Residents Eager to Reclaim New Orleans East New Orleans residents scattered after Hurricane Katrina are anxious to return and see what has become of their homes. Residents of New Orleans East are planning to drive back, even though officials have yet to approve their return.
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Residents Eager to Reclaim New Orleans East

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Residents Eager to Reclaim New Orleans East

Residents Eager to Reclaim New Orleans East

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

It was Kathleen Blanco's turn to testify on Capitol Hill today. The Louisiana governor got a gentler reception than the former FEMA chief, Michael Brown, did in his appearance yesterday. For a start, Blanco was testifying in front of the Senate Finance Committee, not the House committee investigating the response to Hurricane Katrina. And she was there to talk about reconstruction, not recrimination. Blanco told the committee that with federal help, her state would come back stronger and more prosperous than before.

NORRIS: The challenge of turning that rhetoric into reality is all too evident in New Orleans. Today the city remains largely evacuated. As people do return, they will face tough choices about their future. In the weeks and months ahead, we're going to follow the residents of one street in one New Orleans neighborhood, and our colleague Robert Siegel has been there this week.

ROBERT SIEGEL reporting:

A couple of days ago Mimms Dixon(ph) drove 12 hours home from Arcadia, Texas, to New Orleans East, and he unlocked the front door to his house on Honeysuckle Lane.

(Soundbite of clanging noises)

SIEGEL: It was his first look at the place in almost a month.

Mr. MIMMS DIXON (New Orleans Resident): Well, it don't look like no one broke in. The TV...

SIEGEL: His wife is in Arcadia, where their son has enrolled in school. Now Mimms Dixon has gotten a job. He cuts tile and marble for a living, and he's been hired for the building and rehab boom to come in New Orleans. What he didn't know until this moment was how well his house had weathered the storm and the flood that followed it. The answer was very well.

Mr. DIXON: Let me see. Here's my tools.

(Soundbite of clanging noises)

Mr. DIXON: Let me get to the lights. Let me see.

(Soundbite of clanging noises)

Mr. DIXON: No water's in here.

SIEGEL: Tools are dry?

Mr. DIXON: Yeah.

(Soundbite of clanging noises)

SIEGEL: A few doors away on Honeysuckle Lane, Shay Zeller walked us through the house that she grew up in. It's her parents' two-story home; they've seen it. And while the flood didn't rise indoors more than a foot at the most, the ground floor is a mess. There's mold on everything, the furniture is ruined, the smell is intense and foul.

Ms. SHAY ZELLER (New Orleans Resident): We've been really afraid of coming home to things that may snuck in the house while we were gone. It's not out of the question to have snakes back here.

With half of the neighborhood perhaps gone and, as you saw down a little bit away from the house, about a mile away, all the houses are pretty much destroyed; the businesses are destroyed. So it makes you wonder what the quality of life is going to be if you stay. And is there any amount of money that can make up for what you lost?

SIEGEL: Zeller says her mother is inclined to move back to this house, get it cleaned up and stay here. She's living in the suburbs now. But it's a semi-attached home, a duplex, and they've heard that their neighbor intends never to come back from his safe haven in Detroit to his side of the wall. There might be a domino effect: abandonment, followed by declining property values, perhaps an exodus.

Up and down Honeysuckle Lane, people have been trickling back for a look at their homes. Officially the district is off limits, but if you have a job or a relative who's a cop or a firefighter, you can get past the roadblocks at the off ramps of Interstate 10. You can't get electricity or running water or gasoline or medical service, but you can get a look.

Still, you're not supposed to, and many residents of New Orleans East have not been home. They've seen maps and heard accounts of flooding, sometimes five, eight, nine feet of water. In the absence of firsthand information, rumor and suspicion run rampant among the dispersed residents of the district, and so does a sense of neglect. Mack Slan is a New Orleans homeowner who has organized fellow evacuees in Baton Rouge. He says there's a list of priorities they've drawn up.

Mr. MACK SLAN (New Orleans Resident): Number one on the list is trusting elected officials. Number two is re-entry. Number three: Becoming a part of the rebuilding process, the inclusion of any plans that may come out. And people want to really go home to just bring some closure. You know, we're Americans, we're tax-paying citizens and we're only looking for a little bit of help. We're not asking nobody to do something that we can't do, but include us in the process.

SIEGEL: Here's a little history of New Orleans East. It used to be largely wetlands south of Lake Pontchartrain. Early attempts to build were dealt a setback by the Hurricane of 1915. But by the 1920s, the Lake Pontchartrain shoreline was dubbed the poor man's Miami Beach. The shore was dotted with wooden houses on stilts. They were known as camps, and the last of them were washed away by Hurricane Georges in 1998. Early jazz stars like the clarinetist Alcide "Yellow" Nunez played for vacationing New Orleanians.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: In those days the poor man who bathed on New Orleans East beaches was poor and also white. Blacks weren't permitted to do so until 1939, when a small bit of the Lake Pontchartrain shore, off in the east, was designated the one beach in the city that blacks could use, Lincoln Beach. It became a summer destination for African-Americans; The Ink Spots played there, so did Fats Domino.

