ED GORDON, host:
One of the New Orleans's neighborhoods hardest hit by Katrina's flooding was the Ninth Ward. Farai went to the Ninth and visited Desire Street to report on a star-studded rebuilding effort. But just beyond the photo op, she found a deeper and unexpected story of loss, survival, and hope.
(Soundbite of hammering)
FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:
Last Tuesday, a group of aggressively attractive volunteers, all clad in red shirts and blazoned with the soaring Michael Jordan logo, gathered around the a construction site on Desire Street. Jordan's Nike brand had given $450,000 to Habitat for Humanity.
Celebrities, including rapper Daryl McDaniels, the D in Run DMC, stood poised to raise the walls of a new house.
Mr. DARYL MCDANIELS (Rapper, Run DMC): Like I went down the block and I was talking to the young homies down the block and stuff like that. And they was like, yo, D, it's really cool that you out here because a lot of people say that they care but they don't show up. It's shocking that to see that when you walk through here and people say, there's DMC here, they look at you like…
And I'm like, what's that look for?
Because you came.
CHIDEYA: It's easy as a reporter to come to these photo ops and ignore the people McDaniels is talking about - the few survivors who've actually come back. As the speeches continued, I walk down the street past the shells of once-flooded homes.
Unidentified Man: We got six in that small…
CHIDEYA: In earshot of the ceremony, a group of young men shelter from the oppressive heat under a shade tree. One of them cradled a sleepy pit bull pup named Mama. Next to him stood a muscular 26-year-old with a kind face. Willie Ellis was born and raised in the Ninth Ward.
Mr. WILLIE ELLIS (Born and Raised in Ninth Ward): I was born here in '79. I've been staying here ever since.
CHIDEYA: Ellis walked us across the street to the trailer he share with five other men. Yes, six men in one trailer. Mind you, these FEMA trailers are just 260 square feet. That's the size of a master bedroom in an upscale home. Ellis and his trailer-mate Derrell(ph) Haynes(ph) gave us a tour of their quarters.
Mr. ELLIS: Yeah, as you can see, they have two bunks back here in the back. Like I told you, there's six of us stay here. We don't have a washing machine and dryer so they get washed the best way they can. They have a foldout sofa right there that two of us sleep on. As you can see, it's not big enough for two people because I weigh 204 pounds myself and this is where I sleep and another guy that's bigger than me.
It's not a good living environment for six people but we have to make do with what we can being as though we don't have anywhere else to go.
CHIDEYA: What keeps you guys from killing each other in this space?
Mr. DERRELL HAYNES (Mr. Ellis's Trailer-mate): We really, we grew up together so we have love for each other. So we just, basically just, you know, maintain.
CHIDEYA: But for these guys, maintaining means more than just sharing a trailer with five other men. It means dealing with the painful memories of the day the levees broke.
Mr. ELLIS: We watched one of our friends drown right in front of our face and couldn't do anything about it. So you could see how the water was coming being as though we was so close to the levee. And we was telling him get off the boat, get off the boat. You know, cause it was nothing but a small canoe. And like eight of us in there.
When he jumped off, he was the last one to jump. When he jumped off, he never came up. When he did come up, it was like maybe two hours later and his body was just swollen.
CHIDEYA: Ellis and Haynes helped drag their friend's body to a neighbor's porch. They told local officials where he was, and the officers promised to pick up the body. But when they returned several days later, they made a grisly discovery.
Mr. ELLIS: Only thing was on the porch was his bones and, you know, parts of his skin.
Mr. HAYNES: His whole frame. Half was bone, half had skin.
Mr. ELLIS: And it was just laying out there on the porch, you know what I'm saying, just decomposed. That was him.
CHIDEYA: Their friend isn't the only person these men has lost to Katrina. Though their families are alive, they've been scattered to the four winds. For one, Haynes can't find his father or his three brothers. And Ellis can't locate his daughter, who he hopes is in Dallas with her mother.
Mr. ELLIS: Her name Whitley Cook(ph). She's six years old. Last thing I heard -last I heard she was in Dallas but I don't know exactly where at. That's my main focus right now, trying to find out where she is and exactly if she all right and things like that.
CHIDEYA: There are only 135 Louisianans still officially missing from Hurricane Katrina. But families were evacuated piecemeal often to cities hundreds of miles apart. Even now there's no easy way to track survivors, many of whom are constantly changing addresses and phone numbers.
When they're not trying to find relatives, the men have to support themselves. Each makes $200 to 300 a week cutting grass and doing construction. But in a city where many people are willing to work for less than minimum wage, and where these men have no transportation, work is hard to come by.
Mr. HAYNES: Well, it's a survival thing. You know, we're survivors. You understand? Ninth Ward survivors. That's all.
Mr. ELLIS: Basically what gets me through the day is like every morning I wake up when I'm brushing my teeth and things like that, I like to say the serenity prayer, and that'll help me throughout the day too. And I ask the Lord to, you know, help me just through today. Don't let none of my family members who I didn't catch up with be dead by the time I do see them.
CHIDEYA: Having God on your side is one thing, but having God and Miss Marguerite on your side is something else entirely.
Ms. MARGUERITE DOYLE JOHNSTON (Mayor of Desire Street): And they call me the Mayor because you can't come in this neighborhood and do just anything, because you will be stopped and asked why. Because it's like I run things that's in this area.
CHIDEYA: Marguerite Doyle Johnston, known to most as Ms. Marguerite, lives in a trailer next to Ellis and Haynes. She pays them and their friends to keep the block looking tidy. Johnston is short but imposing. She draws strength from the fact that her family built this block, literally.
Ms. JOHNSTON: Yeah. My grandfather built this house and some other houses on the block. He built it and this is where I've been all my life for 48 years. I don't know nothing else.
CHIDEYA: Desire, like the streetcar in the play, has seen better days. But it's also seen worse, says Johnston.
Ms. JOHNSTON: I've seen my community taking a turn that I didn't want it to take. And if somebody don't stand up and fight for it, you know, the drug dealers, everybody would take over. And I didn't want that because this is all family.
CHIDEYA: But Johnston didn't just stand up and fight, she used a legal technique called the Three-Year Acquisitive Prescription Plan to seize abandoned properties. She even donated the lot to Habitat for Humanity that brought us here in the first place.
(Soundbite of hammering)
CHIDEYA: While we spoke to bare-chested tattooed volunteers from a group called Common Ground worked on Johnston's home. But it's not just her own home she's worried about, she wants to see families moving in again, mothers and fathers coming home from a long day's work, and children playing in the street.
Ms. JOHNSTON: Our community, we're coming back and we're coming back with a vengeance. So here, we will be back. Nothing stopping us.
CHIDEYA: Farai Chideya, NPR News.
GORDON: To see more of the faces of Desire Street, visit our Web site at NPR.org.