Fargo Family Determined to Make it in New Orleans Mark Folse and Rebecca Noack moved to New Orleans from Fargo, N.D., after Hurricane Katrina -- uprooting their family but determined to make a difference in reviving Folse's native city.
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Fargo Family Determined to Make it in New Orleans

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Fargo Family Determined to Make it in New Orleans

Fargo Family Determined to Make it in New Orleans

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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

Tomorrow it will be one year since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. This week NPR is reporting on where did the money go: how public and private money has been spent in the recovery. Our first story is about one family's bold decision.

Since Katrina and Rita, the population of New Orleans has been cut in half. Still, among the 170,000 people who've made their back to the city is the Folse family.

Mark Folse was living in Fargo, North Dakota ten years and 1,500 miles removed from his Louisiana childhood. He uprooted his family to join the rebuilding effort. NPR's Audie Cornish has the family's story, which begins in what was supposed to be a New Orleans ballet class.

AUDIE CORNISH reporting:

Instead of plies, 14-year old Killian Folse and two dozen other young students are sprawled around the dance studio floor in various combinations of pink tights and leotards for a surprise stress reduction workshop.

Unidentified Woman: I want you to divide up into pairs, and just take a minute or two to interview each other and discuss what you do to help yourself relieve some of your stress.

CORNISH: Killian stays quiet while girls like Nikki Jenkins(ph) open up about their feelings since the storm.

Ms. NIKKI JENKINS: When I'm stressed, I take stuff out on innocent people. I take out all my stress on people that are just passing by, and I just act crazy with everybody around me - family members, loved ones.

CORNISH: But its not like Folse has been stressed. She's spent her whole life in Fargo, North Dakota. And suddenly, the summer before she starts high school, her parents uproot the family in order to relocate to post-Katrina New Orleans. And making friends hasn't been easy.

Ms. KILLIAN FOLSE: It's hard hearing about it because, like, I just feel like I can't - I have nothing to say. Like, what do you say to someone who just, like, lost everything? Like, you can't like, if I just say, oh, I'm sorry, I feel like that's, like, not enough.

CORNISH: And it all started with Killian's dad and his blog. Mark Folse had grown up in New Orleans, and when Hurricane Katrina unleashed its wrath on the city, he freaked out. His mother and sister had evacuated safely, but for the next few days he spent all hours online, squirreling away time from work to scan the Internet for news.

Mr. MARK FOLSE: Wednesday, August 31st, 2005. Uptown, downtown flooding report. nola.com reports that water 1.5 feet reached Britannia Street at 10:30 a.m. and was still rising. On Norregno(ph) Street, water was three to ten feet high and...

Sunday, October 30th, 2005. I can barely keep track of the day of the week and have to constantly ask my family if it's our turn to drive the kids somewhere. I haven't put my boat away for the winter.

Friday, March 31, 2006. We are not okay. I need to live among people who know that we are not okay, people who share the same anger and despair. I need to find a way to turn that anger into energy to rebuild the city, a culture, a way of life. That's why I'm going back to live just blocks from vacant neighborhoods of rubble and ruin. If I were to stay in Fargo, the anger and frustration will surely kill me.

Ms. REBECCA NOACK: Well, all these years Mark has talked about how much he misses New Orleans. He has to move home, he has to move home. And he kept saying, you don't understand, Rebecca, I immigrated to America when I left New Orleans. You don't get it. And I'd roll my eyes and go, no, I don't get it.

CORNISH: Folse's wife, Rebecca Noack, says her family in Fargo didn't get it either, and pointed out news items on looting and crime in the city. But she understood that her husband wanted to do more than volunteer; he wanted to relocate and help the city rebuild.

Mr. FOLSE: The city was empty, and it was not clear how everyone was going to come back. And when I wasn't sure if enough people were going to be able to come home, if there was going to be enough to come home to, was what made me think that I had to be part of that critical mass that made the city survivable.

