ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Today on the program and at NPR.org, we continue our anniversary coverage called Katrina: Where Did The Money Go? We'll be exploring various aspects of the money trail and the aftermath of the storm. We start with the deep personal toll on a street familiar to our listeners.
SIEGEL: In the past year, we've been following the residents of Honeysuckle Lane in New Orleans East. A year ago, they heeded the warnings of their mayor and even though they'd all been through false alarms before, they took some belongings in the car and they left town. While they were away, the wind and rain of Katrina came and then flooding from storm surges and from broken levees.
Honeysuckle Lane is a pair of joined cul-de-sacs ringed with single family homes and duplexes, 27 dwellings in all. It's on relatively high ground, so the damage here was measured not in lives but in inches of standing water, in sheets of wallboard rotting with mold, in thousands of dollars in insurance claims.
A year later, many of those claims are still pending. Few of the people of Honeysuckle Lane have put their lives back to where they were, and uncertainty is their most common condition.
Eric and Joann Arnaud are now living in a FEMA trailer that's hooked up to their home and parked in the driveway. The house is cleaned and gutted, but the Arnaud's have not finished the repairs. That way, they've been able to avoid dipping into their savings.
Mr. ERIC ARNAUD (Honeysuckle Lane resident): This where all the water actually poured into the house itself.
Ms. JOANN ARNAUD (Honeysuckle Lane resident): Which caused the mold.
Mr. ARNAUD: Right.
SIEGEL: Eric and Joann Arnaud say they can't finish work on the house until they know what the Louisiana Recovery Authority is going to pay them.
Ms. ARNAUD: We applied. We got a number and that's all we know. 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.
Mr. ARNAUD: Because they going to, supposedly going to be going with the appraised value pre-Katrina. Okay. So if they lowball you in the beginning -
Ms. ARNAUD: We don't know that. Please don't say that. Please don't say that. Just stop.
Mr. ARNAUD: I'm just saying it's a possibility. I'm hoping it won't be, but it's a possibility.
Ms. ARNAUD: Just don't say it. Stop saying it. Just be positive. Just stop saying that.
Mr. ARNAUD: Well, I'm trying to be positive but I also -
Ms. ARNAUD: No, you're not, because you constantly keep saying that. Please just stop, okay. Thank you. All right. We don't know. We're just waiting.
Mr. ARNAUD: I'm not too hopeful.
SIEGEL: Now when we say appraised, we also mean assessment and that is -
Mr. ARNAUD: Right. Exactly.
SIEGEL: And houses are historically assessed low, especially in New Orleans.
Ms. ARNAUD: Right.
Mr. ARNAUD: Exactly. You know, if you look at the medium homes that some are putting up right now that are $100,000 - a lot of homes, especially in the lower Ninth Ward not going to qualify for half of that. So if you're looking at three-quarters in East New Orleans -
Ms. ARNAUD: Please stop saying that.
Mr. ARNAUD: I'm serious. I'm -
Ms. ARNAUD: Please stop. You don't even know what's going to go on, so please stop talking now, okay?
Mr. ARNAUD: I'm just saying it's -
Ms. ARNAUD: Just stop. We just don't know. We really don't. We're just waiting to hear what's going to happen.
SIEGEL: Eric Arnaud is retired and Joann Arnaud was a New Orleans public school teacher. After Katrina, all the teachers were fired. She's now applying for jobs in local charter schools.
Two doors down from the Arnauds is Kelli Wilkerson whom we first interviewed when she'd fled to Baton Rouge. Last October, she complained to us that everything there shuts down after 2:00 in the morning.
Now, Kelli is also living in a FEMA trailer in front of her house with her son and with her friend, Katrina. They both cut hair, and Katrina had a customer when we came in for a tour and an earful of Kelli's complaints.
Ms. KELLI WILKERSON (Honeysuckle Lane resident): This is NPR News guys. And he want to see how tight it is to live in this trailer because they've been following us on Honeysuckle Lane for the past year. This is my son's room. Or should I say space. You don't want to see the bathroom.
SIEGEL: So these are not happy days.
Ms. WILKERSON: No. I mean, I try to spend most of my days away from here because it's just too tight. You know, she's doing hair and then when other people come in, you know, you don't - you just feel too tight.
