New Orleans' 'Gert Town' Tries to Emerge From Katrina Rubble

The piles of plaster, plumbing and broken appliances top 6 feet in some places, filling the gutters and spilling onto the sidewalks.

Despite the heat, it's already in the high 80s, the piles are moist from the still-waterlogged material ripped from flooded homes. Something in each of them attracts hoards of flies that buzz up at every disturbance.

Eight months after Hurricane Katrina pounded New Orleans, this is the first sign of an attempt to revive the "Gert Town" neighborhood, a poor, mostly black part of the city.

Quintocha Johnson, 30, looks at the debris along her block of Broadway Street with a combination of hope and despair.

The houses now being worked could bring back longed-for neighbors, but she worries about her two young sons getting hurt playing around the debris, which attracts flies, rats and snakes.

"You have to stay on that porch and watch them," Johnson said, pointing at Mandingo Reed, 1, and James Moffett, 3. "If you don't stay on that porch, no telling what might happen. The other day, I was sitting on the porch and I saw three nutria rats up on the poles there."

Johnson, her mother, Patricia White, and the boys moved into the remodeled house on Broadway in January. They were the first residents on the block since Hurricane Katrina ripped the roofs off houses and sent more than 5 feet of water gushing through the streets.

Their old house, in another part of the city, was destroyed. They rented this one even though the rest of the block was deserted.

"I found it by searching, looking for it, coming from Atlanta every weekend or every other weekend or so to try to get back home," White said. "For what, I don't know. I think I should have stayed in Atlanta."

It's easy to see why the still-struggling block could cause despair.

Three flooded cars sit at the curb, gray mud caked over them. A downed light pole remains stretched along a sidewalk. The block has two working street lights, the only illumination at night besides White's porch light.

Doors on many of the houses are open, revealing moldy furniture still inside.

But some of the houses are finally being renovated.

White's three-bedroom house is immaculate, beautifully furnished with the help of Trinity African Baptist Church in Mableton, Ga. "Comfortable" is the way White describes it, though not nearly as nice as the one they lived in before the hurricane. Still, after living in hotels and a small rented apartment in Atlanta, she loves having her own room where she can close the door and relax.

"This is where I come and get me a little comfort," White said. "Read my Bible, try to get my mind together. Because so much has happened, it's just been rough."

Although she and her family are settled now, things are certainly not back to normal. She says she's not ready to go back to her job working with disabled people because "I'm not really stable-minded yet, because of all the commotion and all the stuff I've had to deal with."

Days are hot and noisy on the street.

The sounds of saws and hammers begin early. Workers have started renovating the house beside White's and one across the street. The house on the corner is being gutted.

A line that spewed raw sewage into the street in front of White's house for weeks was fixed, but a deep pothole remains.

"I've got to fight flies everyday. I killed two snakes in the yard," said Daniel Douglas, Johnson's father, who stops by regularly. "With my grandkids out here running around, I've got to watch that."

Two houses down, Douglas' cousin, Frank Mitchell, has friends helping him gut the house that's been in his family for generations.

Mitchell laughs when he looks at the doors he was starting to nail together to make a raft before he was rescued. They're among the things he'll dump on the street so he can start renovating.

Insurance paid for his new roof but nothing else, including two cars and a pickup truck that flooded.

"That gets to be trying," he said. "When I was evacuated, I have medical problems, I spent maybe $6,000, $7,000 renting cars running back and forth to the hospitals."

Robert Laurent, who owns 18 two-family houses in New Orleans, said the one he's working on at 3113-3115 Broadway will be better than ever after renovation.

He's already installed ceramic tile throughout, and modern kitchens are going in. He's going to add aluminum siding and decorative pillars to the front porch.

"It takes a lot," Laurent said. "The permit process is phenomenal. I'm doing as much as I can until they need electrical, plumbing inspection."

The workers Laurent employed before Katrina are scattered now, so he's hired people who came to New Orleans after the storm. Many of them are living in his other houses because of the housing shortage.

Before the hurricane, Laurent's two-family house on Broadway — with a living room, bedroom, kitchen, bath and small back yard on each side — rented for $500 per side.

"I'll probably only go $100 more because of the renovation," he said. "I'm not going to ask what these ridiculous people are asking for rent. I mean $1,200 and $1,500 a month for one bedroom is really ridiculous."

For now, life on the 3100 block of Broadway is uncomfortable during the day and downright spooky at night. That's when White and her family gladly move inside, away from the darkness and empty houses around them.

"It's going to get better if everybody comes back and takes care of their business and does what they're supposed to do," Douglas said. "But look at all them empty houses. Only ones here now is my cousin and us."