CORNISH: First, they started with a search for new jobs. And to her surprise, Noack found a new human resources job almost right away.

Ms. NOACK: When I was doing a job search, I was a little apprehensive about what would be the salary, what, you know, what would be the true growth -career opportunities here, because in the past I never found it a very attractive market at all. Post-Katrina, it seemed like there was a lot of opportunities.

CORNISH: After all, the labor force in the city had shrunk by 30 percent, with an exodus of a 190,000 workers after the storm. But this also meant that Noack would have to travel alone to the city while Folse worked on selling their Fargo home. By January, Noack was sleeping on the floor of her sister-in-law's French Quarter apartment, scanning the real estate listings and checking out neighborhoods.

Ms. NOACK: There was tons of debris back then, and the neighborhoods were deserted and doors were open and windows were up. And it's, like, wow, gee, I don't know if this is gonna work for us.

CORNISH: A month later, Noack was sinking their savings into a small shotgun duplex in a dry part of town. It was $100,000 more and 1,000 square feet less than their home in Fargo. But to convert it to a single-family home, Folse's wife would be duking it out for contractors and supplies along with the thousands of people gutting and rebuilding.

Ms. NOACK: I remember a few nights I just had major meltdowns on the phone with him. I was just crying. I was just beside myself. I just couldn't believe that I could live one more day in this city.

(Soundbite of rain, thunder)

CORNISH: But she did, and the family moved in May 30th. Today, on a typical rainy summer afternoon, Folse, Noack, and their 11-year-old son Matthew venture out to the only neighborhood grocery store. Noack says the price of everything seems a lot higher within city limits, and so they normally drive upwards of 45 minutes to better-priced and better-stocked stores to make ends meet.

CORNISH: Why couldn't you shop here regularly?

Ms. NOACK: I don't know. Where we used to live in North Dakota, I spent $400 a month. And now we're spending six, 650.

CORNISH: It's one of many additional costs they've taken on to live in New Orleans. Their electricity bill runs in the hundreds because Entergy New Orleans has lost thousands of customers and needs millions of dollars in repairs. Their new home insurance is $3,000 - three times what it was in Fargo. While their jobs are providing them the same household income of $120,000 a year, the couple says their spending just keeps going up and up.

Ms. NOACK: Nobody truly knows how much it's gone up to live here. Some people say 10 percent, some people say 15. You know, I mean everybody is speculating. So we, like everybody else, we're just kind of caught on the hamster wheel right now and trying to figure out the long-term picture.

The damage is $139.44, and that will barely get us through a week.

Mr. MATTHEW FOLSE (Son of Mark Folse, Rebecca Noack): So we put on our five cups, then we put in two tablespoons of olive oil. And then we start putting in our sausage.

CORNISH: Watching as his son Matthew stirs up a pod of store brand jambalaya, Folse says he's sure at some point he'll have to give up his telecommuting job doing IT for a national bank.

Mr. FOLSE: It was a knowing gamble to come down here in terms of the long-term security. What, you know - well, are we not saving enough, and the scary things that could happen. Every insurance company in the nation suddenly decide they're not gonna be anywhere within 300 miles of the coast. We could not be renewed next year and lose our home.

CORNISH: But Folse says he doesn't regret the move. He's already committing hours a week to his neighborhood association, and his kids are starting out in two of the city's best charter schools. And both he and his wife had good jobs. Folse's wife says she doesn't regret it, either.

Ms. NOACK: You know, we're just giving something to this community. And so maybe - you know, maybe, we're not the same economically. But on the other hand, you know, look at the people here. And there's people who still don't have jobs. They're living on unemployment - people who don't have homes, people who don't have a couch, people who have absolutely nothing. You know, it's just - we're all in this together.

CORNISH: Audie Cornish, NPR News, New Orleans.

MONTAGNE: You can check the progress in New Orleans has made in recovering from the floods in a before and after slide showed in npr.org.

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