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

In April, with the city poised for a crackdown on the homeless population, which doubled after Katrina, Jenkins raised his voice with black community activists to oppose an ordinance that would have mandated arresting anyone who refused to go to a shelter. The council backed down. “We have a moral obligation,” he insists, “to individuals who have fallen through the cracks.”

An army of volunteers descended on the city, devoting heart and grit to clear tons of debris. Habitat for Humanity has built 115 houses, with 186 more in progress as of July. To assume a no-interest $75,000 mortgage on a three-bedroom house, an owner must do 350 hours of work for Habitat.

Catherine Neale, a 2006 University of Virginia graduate, is typical of the transplanted idealists. She watched the media coverage with aching sadness. “I wanted to help,” she says simply, wearing work clothes and a baseball cap.

Neale, a history major, turned down a job with an executive search firm in New York City to join AmeriCorps, a government agency that pays people to work in areas of need. Assigned to Habitat, she learned construction the hard way, tearing a ligament and chipping a bone. After two wrist surgeries, she switched to office work.

Neale is headed to Harvard Business School to study nonprofit management. Leaving will not be easy. “This city has such an incredible culture,” she says. “The people I’ve met have taught me about humanity.”

In the surreal Lower Ninth Ward, tour buses roll through a tropical Pompeii of crumbling houses and overgrown vines. Several miles away, in upscale Lakeview, contractor Francisco Solórzano is rebuilding neighborhoods another way, with crews working amid a sawtooth pattern of restored houses, gutted ones that sit empty, and grassy lots where homes once stood.

Born in Nicaragua, Solórzano moved to New Orleans as a child in the 1950s and later became a carpenter. He had so much work after Katrina that his annual billing of $550,000 doubled. With his profits, he bought three flood-wrecked homes and is rebuilding them; one is on the market now. “Investing in a neighborhood is integral to the recovery,” he says. “I believe in the city. I’m taking a gamble that people will come back.”

The city had 2,000 musicians before the hurricane. Only 250 had returned by February 2006. Native son Wynton Marsalis announced $2.8 million in grants for artists, raised at a benefit concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. Some 200 musicians received $15,000 each. Michael White, a jazz clarinetist, was one of them.

The flood destroyed White’s home, including 4,000 books, 5,000 CDs, 50 antique instruments, and many of his compositions. He left for Houston and settled his mother in a nursing home, taking an apartment there. For two years, he commuted six hours several times a month to a FEMA trailer on the campus of Xavier University and his job there as a professor.

With the members of his Original Liberty Jazz Band scattered, he started writing compositions focused on New Orleans, including the traditional jazz funeral with its metaphors of death and rebirth. His new CD, Blue Crescent, is a melding of the joyous hymns, mournful dirges, and prancing rhythms of the street funerals.

White’s resilience reflects a larger cultural resurgence, which began with the spring 2006 Jazz & Heritage Festival. Eight months after the flood, scores of musicians returned to perform. The event drew 325,000 people and $300 million to the city. The 2008 festival attracted nearly 400,000 people and accounted for four of the top ten busiest days at Armstrong airport since Katrina.

“New Orleans is one of the last bohemian cultures,” says filmmaker Phoebe Ferguson. “It’s like Paris in the ’20s, with artists congregating at cafés and music clubs.”

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