The Heroes Rebuilding New Orleans

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

Here's What People in New Orleans Actually Think of Mardi GrasAndriy Blokhin/Shutterstock

In 2005, college senior Catherine Neale took a course in New Orleans that gave her a firsthand look at Hurricane Katrina’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.

US Hurricanes-Most Intense, New Orleans, USAEric Gay/AP/Shutterstock

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.
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.”
Ferguson was raised amid carnival royalty: Her mother was a queen; her grandfather was a king. As a child, Ferguson couldn’t sit next to her nanny at the movie theater, because of race laws. Her great-great-grandfather, Judge John Ferguson, ruled that Homer Plessy, a black Creole, couldn’t ride in a railcar meant for whites. The 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson cemented segregation laws until Brown v. Board of Education launched the civil rights revolution in 1954.

After moving to New York City, she became a successful advertising photographer. “I woke up one day and realized I needed more interaction with real life,” she says. She was drawn back to her hometown in 2002 with a general idea for a Mardi Gras documentary and soon narrowed its focus to the largely unknown world of black debutantes. Member of the Club won the Crystal Heart Award at the 2008 Hearts and Minds Film Festival in Dover, Delaware. While researching the film, in a reversal of her childhood experience, she was barred from the black Royalty box at a carnival ball.

She moved back in 2006. “One never feels isolated here,” she says. “We’re all part of a greater artwork: the city, its identity and culture.”

When Cherice Harrison-Nelson’s home in Uptown’s Broadmoor neighborhood flooded, she lost computers, books, and her archives on Mardi Gras Indians, whose elaborate costumes in carnival parades reflect one of the city’s richest traditions. Now she lives in a Habitat home in a rebuilt Upper Ninth Ward enclave called Musicians’ Village. “I’m grateful for this house, but I consider it transitional,” she says.

Her father, Donald Harrison, Sr., the founding chief of Guardians of the Flame, a renowned Indian group, died in 1998. Her mother, Herreast, has repaired her home a few blocks away. Now Harrison-Nelson is working on a doctorate in urban studies at the University of New Orleans, focusing on the tradition she’s helping to preserve. The Indians march through the city on Mardi Gras each February; many lived in neighborhoods that took the worst flooding and have not returned. Reviving the tradition has become a survival quest.

On a warm Saturday morning, Harrison-Nelson and her mother and two sisters sit in a circle with four girls and a boy who have come to make costumes. There is an intense masculinity to the Indians, though more women and girls have joined in recent years, working with the men and boys on the complex sewing and beaded designs.

The women step back, taking tambourines as a drummer positions himself at the congas. The children sing “Indian Red,” the sacred song that’s sung first on Mardi Gras morning, before the parade heads into the streets: “We are Indians… /Indians of the nation/The whole wide creation/Oh how I love to hear them call/My Indian Red.”

In the year after the flood, as people straggled home to a city without social services, turf wars erupted in schools. Drug violence and murders skyrocketed. In January 2007, Helen Hill, 32, was killed by an intruder as her husband held their baby. Dinerral Shavers, 25, a snare drummer with the Hot 8 Brass Band, was shot in the head while driving with his family; the accused killer, a 17-year-old boy in a beef with Shavers’s stepson, was acquitted.

The murders drove Baty Landis to cofound Silence Is Violence, to reduce crime and help at-risk youths refocus their lives. In January 2007, Landis’s group led a march of 5,000 people on city hall, the largest demonstration since the 1960s, to agitate for reform. As Mayor Ray Nagin stood ashen-faced, people chanted, “Music in the schools!” — a reference to both Shavers, who’d also been a high school music teacher and band director, and long-standing community pleas for a school band program to counter gang culture.

“We want kids to be heroic by being creative,” Landis says of her organization. “The city’s violence intensified because neighborhoods were shaken up and kids were left behind when parents moved to other cities. It’s not that complicated to reach out to these kids. But the city programs just aren’t there.”

A foghorn bays on the river. “When art creates social networks, it reduces violence,” Landis says. “Why is that so hard for people to understand?”

For all the flawed politics, the strength of New Orleans lies in its neighborhoods, a weave of ethnic traditions embraced by musicians, artists, writers, and activists in a continuing quest to revive the soul of the city.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest