Katrina Victims Still Struggle to Find Way Home A year after Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, many of those displaced still haven't returned home. Funds for rebuilding remain scarce. In New Orleans, a lack of basic services, troubles with contractors and skilled-labor shortages complicate the situation.
NPR logo

Katrina Victims Still Struggle to Find Way Home

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5720114/5720321" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Katrina Victims Still Struggle to Find Way Home

Katrina Victims Still Struggle to Find Way Home

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5720114/5720321" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. Tuesday marks a year since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. The statistics are staggering. By official count about 1,700 people died. Hundreds of thousands of homes were wrecked and more than a million people were displaced. The storm and its aftermath forced the country to take a hard look at disaster preparedness.

This week NPR marks the anniversary of Katrina by tracking the billions spent on response and rebuilding. But today, NPR's John Ydstie has a more personal look at how people from Biloxi to Houston are making their way home after the costliest disaster in the nation's history.

JOHN YDSTIE reporting:

As you travel Highway 90 and Interstate 10 from Biloxi to New Orleans, evidence of Katrina's destructive power remains visible: ruined homes on deserted streets in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward; scoured concrete slabs that once were beach homes on the Mississippi.

Here on Lee Street, a quiet neighborhood in East Biloxi, Mississippi, there are signs of recovery. Lee Smith is sweating through his shirt on a stepladder in the wilting mid-day heat.

Mr. LEE SMITH (Biloxi Resident): I'm just out here putting some hurricane straps on.

YDSTIE: Smith is one of nearly 300,000 people displaced by Katrina still unable to go to bed at night in their own homes. But he's closer to that dream than most. Thanks to volunteers from a church group, his new house has a floor, four walls and rafters.

Mr. SMITH: It's a pretty good crew, and I hated to see them go back to Seattle, Washington. You know, they was a hard working crew. They was all Christian peoples, and we wrote scriptures on all the walls in here.

YDSTIE: Would you read a couple to us?

Mr. SMITH: You can read them. I'll let you do the honors.

YDSTIE: This one is from Psalm 89. I will sing of the loving kindness of the Lord forever.

Mr. SMITH: Yes, sir. Gives you the spirit to go on.

YDSTIE: It's easy to conclude as you tour the Gulf Coast that the great calamitous stories of the Bible may have had their beginnings in events like this. Here a monster storm surge flooded over 6,000 homes, the majority in low-income East Biloxi. Now the challenge for Lee Smith and others is finding the money to rebuild. Smith didn't have flood insurance. He spent the small amount of money he got from his homeowners policy and FEMA. Now he's waiting on federal rebuilding money that's supposed to be coming from the state.

Mr. SMITH: They tell us one thing and do another. They said that people will be receiving money in two weeks. That was last month. Nobody got anything. Then they come up with the mortgage company going to get theirs off the top to pay all your bills off and whatever's left you get.

YDSTIE: Many devastated residents of East Biloxi don't even qualify for the rebuilding funds. Each state makes its own rules and so far Mississippi's program that provides grants up to $150,000 leaves a lot of people out, especially poor people. New flood guidelines call for some houses here to be elevated ten feet or more. FEMA provides grants of up to $30,000 for that. But sitting beside her FEMA trailer on the empty lot where her home used to be, Cora Reddix says for her, elevating is not an option.

Ms. CORA REDDIX (Biloxi Resident): I would have to give up because I can hardly get up those steps there.

YDSTIE: The five steps to your trailer.

Ms. REDDIX: Yeah, uh-huh. I'm 86 and I've had arthritis and I've had some of my toes amputated. So I just wouldn't be able to do it, so I would just have to go in a nursing home somewhere.

