, New Orleans residents have more limited choices when it comes to remaking their lives. The caterer calls himself Bittles, Bittles with the vittles, the man with the red t-shirt and a pile of black hair. He works until closing time and returns to the only remaining home in his extended family. He lives with his mom.

Do you know where you'll sleep tonight?

BITTLES: On the floor, on a hard wooden floor. When I leave here, I go home and sleep on a hard wooden floor.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Dawn reveals a city that moves to a different rhythm.

(Soundbite of hammering)

INSKEEP: Some workers hammer and other demolish houses. One wrecked home fills about three large trucks. It's hard to appreciate the scale of what's happening until you see it from above.

(Soundbite of horn blowing)

INSKEEP: After 7:00 o'clock on Wednesday morning, we step onto a New Orleans drawbridge. It lifts us like an elevator. We stand above a canal. Black barges are reflected in still water.

Mr. MARK SCHLEIFSTEIN (New Orleans Times Picayne): Unfortunately what we see is a mess.

INSKEEP: We stand on the walkway with Mark Schleifstein of the New Orleans Times Picayune. He co-authored a book on the failure of the levees, like one below us that is now patched with a concrete wall.

Mr. SCHLEIFSTEIN: The canal itself is still busy with shipping interests, but the community surrounding it are pretty much gone.

INSKEEP: We're on this immense steel drawbridge, and as it climbs we're beginning to get a broader and broader view of New Orleans. What's this neighborhood over here?

Mr. SCHLEIFSTEIN: That's the lower 9th Ward, and as you can see there, a lot of the houses that were right up against that wall are now gone.

INSKEEP: From horizon to horizon you see this city's uneven struggle to come back. Neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street, ever wrecked home has a story, including, somewhere out there, Mark Schleifstein's own.

Mr. SCHLEIFSTEIN: I was there over the weekend mowing my lawn in front of the flooded house, the only one on my block who was doing that. It's frustrating. I spent - I was out there for an hour and a half before I heard anyone else in that neighborhood walking around or doing anything.

INSKEEP: It's not unusual to hear to stories like one that ran in Mark Schleifstein's newspaper on this morning. It's about a newspaper photographer who was so depressed that he tried to force policemen to kill him.

Okay. So we've now left the Florida Avenue Bridge and gone down into the Lower 9th Ward near that levee break. You can see houses that have floated off their foundations and still sitting there in a pile. You can see houses that are vacant. There is a little more traffic.

We are going to see a man who has been rebuilding his house, and who is determined to return, even though he'll have very few neighbors. His name is Ronald Lewis(ph).

Mr. RONALD LEWIS (9th Ward Resident): We got us a Jacuzzi bathtub, and my wife going to have a nice big walk-in closet. This is our last hurrah.

INSKEEP: His house was so clogged with debris that he could barely move in it, let alone move in. So Ronald Lewis grabbed every helping hand that reached his way.

(Soundbite of nail gun)

INSKEEP: Volunteers install windows with a nail gun. Architecture students redesigned his backyard museum. It's dedicated to New Orleans' black social clubs. People planted dozens of sunflowers in his polluted yard.

Mr. LEWIS: I spoke with my wife on the telephone last night, and I told her possibly Monday or Tuesday she'll be able to come back into our home.

INSKEEP: A housing group got him cheap flood insurance, which he needs, since he did not raise his house off the ground. Neither did the man we're visiting near mid-day.

Mr. DONALD BORDALON(ph) (New Orleans Resident): Eleven-fourteen, sitting in my house, what's left of it.

INSKEEP: Donald Bordalon refused to leave his house in St. Bernard Parish, even when water filled the first floor. He and his wife, Colleen, are still replacing wiring and walls.

Ms. COLLEEN BORDALON: You want to...

Mr. BORDALON: We're going out, aren't...

Ms. BORDALON: I've got to get shoes on. It's hot.

Mr. BORDALON: Oh, it's too hot, huh? Makes it a little harder, man. New windows, you know?

INSKEEP: They lead us to the newly repaired roof, where we can study the wrecks of home after home whose owners will not come back.

Mr. BORDALON: Because they know it. It's going to come again, you know? Sooner or later, it's coming again. And every time a storm comes, you're going to think about it, you know? You've got to get your stuff ready, you know? You've got to have food, you've got to have water, you know? People, yeah, listen to this crazy guy, he's going to stay again, you know? I ain't saying I'm crazy, but you know...

INSKEEP: Can I just point out, a truck just went by, and it's whitewashed with the words Just Married. People seem to be getting on with their lives.

Mr. BORDALON: Oh, yeah. Why not, you know?

Ms. BORDALON: Yeah, day by day.

Mr. BORDALON: Yeah.

INSKEEP: The owners of that truck aren't the only ones starting new lives. Later on this day we meet a young couple preparing to get married in the St. Louis Cathedral.

Mr. PHIL FARROW(ph) (Groom): Well, we wanted a traditional New Orleans wedding, and that is the place to have it at.

INSKEEP: At 2:15, Phil Farrow was trying on the tuxedo that his fiancé, Sarah Shipman(ph), chose.

Mr. FARROW: Are you sure this is not going to clash with anything you wear?

Ms. SARAH SHIPMAN (Bride): Um-mmm.

Mr. FARROW: I wouldn't want to do that.

Ms. SHIPMAN: I picked it out, didn't I?

INSKEEP: Hurricane Katrina forced Shipman to flee the New Orleans area, though she hopes to return. Others are losing that hope, like a woman we reached by phone in Houston.

INSKEEP: (Talking on telephone) Hi, Myeesha(ph)? Hi, it's Steve Inskeep. How are you?

INSKEEP: Myeesha Margen(ph) was also planning a wedding for this month. It was put off indefinitely by the disaster.

In Houston, her fiancé now works up to 15 hours a day as a truck driver. As we speak, at almost 9:00 o'clock in the evening, she's still waiting for him to come home.

Ms. MYEESHA MARGEN (Former New Orleans Resident): He called me earlier. He was lost, and it's just - this city is so big, it's real big to get lost. And it's just, it's so much.

INSKEEP: Is life better in Houston in any way?

Ms. MARGEN: Yes, it is. The education for my children is so much better. The residential areas are so much better. The crime is not an issue where, you know, where I'm at, or whatever. And it's just - it's a bigger city, more opportunities. So I really, I don't want to go back. My only reason to back to New Orleans would be for my family.

INSKEEP: Can you get a good beignet in Houston, Texas?

Ms. MARGEN: Yeah, right. No. No.

INSKEEP: This week, a survey estimated New Orleans' population at much less than half its number before the storm.

We're ending our day in New Orleans back at the Maple Leaf Bar. Another midnight is approaching, and a few customers order drinks during the performance of a group called Jealous Monk.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: We found the owner at the end of the bar. In the days after Katrina, Hank Staples was fending off looters. Today, almost one year later, Staples is fending off more mundane problems.

Mr. HANK STAPLES (Owner, Maple Leaf Bar): An ordinary day, well, our - we're having problems with our toilets and the plumber didn't show. Post-Katrina, that's so ordinary in New Orleans. I can't convey that to the rest of the country.

INSKEEP: Just as he does most nights, Hank Staples will go to bed long before the Maple Leaf Bar shuts down. He lives directly upstairs and says the noise never disturbs his sleep. He's got a high tolerance for life's irritations, which is something New Orleans' residents need, day by day.

We're in New Orleans, and you can find pictures and a multimedia presentation on our day in the life of this city at npr.org.

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