One year after Hurricane Katrina smashed into Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, washing away hundreds of communities and lives, FOXNews.com's Catherine Donaldson-Evans visits Slidell, La., to find out first hand how one town is determined to rebuild. This is the first of her series of exclusive reports.
SLIDELL, La. — For Don and Diana Andre, who have lived in Slidell, La., almost 30 years, the starkest difference between the hometown they knew before Hurricane Katrina and the one they came back to after the storm is the emptiness.
The neighborhood that was so familiar to and loved by them now has gaping holes in it, left by longtime residents who fled for good. The Andrés are still overwhelmed by sadness when they talk about it, because they know they'll never see many of them again.
"I guess if I was to try to put in words how this affects us, this storm, the biggest loss to us is not so much the property," said Don.
"It's the loss of all the people that lived here," added Diana.
"All of our neighbors and friends of 30 years. We just have lost contact with those people, and it doesn't look like things will ever be the same," Don said. "We can put the houses back together … but you'll never get the neighborhood back, not in my lifetime."
"This is like a busted-up family," finished Diana. "It really is."
They couldn't get any more words out. The husband and wife of 37 years just sat together in silence on the portable steps of their FEMA trailer — which they've been living in on their front yard next to their gutted house for months — and let the tears come.
The Andrés are not alone in their plight.
Fifty-six percent of Katrina survivors in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama say their lives aren't yet back to normal a year later, but would be eventually, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll published Monday that surveyed 602 adults who registered with the Red Cross right after the storm. Twenty-six percent said their lives would never be back to normal.
Like the Andrés, many Slidell residents — particularly in the hardest-hit southern half of this New Orleans suburb — had their homes flooded with six or more feet of putrid, brown, muddy salt water that washed over the town when a monstrous storm surge churned up as the eye of the Category 3 (downgraded from a Category 5) was overhead.
And like the Andrés, many Slidellians lost almost everything. Most who did are still working on their houses — often without much help from contractors, they say, because there are so many construction scams, so few honest workers to do the jobs and so little money to go around — and living in the snug campers donated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"We hate this trailer," said Don, 60, a retired employee of Chevron who continues to do contracting work for the oil giant. "Don't misunderstand us — we're thankful for it. But we'll be glad to be out of it."
Quarters are so cramped, added 61-year-old Diana — who tutors at school that was all but destroyed — that she has black-and-blue marks from bumping into the walls when she tries to climb into bed at night.
"We're not sleeping well. It's not comfortable," she said. But both feel strongly about staying on their property rather than imposing on their 35-year-old daughter, who lives across town with her husband and two children, or on their 34-year-old son and his family in another part of the state.
'It Was Complete Chaos'
Between 75 and 80 percent of the population heeded evacuation warnings in the days before Hurricane Katrina hit the region on Aug. 29, 2005, according to Slidell officials — including the Andrés, who went to Diana's mother's in Baton Rouge for three weeks. As a result, there were no deaths directly related to the storm within city limits.
But there were roof rescues of people stranded who didn't evacuate, just like there were in New Orleans, 30 miles to the south — an effort that took Slidell Mayor Ben O. Morris, Police Chief Freddy Drennan, Fire Chief Larry Hess and others three days to complete.
Morris and other city officials were holed up in the city's emergency center during Katrina, watching in horror as roofs flew off buildings, and trees and power lines came tumbling down.
Some locals stayed behind because of their pets: One man, as the story goes, stood on a chair for three days with his cat until he was saved.
Others didn't feel as though they could leave their businesses. Doug Reker, owner of a wine bar and shop called The Wine Market, was one of them. His wife and children were worried sick because they couldn't reach him in the first days after Katrina struck.
"It was complete chaos, like a Third World country," remembered Reker, 43. "It's like we got hit with a bomb and nobody knew what to do."
There was no power for at least two to three weeks after the storm, no grocery stores or restaurants open, no gas for cars, no way to wash clothes or get mail. Even when services began to come back, the lines of people waiting were sometimes unbearable.
Though some waterfront houses just outside Slidell crumpled into piles of wood, brick and debris, most structures in the city stayed standing, though a good number were destroyed on the inside by floodwater.
Strong winds and flooding damaged about 8,500 of the city's 10,500 homes, according to Morris — including his own, which got four feet of water and was hit with five fallen pine trees.
The situation forced many returning residents to tear down their houses and rebuild them or, if the exterior shells were more or less intact, gut them and renovate their interiors, as the Andrés are doing.