YDSTIE: The new elevation guidelines could force many old folks who populate these neighborhoods to sell out to developers or casino interests. Already casinos have bought up some of the ruined property in Biloxi.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: Of all the locations hammered by Katrina a year ago, the most hopeful story can be found on the high ground in New Orleans along the Mississippi River. On a recent Sunday afternoon a Dixieland band entertains a crowd in the French Quarter. A bearded man with a colorful parasol dances in the street. Tourists are returning. Most of the hotels and restaurants are open. The Convention Center has bookings. Almost all the premium office space in the business district is occupied and the Port of New Orleans is nearly back to normal. About half of New Orleans' pre-Katrina population is back, mostly crowded into this high ground along the river. That means small businesses are back too.

(Soundbite of dogs barking)

Mr. NED HENRY (New Orleans Resident): This is Belle Rowl(ph). She's a dog that's been through a lot and has heartworms.

YDSTIE: Ned Henry, a lean young man with a quick smile, runs a small animal hospital in Uptown, a few miles upriver from the French Quarter.

Mr. HENRY: We're busier now then we were before the storm, and that might be because people have moved from the low ground up to the high ground. I'm not sure, but I think around here a lot of businesses are doing okay.

YDSTIE: Dr. Henry says he was lucky. His business didn't flood. Neither did his home.

Mr. HENRY: But I have a lot of friends who lost a lot. Some people have lost everything and the stress of that I think is affecting everybody here. You sort of think about it all day long. You wake up in the morning and I used to just read the comics in the newspaper. Now I run out to see what the front page news is.

YDSTIE: What kind of grass is that?

Mr. JERRY WILLIAMS (New Orleans Resident): Augustine. St. Augustine. Pretty, huh?


Jerry Williams kneels down and touches the lush green grass of his neighbor's yard. Here in the Lower Ninth Ward, the smallest sign of normal life is savored. Williams, a man with white hair and sad eyes, is rehabbing his flooded duplex on Todd Place. But he's exhausted.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Financially I can't go any further. I'm mentally drained. And you still look around and say, well, I really haven't put a dent in here. I have floors to do. I have doors to put up, as you see.

YDSTIE: The road home for residents of this devastated neighborhood is filled with obstacles. The huge debris fields near the catastrophic breaches in the Industrial Canal levee have been largely cleared, but some areas here still don't electricity and sewer service. On many blocks in the Lower Ninth no one has returned.

Jerry Williams in one of the few making progress. New sheet rock hangs on walls that took six feet of water. There's new electrical wiring behind it. But it took dogged effort, about $9,000 in insurance and FEMA money, and all of Jerry Williams' saving.

Mr. WILLIAMS: I just paid for my home in April. It's mine now. It took me years and years of paying, you know? So I don't have much choice. Do you think I have much choice? Do you know somewhere else I can go?

YDSTIE: Could you sell this place?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Do you want to sell your place? No, I don't. I've been here for 23 years. This is my home. I hope that penetrates to everybody in America. You live where you live, I live where I live. You love where you love. I love where I love. I love New Orleans. I have always loved New Orleans, and I don't want to go nowhere else. I'm sorry.

YDSTIE: Emotions are still raw among Katrina's victims. Voices break and tears come quickly. But the mood lightens when Williams' cousin, Terry Coleman, arrives to look at the progress.

Mr. TERRY COLEMAN (New Orleans Resident): Oh yeah, you've made a lot of progress.

Mr. WILLIAMS: I call that Blanco money. I need that Blanko money for them floors.

Mr. COLEMAN: They're going to give you something. I'm not sure how much it's going to be when they get through with the discounts.

YDSTIE: That's Blanco for Governor Kathleen Blanco. Here in Louisiana, too, the state is in charge of distributing federal rebuilding funds, up to $150,000 to eligible homeowners. More than 100,000 have applied, but the checks are not yet flowing. A few blocks from his cousin's duplex, Terry Coleman stands in front of a little white shotgun house. The small porch still has Katrina mud on it. His mother built this place board by board during World War II. Now this house that gave the Coleman family its toehold in New Orleans is ruined. As he surveys the scene, Coleman points to the lone person back on the street two doors down and says he's not sure it's worth rebuilding here.

