MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Some residents who've made their way back to New Orleans aren't doing it to make money. They're doing it because they have no other choice. NPR's Audie Cornish reports on the story of Robin Stewart and her two sons.
AUDIE CORNISH reporting:
Michael Finklestein, his mother, Robin Stewart, and their dog Comet are the only ones living on this entire side of Emerald Ave. in the neighborhood of Lakeshore.
Mr. MICHAEL FINKLESTEIN (New Orleans Resident): Everyone puts out signs on their yard saying that they're coming back. But it's happy to actually be back. We don't need a sign. We're here.
CORNISH: But the decision to return has come at an emotional and financial price. When the storm hit, Stewart watched the news and learned of levee breaks and extensive flooding from her sister's house in Austin.
Ms. ROBIN STEWART (New Orleans Resident): And I was sleeping in my niece's room one morning, and I woke up. My niece came in her bedroom to get her clothes, and all I could think was, here's this little girl, she has a whole closet full of clothes, and I had four pairs of shorts and a pair of flip-flops, and I didn't even have a closet to put them in.
CORNISH: Stewart's home was one of 160,000 homes and apartments in New Orleans that sustained major damage from Hurricane Katrina. When she returned in October, she found her house with a water line five feet high and mold flowering a greenish black along the walls.
Ms. STEWART: I'm 50 years old. And you think, you work your whole life and you save and you do the best for your kids that you can. And then in two seconds everything is gone. And it's like you hadn't worked at all, and you had nothing to show for all of the work you had done.
CORNISH: Stewart spent the next nine months living in Texas and making trips back to Louisiana every few weeks. During that time she was living off of money from FEMA, donations from religious organizations, and finally food stamps. Stewart eventually connected with her former boss at an advertising firm in New Orleans. She agreed to telecommute but at half her previous salary.
Ms. STEWART: I guess I'm one of these Americans that they talk about all the time that doesn't have enough in the savings account. Financially I knew I did not have enough money just to say, I'm just going to stay here in Austin and I'll figure things out from there.
CORNISH: Stewart couldn't afford a new house in Austin. She moved back June first to work with what was left of her home in New Orleans. The house she bought for $135,000 with her former husband years ago would now cost $175,000 to repair. Her ex-husband was also in dire straits as he struggled to re-establish a law practice in a city with few potential clients. Her job search was a series of dead ends, and now there was nothing left to help pay for their children's college tuition.
Ms. STEWART: Both the boys' dad and I have worked hard to try not to have them have any debt. We didn't want them to start out life in debt. But because of the hurricane, we don't have a choice.
CORNISH: She encouraged her sons to settle on colleges close to home. Her youngest, Michael, is taking advantage of a residents-only free tuition program at Louisiana State University. Her eldest, Matthew, is using a combination of loans and scholarships to cover his first year at Tulane Law School. And while she re-establishes her family in New Orleans, Stewart can't help but notice how slow things are at work and how few people have returned to her street.
Ms. STEWART: It worries me when I look around the city and I know there's no new business. There is no place for residents to live, and I worry that the whole business climate here in the city will fall apart. And that one day maybe I will be out of a job, and then how am I going to pay back some of this money?
CORNISH: Stewart says the storm has ravaged the family finances, with losses she estimates at $65,000. She is hoping for financial relief from the federal recovery money coming to the state's Road Home program. It's a new loan rebuilding plan that offers thousands of dollars to people who return to Louisiana and rebuild homes and vow to stay for at least three years. At the end of that time, Stewart says, she will know the truth about whether she wants to stay.
Audie Cornish, NPR News, New Orleans.
BRAND: You can check on the progress New Orleans has made in a before-and-after slide show. It's at npr.org.
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