But parting with some of their ruined belongings, especially the keepsakes with sentimental value like the bedroom set and antique pedal Singer sewing machine the couple has had since they were first married in 1969, has been gut-wrenching for the Andrés.
"We lost a lot of family heirloom stuff that just hurts our heart," said Don Andre as his wife's eyes filled with tears. "We hate to even talk about it. Nothing we can do about it."
In fact, he hasn't yet given up on the old sewing machine, which is sitting in his rebuilt garage covered in rust and a layer of dried mud. But there are other more pressing matters than restoring furniture — namely, getting the house in shape enough so they can move back in.
The new wooden support beams have been installed, as have a fireplace and a few bathtubs. The Andrés hope to get the insulated sheet rock walls put up in the next few weeks, but they think that might be wishful thinking. No matter what, they plan to start living there again when the floors are just unfinished concrete, because they've about had it with their mobile home.
Equally or perhaps more painful, said Don and Diana, was the severe damage to their church around the corner, Our Lady of Lourdes, which was totally crushed. It still stands on the quiet residential block in south Slidell, hollow on the inside and without a roof, like an open arena. The Andrés don't know if it will make it — or if, in the end, it will have to be torn down.
"When I saw the church had collapsed, it was a very emotional thing," Don said. "A lot of this whole neighborhood hinges on that church. We need that anchor to come back."
The 'New Normal'
Even though many Slidell residents fled before or since Katrina came to town and haven't returned, other people moved into the town post-hurricane — including contractors, volunteers and refugees from other hard-hit areas.
As a result, the population has gone up slightly, from about 28,000 or 29,000 before to about 30,000 now, according to Morris, though no one knows the exact numbers for sure and many exaggerate the growth. There's been an even greater population influx in St. Tammany Parish as a whole, where Slidell is located.
The cost of housing is rising, too; it has jumped by 20 to 25 percent, Morris said. That has taken a toll on already financially strapped residents, some of whom found themselves worse off because they didn't have flood insurance or haven't been able to get reimbursed by the insurance companies.
Before the hurricane, the little town was blossoming, said the mayor, who also served as the police chief and, previously, as a federal narcotics agent and a U.S. military colonel.
"We had a lot of things going on," he said during a visit to his office, currently housed in a trailer serving as the temporary City Hall. "We were beautifying the city, planting more trees. There was a lot of economic development going on here. The city was really moving forward. Then along came Katrina."
Now, Slidell — dotted with hollowed-out businesses and houses, tree stumps, dirt piles, dead pines, curbside debris and 'Help Wanted' signs — is inching forward instead.
Like the mayor, most of the other city officials are operating out of trailers on the same gravel lot as the makeshift City Hall. The temporary location, which officials expect to be in for at least six more months, is across the railroad tracks and down the street from the actual government complex in Slidell's 1880s-era Olde Towne section, which sustained heavy battering by Lake Pontchartrain floodwaters.
Morris — who refers to life in post-Katrina Slidell as "the new normal" — said he is heartened by the fact that economic development is still going on, albeit slowly. Businesses are reopening, a little at a time, and residents are making gradual progress on their homes.
"Now, a lot of people are back and if you're not back, your neighbor is back or you're living in a FEMA trailer in your yard," said Suzanne Le Breton, a reporter at the local St. Tammany News paper, which merged with the Slidell Sentry-News after Katrina. Le Breton lives in an adjacent town called Covington; her trailer home was destroyed by toppled pine trees.
But many are weeks or months away from being able to move back into their homes. The Andrés are among them, and so is Morris; he, his wife and teenage daughter are renting an apartment in another part of town.
"It's kind of good I got hammered," the mayor said, chuckling. "This storm was a huge equalizer. It put everybody in the same boat."
The Andrés continue to struggle with the empty feeling inside, the feeling of being displaced in their own hometown of Slidell, of not really belonging anywhere. Many of their friends who suffered through similar situations grapple with those emotional and psychological effects, too.
"The frustration and depression among affected people is not terribly evident, but it's there," Morris said.
But most of the townsfolk are grateful for what they do have and try to laugh, when they can, in between the moments of darkness.
In the Andrés' case, they came out of Katrina with each other, their family, their jobs, a few photographs and other mementos that did escape unscathed, and some of their cherished old community friends.
"Slidell is not the same," said Don. "But we're lucky we still have a lot of people around that we know. We watch out for each other."