(Soundbite of "Blueberry Hill")

Mr. FATS DOMINO: (Singing) I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill.

SIEGEL: The suburban development of New Orleans East was a long time coming. For commuting to be feasible, there had to be modern highway bridges over a canal that cuts East New Orleans off from the rest of the city. Those bridges came only in the 1960s.

Then, just as many white New Orleanians fled the city for suburbs to the west, middle-class black flight from the city pointed east. Today the various neighborhoods of New Orleans East are home to more than 80,000 people, mostly African-Americans. Some are poor, others enjoy luxury country club living and there are lots of solid, middle-class, home-owning suburbanites in between. Last night, at least 250 displaced residents of New Orleans East came to a Baton Rouge church, where Mack Slan chaired their second weekly meeting.

Mr. SLAN: Good evening.

Group of People: (In unison) Good evening.

Mr. SLAN: Quite naturally, I think all of us know why we're here. We're here to have a united voice and let the world know that we are part of a rebuilding process in the New Orleans area.

SIEGEL: These people want to see what's left of their homes. When the mayor announced a schedule of re-entries by ZIP code, their ZIP codes weren't even on the time line. To them, it's a case of typical neglect. Kimberly Williamson Butler, a county court official, reports back on what she's seen in New Orleans.

Ms. KIMBERLY WILLIAMSON BUTLER (County Court Official): I have been in the city, and I can tell you that the primary thrust of cleanup right now is on the parade route. You know, it's downtown, Claibourne Avenue staging area. The French Quarter's cleaner than it's ever been. I actually saw National Guard power washing the French Market.

SIEGEL: So sounding echoes of the civil rights protests of his youth, Mack Slan announces what he calls a tentative return to the city early Friday morning, a convoy of cars to set out from Baton Rouge before dawn and arrive just as the curfew ends at 6 AM, with or without the mayor's permission.

Mr. SLAN: We're not asking to go home to stay. We're not asking to stay a week. We want to bring some closure. We want to assess what we have behind, to start reshaping our lives, to know that we have to sit around and wait till someone else tell us what to do. Come this Friday morning, we're going home.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah!

(Soundbite of cheering and applause; crowd noise)

Unidentified Man: ...know that the tentative schedule will be a go. I mean, we can agree here today now, but we want to try to do this 3:00 on Friday...

Mr. SLAN: It's going to be 3:00 on Friday whether he say or not. See, tomorrow, if he doesn't give us the go, we going to show up anywhere.

(Soundbite of applause)

SIEGEL: The city councilwoman from New Orleans East, Cynthia Willard-Lewis, arrives.

Ms. CYNTHIA WILLARD-LEWIS (New Orleans City Council): Let me begin by thanking and praising the Lord for his mercy and for his grace.

SIEGEL: Councilwoman Lewis fields complaints about FEMA and the Red Cross. Underlying all this is a concern that the city or the state or the federal government has already decided to bulldoze New Orleans East. For some, that means political exclusion; to others, the possible loss of the investment in a house, a house whose value was rising right up until the floodwaters started rising higher. Cynthia Lewis hints at the very sort of conspiracy theory so commonly held here.

Ms. WILLARD-LEWIS: I share with you, let us be careful and cautious of other agendas that may be created in other areas to depopulate and downsize our great city and change the voting strength and the voting capacity and dynamics of the great city of New Orleans as well as of Louisiana. I have not been included in any deliberate discussions. People have enough sanity not to bring that kind of foolishness to my attention. However, I want you to know we must be wise.

SIEGEL: When they're making speeches, everyone here says, `I want to go back to be part of a better New Orleans,' but it's more complicated than that. I asked Mack Slan about the suburb he moved to almost 20 years ago. It's not the place where his father and grandfather lived before him; it was a bedroom community that the ills of the inner city caught up with when public housing followed the middle class east. Would he consider leaving?

Mr. SLAN: It's a place I think a lot of people could leave. But let's say it this way. With today's inflation, with the loss of jobs in America, people that bought 15 or 20 years ago can't afford to buy anything else now. That's what they're afraid of.

SIEGEL: For the people of New Orleans East, the coming months pose complex questions about what to do next and who goes first. With school closed, children and their mothers are typically ensconced out of town. With so few people around, there's little incentive for retailers to reopen. One man told us about his neighbor, a doctor who has relocated to Texas. There are simply no patients for her to treat in New Orleans.

Power may be able to reach homes in the district in a month, but the utility company says wiring that's sat in water for weeks has to be replaced before it can receive electricity. So the contractors will have to rewire thousands of homes before power comes back.

This Friday, with permission or not, a flood of people will return to their homes on Honeysuckle Lane and elsewhere in New Orleans East and either gasp or sigh over what they find, and then will come the season of decisions. In New Orleans, this is Robert Siegel.

NORRIS: We're going to be following the future of Honeysuckle Lane as its residents return. This afternoon New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said that, starting Wednesday, every neighborhood except the Lower 9th Ward will be open to inspection by its residents.

BLOCK: You can see pictures of one resident's brief visit home and of last night's emotional meeting in Baton Rouge at our Web site,

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