The Heroes Rebuilding New Orleans

Three years after Hurricane Katrina, die-hard citizens like these seven are bringing the city back to life.

By Jason Berry from Reader's Digest | September 2008
Catherine NealePhotographed by Tamara Reynolds While a college senior, Catherine Neale, 24, took a course in New Orleans that gave her a firsthand look at the hurricane's effects. As soon as she graduated, she moved to the city to work with Habitat for Humanity.

Before the hurricane, when people asked what life was like in New Orleans, I’d reply, “Nothing important happens here except culture.”

The city teemed with musicians, painters, writers, chefs, and parades. The architectural fabric ran from old-world facades in the French Quarter to elegant Garden District mansions and Caribbean shotgun houses Uptown. The riot of pink azalea blossoms made for a “land of dreams,” as Louis Armstrong sang.

Still, more than a quarter of the population lived in poverty.

When Katrina hit on August 29, 2005, more than a million people from the metro area evacuated. Poor people without cars crowded into the downtown Superdome and Convention Center, which quickly turned squalid. As the country that put men on the moon bungled rescue efforts, 80 percent of the city flooded — an area seven times the size of Manhattan. My house on a leafy Uptown fringe near the universities stayed dry. Ten blocks away, homes took six feet of water.

Three years later, the economy has rebounded in the French Quarter, the downtown convention district, and the Uptown area, all of which follow a natural embankment along the Mississippi. But more than 25 percent of New Orleanians haven’t returned. Blighted houses line moribund streets in Lakeview, New Orleans East, the Lower Ninth Ward, and parts of Central City.

What is the future here? What are the bright spots? To find answers, I sought people immersed in the hard work of recovery.

Charles Jenkins, the Episcopal bishop of New Orleans, has a flock with many affluent members. He and his wife escaped Katrina at the home of friends in Baton Rouge.

Watching TV coverage of the scene inside the Convention Center, he saw a black woman holding a sign: “I am an American too.” He went onto the patio alone as helicopters streamed across the sky. “I was near despair, thinking I did not have what it takes to respond to the human need in my city,” he says. “I began crying.”

Then he told himself, My job is to make the comfortable aware of the powerless. Jenkins started working the phones with national church leaders, seeking money for the worst — hit areas.

Six weeks later, he returned to his dry house on St. Charles Avenue. Driving through ruined neighborhoods, he saw that the city’s health care system had collapsed and people needed shelter. He raised the salaries needed for a pediatrician and a nurse at a walk-in clinic, guided the church in distributing food and clothing, and launched an emergency program to build houses for low-income residents. He has led the effort to build and sell 13 homes; 17 more are under construction.