Mr. COLEMAN: Worse case scenario is they have it piecemeal. You see in this situation here, it's only one person back in this whole block. He doesn't own the property, his mother do. He's not going to be here forever. He's gutting the house out. He's just having a place to stay. So that's means the only person that's here is a squatter, basically.

(Soundbite of church music)

YDSTIE: Sunday morning at St. Gabriel the Archangel in the Gentilly Woods area of New Orleans. A couple of hundred worshippers are gathered in this church that is a refuge for Aria Bocage(ph), a 26-year-old mother of two. She's back with her husband, picking up the pieces in this devastated neighborhood.

Ms. ARIA BOCAGE (New Orleans Resident): You step into the doors of the church, it's like nothing ever happened. Like August the 29th, 2005 never occurred. But soon as you step outside, you look across the street, you see the homes are still battered.

There's this one house directly across where there's a FEMA trailer. So you know that it happened, but it's always good to kind of retreat from the madness and the sadness, and that's what we get every Sunday here at Mass.

Ms. MARY GOLD HARDESTY (New Orleans Resident): I was - church is really coming back. That's what make me know (unintelligible). Every Sunday we have about eight or 10 people that's coming back.

YDSTIE: For Mary Gold Hardesty, the resurrection of St. Gabriel from the flood is a sign that this middle-class, largely African-American neighborhood will be reborn too. In fact, all but two of the homeowners on her block of Mendez Street are back, white FEMA trailers perched in their front yard.

Ms. HARDESTY: Come here, Pepe. He know he doesn't go in that street.

YDSTIE: Hardesty is almost 80, but she scoops up her little black dog, Pepe, with a quick and sure motion of a young woman. With the help of an SBA loan, Ms. Hardesty got a quick start on her one storey brick house in February. But she's disappointed with the progress.

Ms. HARDESTY: Believe it or not, this is all the further this has gone since February.

YDSTIE: So far, the house, which had water to the ceiling, is basically just gutted, even though she gave the contractor a $90,000 down payment.

Ms. HARDESTY: They asked me for money, every day they call, but that's not $90,000 worth of work in there. The owner of the company called me today and told me that the electrician is going to be here tomorrow and had I heard any more from the SBA? I said, yep, I heard from the SBA, but nothing is going in your bank anymore until you do $90,000 worth of work. Mm-hmm.

YDSTIE: Trouble with contractors and a shortage of skilled tradesmen has slowed the return home for many Katrina victims.

West of Gentilly, across City Park, is a largely white neighborhood called Lakeview. Middle-class and upscale homes here were flooded by a huge breach in the 17th Street Canal.

Mr. GLENN STOUDT (Lakeview Civic Improvement Association): We're close to the area of the breach. It's up and to the left here a few blocks.

YDSTIE: Glenn Stoudt is a member of the Lakeview Civic Improvement Association.

Mr. STOUDT: This area, hmm, I'd say seven or eight months ago was just total devastation. As you can see now, you've got roofs on houses, you've got some lawns cut, you've got people that have rebuilt.

YDSTIE: Though there are signs of progress, Stoudt admits that a third of the homes here remain untouched. One bright spot is Jan and John Lockwood's home on General Haig Street.

Ms. JAN LOCKWOOD (New Orleans Resident): This is the kitchen, and the only thing I did differently, I opened a wall here.

YDSTIE: Fresh paint, gleaming hardwood floors, new kitchen appliances, and no trace of the flood waters that sat for more than a month in these rooms. It's a different world than the one John Lockwood saw when he opened the front door for the first time after the storm.

Mr. JOHN LOCKWOOD (New Orleans Resident): I've never had that feeling before. It was just like there was no feeling. It was - I was in awe and in ankle-deep mud.

Ms. LOCKWOOD: Once you get that out, the old molded sheetrock, all the old sofas that were all corroded, then you could see studs, and then you get it cleaned, and you could see some potential.