SIEGEL: In fairness, though, the trailer would not -
Ms. WILKERSON: This is not cool. FEMA needs to be slapped across the face.
SIEGEL: But the trailer wouldn't feel quite so cramped if you weren't here doing hair in the trailer. I mean, you're living, you're working in here.
Ms. WILKERSON: Well, when we lived in our house, we did hair.
Unidentified Woman: Okay. I know that we are very excited, but I'm going to ask at this time that everyone would please listen for direction.
SIEGEL: On Tuesday August 15, Gaye Hewitt's youngest daughter started the seventh grade at a new school, McMahon.
Unidentified Woman: I need those young people in the middle to break it up.
SIEGEL: It's in uptown New Orleans, a long drive from her home on the corner of Honeysuckle Lane and a long drive from the army base across the Mississippi where she's been spending much of her time with a friend.
Gaye's husband died in his 30s when they were both New Orleans police officers. Despite that loss, despite the demands of raising five kids and starting a new career doing medical transcription, she says that she remained trusting and optimistic. But after months out of town post-Katrina, after she and her kids were robbed or menaced time and again in Houston -
Ms. GAYE HEWITT (Honeysuckle Lane resident): I've gotten meaner. My outlook on things has changed a lot. When I first lost my husband, I was more into giving a lot people the benefit of the doubt. Now if you get a second chance with me, that's very good right now. I don't trust as much as I used to. I'm very cautious about where my kids go. I'm very clingy. I was clingy from the beginning, but now I'm like Velcro. You can't peel me off.
SIEGEL: She also says that her state of mind cuts into her work, so she's earning less from transcription and she's cashed in her IRA to make ends meet.
One of Gaye Hewett's neighbors on Honeysuckle Lane offers this word to sum up his state of mind. Confusion. Charles Jenkins is a longshoreman. He says the past year he has spent all his savings and has no money to buy furniture. He and his wife use air mattresses instead. They do live inside their house on Honeysuckle Lane. That's unusual. And he says that's about the only part of his life that is back to normal.
Mr. CHARLES JENKINS (Honeysuckle Lane resident): I'm confused about the city itself. It's going to take years for it to come back, but can't a lot of us wait that long for it, you know. They're not really sure we're going to have (uintelligible) out here where we're living. East is going to really come back. Sometimes I ride through this neighborhood or go in my friend's house that, you know, we hang out sometimes but nobody's there no more, you know.
I don't know what's going to happen, really. I wish they'd come back, but I don't know. And the way it looking right now, it's not. I mean, the shopping centers and stuff, they're not even attempting or nothing like that.
SIEGEL: Not according to Sherman Copelin, a local politician who lives in New Orleans East and represents businesses and homeowner associations there. He says big retailers like Wal-Mart are signing contracts to build on the local mall. Copelin's group retained urban planner Joseph St. Martin, who envisions New Orleans beautified. We met the two men together. First, St. Martin.
Mr. JOSEPH ST. MARTIN (Urban planner): Private dollars follow public investment, so with the amount of money that's coming down, eastern New Orleans stands to become a Mecca for the state of Louisiana or continue to be a Mecca for the state of Louisiana, because it was already that Mecca before the storm hit.
SIEGEL: But look, you're describing the future to me. And you've got contracts are being signed and all. Right now, you drive around New Orleans East, you see a tremendous number of homes that are in disrepair that people cannot live in. The cars have been towed away, that's true. There are streetlamps now in the cul-de-sacs.
Mr. ST. MARTIN: What's the point?
SIEGEL: Where are the people? Where are the people?
Mr. ST. MARTIN: You drive around the city of New Orleans, 80 percent of the city was devastated. You drive around Iran, Iraq, you're going to see the same thing. Wherever there's devastation, that's what you see until it's cleaned up. Does that mean you stop living, you stop breathing, you stop functioning? No. That's what the plan is all about.
SIEGEL: It's a year. It's a year. It's a year.
Mr. ST. MARTIN: It's a year since it occurred. There are portions of this city that still have not been certified for people to come back home, i.e. lower Ninth Ward. So what if it's been a year if you can't come back to your home? I mean, so, no. I'm not upset because it's been a year. I mean, this is a war zone. And you don't recover in a short period of time.
