Storm Survivors Face Hard Choices in New Orleans More than 100,000 New Orleans residents who fled Hurricane Katrina in 2005 still haven't returned. But many of those who have returned say they are still struggling to rebuild their lives in a city where infrastructure and communities have vanished.
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Storm Survivors Face Hard Choices in New Orleans

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Storm Survivors Face Hard Choices in New Orleans

Storm Survivors Face Hard Choices in New Orleans

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Almost two-and-a-half years after Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, the city and Southeast Louisiana are still in the process of rebuilding. State officials say it could be years, even a decade, before the region fully recovers. Meanwhile, many neighborhoods remain in an almost perpetual state of construction, where empty, gutted homes sit next to brand new ones, and where schools and police stations are still in trailers.

Residents who are trying to rebuild say the process is a constant struggle. But amidst that struggle, there's also hope that the region will come back better than ever. NPR's Jason Beaubien has our story.

JASON BEAUBIEN: The Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans used to be a middle-class area. It was dominated by solid, ranch homes, mostly built in the 1960s and '70s. After Katrina, as much as eight feet of water poured through Gentilly. Many of the post-war houses are still standing, but they're gutted and empty.

Ms. ANGELE GIVENS: This one's empty. This one's...

BEAUBIEN: Angele Givens is walking along her old street

Ms. GIVENS: That one's empty, of course. This one is renovated, and it had a for sale sign in front of it, and now I don't know why the for sale sign is gone. I don't know if they sold it or they just gave up.

BEAUBIEN: What used to be a lush, residential neighborhood is now a mix of construction sites, vacant lots and empty buildings. Givens had her house demolished, and now is in the process of rebuilding. Pressure-treated wood pilings that will serve as her new foundation stand like squat sentries across the vacant lot.

Ms. GIVENS: We raided our 401k so that we can build this new house. So we'll never retire now.

BEAUBIEN Givens says New Orleans is a very hard place to be right now. She's paying a mortgage on a vacant lot and paying rent while she rebuilds. Almost two-and-a-half years after the storm, there still are no stores, no gas stations, no post office in this neighborhood. And Givens says she didn't just lose her house to Katrina.

Ms. GIVENS: That was the easy part, the house and the stuff. But let me tell you what I did lose: my neighbors, my church, my kids' school, my social network, my friends. I mean, today your friends are all here. Tomorrow, they're in Connecticut and they're never coming back. I mean, that - and then, in spite of all of that here you are coming back, rebuilding. You know, most days I say, I must be crazy.

BEAUBIEN: Angele and her husband were born and raised in New Orleans. Before Katrina, they expected their house in Gentilly would be their last. At times, she second-guesses her decision to rebuild here, but she's committed to it now. Standing in a wasteland of construction debris and vacant lots, she says she stays because she wants to help make the new New Orleans.

Ms. GIVENS: I mean, this is our chance to make it better. This is our chance to make that city that everybody wants to live in, that has good schools and public safety and great libraries and all those kinds of things. And, you know, are we a long way from there? Yeah. But, I mean here's our chance.

BEAUBIEN: And to try to accomplish that, Givens and thousands of other volunteers have been clearing vacant lots, rebuilding playgrounds, boarding up abandoned buildings and various other tasks that would normally be the city's responsibility.

Paul Rainwater, who took over a few weeks ago as the new head of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, agrees that the overall recovery has moved slowly. He adds that the task ahead remains huge. But he predicts that in 2008, state government will start to deliver significant, tangible results.

Mr. PAUL RAINWATER (Louisiana Recovery Authority): You got to see police stations built, fire stations built, schools rebuilt, water and sewer lines, the infrastructure that, you know, pumps the water, the infrastructure that pumps the sewage, the infrastructure that provides for everyone in a community has got to be rebuilt. And so that's what I mean by tangible results.

BEAUBIEN: The LRA also oversees the billions of dollars in federal compensation for people who lost their homes to the hurricanes. The agency has vowed to process the roughly 90,000 remaining claims before the third anniversary of the storms.

One of the areas that's been the slowest to recover is St. Bernard Parish, to the east of New Orleans. While New Orleans's population is now at about 70 percent of its pre-Katrina level, only about 40 percent of the residents of St. Bernard parish have returned.

Mr. RAY BRANDHURST: This was our home for about the last 20 years.

BEAUBIEN: Ray Brandhurst is one of the people who has not come back. He sold his house to the state's Road Home program and moved his family to Slidell. Now his old house is gutted down to the studs.

Mr. BRANDHURST: The water was into this attic about three-and-a-half feet, four feet into this attic.

BEAUBIEN: Brandhurst says it was a tough decision to leave the neighborhood where he'd spent most of his adult life. Some houses nearby are being rebuilt, but many others are still empty. On some nearby streets, houses are still packed with mud, debris and smashed furniture, just as they were in the days after Katrina.

State recovery officials say it could be five, eight, even 10 years before these neighborhoods fully recover. Brandhurst says he didn't want his kids to have to live amongst all this for years on end. For two decades, this was his home. And even with the streets empty, the grass dead, the houses vacant, the neighborhood still holds memories.

Mr. BRANDHURST: That was pretty wild. The Christmas before the storm, it snowed here. It was the wildest thing, 'cause we don't get snow here, you know. It was the wildest thing. And we do have some pictures, thank goodness.

BEAUBIEN: Brandhurst worked as a shrimper. Before Katrina, he had a small seafood business in St. Bernard Parish. The hurricane sunk his boat and destroyed his retail store. He managed to refloat his shrimp boat. It's seaworthy, even though it still isn't fully repaired. With his shop gutted and his clients scattered across the country, Brandhurst says it has been hard, however, to get his business going again.

Mr. BRANDHURST: You know, I had a business here for 22 years. You know, to cultivate a business like that, you know, you build up a clientele. You build up a customer base. You know, you build up repeat customers. You know, the buildings, you know, the material things, you know, those things can be replaced. But when your customer base is dispersed, that's a whole different situation because then you got to start, you know, from ground zero.

BEAUBIEN: Before the storm, Brandhurst and his wife had four to six employees, depending on the season. Now it's just the two of them. They sell most of their seafood at local farmer's markets and via mail order. They set up a Web site, Four Wind Seafood, and shipped Louisiana crawfish, shrimp and soft-shell crab to many former clients across the country.

This is the new normal. Business isn't back to what it was before Katrina. Brandhurst's commute and his work day are a lot longer. But he's excited about the prospects of selling seafood over the Internet.

Brandhurst and many other people say they're staying in Southeast Louisiana because they have hope - not just that things will return to pre-storm levels, but that businesses, life, communities might bounce back even better.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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