YDSTIE: So the Lockwoods decided to come home, partly because their daughter planned to move back with the grandkids. They were among the very first people to show up here.

Ms. LOCKWOOD: In January, when we moved in, everything was gray and brown, and he planted the rye grass, and it was green and lush, and he went and got his lawnmower. And people would pass by. Your yard looks great. Everything else is so brown and gray and ugly. They said, You're like an inspiration.

Mr. LOCKWOOD: The progress we've made has been mostly because of her. I mean, (unintelligible) quit driving down the alleys because...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LOCKWOOD: Oh, they all found I'd run out to (unintelligible).

Mr. LOCKWOOD: ...she'd throw herself in front of the truck to stop them to - we want electricity. This, that and the other.

Ms. LOCKWOOD: Well, you have to be a little aggressive.

YDSTIE: Actually, given Jan Lockwood's past, it's a bit surprising that she decided to come back. In 1957, 40 members of her extended family died during Hurricane Audrey. She barely escaped. She says she's a survivor. And Lockwood says she's confident the repairs and improvements to the levees mean New Orleans is more secure now than it was before Katrina.

(Soundbite of convention center)

YDSTIE: In a corner of Houston's giant convention center, mothers with children in tow are at a housing forum looking for help. They're among the 111,000 Katrina evacuees still in Houston. Thirty-year-old Tymica Trotter-Hurst lived in the BW Cooper housing project in New Orleans, near the Superdome. She's still adjusting to life in Houston.

Ms. TYMICA TROTTER-HURST (Evacuee): It's all right. It's just so big. Only thing I'm having a problem with is finding a job. Because of my degrees I had and all, that can't be transferred to Houston, and they want me to restart school all over again, and that's real hard trying to start school and take care of three kids.

YDSTIE: In New Orleans, Tymica was a medical records clerk and a nurse's assistant. Now, like more than half the evacuees in Houston, she's unemployed and depending on FEMA for housing assistance. She's pleased that despite the trauma of Katrina, her children have done very well in school here, even though their classes are more challenging. Like the majority of evacuees in Texas, Tymica says she has no plans to go back home to New Orleans.

Miles from the bustle of downtown, in a gated community for seniors, Jerry White has decided to stay in Houston too.

Mr. JERRY WHITE (Evacuee): I have to let New Orleans go.

YDSTIE: White was a law clerk. Now he keeps busy decorating his FEMA-subsidized apartment. Today he sits impeccably dressed at his dining room table, all the place settings laid out like a department store display.

White was emotionally devastated by the hurricane. He was evacuated by boat from his mid-city neighborhood, deposited on the Broad Street overpass, and spent three days and nights there with almost no food or water. Convicts from the Orleans and St. Bernard prisons were at the foot of the bridge.

Mr. WHITE: That's something that I never thought I'd dreamed I'd have to go through in my life, you know. I have never seen people die around me, and that was kind of devastating to me.

YDSTIE: And it's been something that's still affecting you. I mean, it's been almost a year now.

Mr. WHITE: Yes, it affect me. It do. It affect me. That bridge really put the icing on the cake. Staying up there, laying on the concrete, many nights I cried. I didn't let nobody see me cry, but it was nothing nice.

YDSTIE: White says when the helicopter lifted him off the Broad Street Bridge, he said goodbye to New Orleans forever.

Mr. WHITE: To think about New Orleans is a nightmare to me now, and I don't know whether I'm going to get over it. I may never get over it. I have to look forward to a brighter day, and which in Houston it's bringing me a brighter day every day. I got to let the past be the past. I had good years in New Orleans, wonderful years, but it's gone.

YDSTIE: How long it will take for Katrina's victims to find their way home, geographically and emotionally, remains to be seen. What's clear one year after the storm is that for most the journey is far from over. John Ydstie, NPR News.


You can see where Katrina survivors landed and how they're faring at our Web site, npr.org. Up next, we remember a pioneer in molecular biology. This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.