SIEGEL: But there is a huge gap between the future that Copelin and St. Martin foresee and the work in progress that is Honeysuckle Lane.
Cynthia Townsend who was widowed a few months before the storm, stood outside her house with her daughter, Serona Preder(ph). They are believers. They lived through this neighborhood's birth. They can live through its rebirth.
Ms. CYNTHIA TOWNSEND (Honeysuckle Lane resident): Let me tell you, when we moved here, this house was not there. That house was not there.
Ms. SERONA PREDER (Honeysuckle Lane resident): This house, they were here, the same people. They were here. These people who live here wasn't there. That lady wasn't there. Judy was here. This house wasn't even there. It was just trees.
Ms. TOWNSEND: So we watched a place that was basically wilderness grow up into a nice big community.
Ms. PREDER: Where this house was, that was our trail to go catch the bus and go to school, man and my brother.
Ms. TOWNSEND: They would walk through the woods cause it was a shortcut.
SIEGEL: But a neighborhood means more than homeowners or even a Wal-Mart. There used to be a community hospital nearby with more than 300 beds and more than 1,000 jobs. Ever since Katrina, Methodist Hospital has been closed. The company that owns it, Universal Health Services, shows no sign of reopening it and won't comment on Methodist's future.
Its campus, barely a mile from Honeysuckle Lane, is vacant and silent, save for the jangle of the lanyard against a flagpole. Fred Young used to run the hospital. We visited the Methodist grounds with Mr. Young and with Dr. Donald Palmisano, a surgeon who practiced here for decades. I asked Fred Young how soon there could be a hospital functioning here once again.
Mr. FRED YOUNG (Methodist Hospital): If we started tomorrow and we had all the money in the world, 12 to 18 months.
SIEGEL: Twelve to 18 months.
Mr. YOUNG: That's my guess.
SIEGEL: That's two to two and a half years of New Orleans East without a hospital.
Mr. YOUNG: Correct.
SIEGEL: Dr. Palmisano, honestly, a young surgeon asks you what's your advice? You've got a hospital here that could be ready to go with all the money in the world in a year to a year and a half. Does somebody hang in to be a surgeon in New Orleans East or do you relocate to Baton Rouge or Houston at this stage?
Dr. DONALD PALMISANO (Methodist Hospital): Well, most young surgeons are going to be able to afford to wait a year and a half for a facility. 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?
And as you see the local and state politics, the debate that goes on and the rebuilding, they get very frustrated and believe there's a lack of leadership, and say let me take this offer in Texas, let me take this offer in Georgia. And it's a sad statement but we're losing many, many of our young doctors, as well as the older doctors who are near retirement. And they say we're just going to go ahead and retire and try to do some teaching somewhere.
SIEGEL: Judy Talmon of Honeysuckle Lane used to be an administrator at Methodist. She's taken her work for the hospital company Universal with her. She telecommutes from Las Vegas, where her grown children live. She had bought a place there with her insurance money and put the duplex on Honeysuckle up for sale. She's asking $56,000, and she says that is half of its pre-Katrina value. Judy Talmon says she's learned that enduring relationships are more important than lost property.
Ms. JUDY TALMON (Former New Orleans Resident): When I left that Saturday, the 27 of August with everybody who was on the road, and it was, we had done it so many times before. And this time I put three changes of clothes in my car and a couple pictures and my important papers, and just drove out of town thinking I would be back in three days.
So basically everything that was left behind was lost. And the funny thing is I don't miss any of it. I don't miss any of it. I miss the people.
SIEGEL: Over the past year, the people who live on Honeysuckle Lane have reassessed their values, material and moral. A year later, there are some bright spots, literally. The street lamps work at night. Some shops, a motel and one nearby gas station have reopened. But still no phone service, most homes are still in need of some repair, many careers too. Post-Katrina construction costs are way up, and pre-Katrina insurance levels don't do the job.
So a year after the levees broke and the people of Honeysuckle Lane drove off to uncertain futures, they talk more about the question marks that still hang over their lives than about the answers that they've settled on.
BLOCK: You can learn more about he residents of Honeysuckle Lane at our Web site, NPR.org.