NEW ORLEANS – They said she was too frail. That the mold growing on the warped walls of her flooded house would make her ill. That she shouldn't bother since her mottled, mud-filled home would likely be bulldozed anyway. But Willie Lee Barnes, who recently turned 94, didn't listen.
Standing outside her flooded house in the Louisiana sun, she clasped her rosary in her frail hands and prayed. "Lord," she said, "I'm not asking that you climb the mountain for me. I'm only asking that you give me the strength to do it myself."
Strapping on a dust mask, she grabbed a shovel and with all her force, began pounding the deformed walls of her living room until they came off, falling to the floor like the rinds of a desiccated orange. She filled buckets with the broken drywall, which her son ferried outside. Bucket by bucket and week after passing week, she kept at it, resting occasionally on a stool, the only piece of furniture in her house to survive the flooding. Flanked by a worn statue of the Virgin Mary, hers is now one of the few houses that's been gutted in the city's most destroyed neighborhood, the Lower Ninth Ward.
Ask her to explain how a nonagenarian succeeded in doing what thousands of younger families have failed to do, Miss Barnes offers an analogy: "I'm like bad grass. Because it never dies. You gotta pull it up and even though you do, it still grows back. I don't care how hard something looks, I'm still going to try."
In a city that still lies largely in ruin, life is pushing through like 'bad grass,' forcing its way through cracks in the pavement. One year after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to New Orleans, the city is fighting to come back.
In each instance, it's the perseverance of one person, or family, that led to one house, one tiny patch of New Orleans becoming whole again.
Those who choose to return do so in spite of the city's broken infrastructure, which a year later remains in tatters: Nearly 60 percent of homes and business are still not receiving electricity or heating gas. Only three out of nine New Orleans hospitals have reopened. Only 56 of 128 public schools will enroll students this fall.
The city itself still has no master plan.
Those attempting to rebuild their homes have yet to be told how high they will have to raise them. And it's still unclear if the city's patched levees will hold back future floods.
Still, even in the worst-hit neighborhoods, where homes were ripped from their foundations and spit into the street, and where mattresses still lie impaled in the branches of trees, the rebirth is taking place.
On one street, one house may be gutted, while scores of others are untouched. Some are adorned with wooden crosses, a crude memorial to the dead.
Like pioneers that have survived a winter in an unforgiving wilderness, those that have returned to live here proudly proclaim their existence.
"I'm back. R U?" asks a sign in the window of a flooded pickup truck at a house slowly being repaired.
Down the block, past the flooded Victorian shotguns, another sign stands outside a gutted home. "I'm Coming Home," it says — except "Coming" has been struck out with a bold, red line.
"This house is my soul," explains Carolyn Parker, who says she violated a "look and leave" policy to move back into her broken home last winter. It has neither electricity nor running water, so each morning, until a government-issued trailer arrived last month, she walked to a nearby fire hydrant and screwed it open with a wrench. The water gushed out and she filled two buckets. Then, she carried them back, using them to bathe.
In neighborhoods that took a lesser hit, like Broadmoor, the pockets of health are deeper. Houses were not ripped off their slabs and so will not need to be bulldozed.
On a street that one year ago lay 7 feet under water, a young woman crosses the grassy median, pushing her 2-year-old daughter in a red stroller. On the same median come dusk, couples go jogging, sweating in the setting Louisiana sun, passing the same finished and unfinished houses as life moves on.
But what is visible from the street in the Lower Ninth Ward is sometimes hidden here: Behind their freshly painted doors, many families are still living in wounded homes.
"There are two types of people: Those that came back, and those that came back, threw up their hands and gave up," says one Broadmoor resident, a 68-year-old man named Del who lives by himself in a lofty, two-story house, which from the outside appears repaired.
He'd give only his first name because he's embarrassed of his living arrangements. To survive the oven-like heat — electricity is still out — he moves around his house naked, carrying a battery-operated fan from room to room.
Adapting has taken numerous forms. With large swaths of the city still without heating gas, many families are able to bathe only in cold water. But with electricity it's possible microwave bowls of water to scalding, then mix that with tap water in the bathtub.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, in multi-story houses have moved into their dry upstairs.
Julie Quinn is one such homeowner. The state senator's colonnaded mansion is in one of the city's posh suburbs that flooded, and although the second- and third-stories are intact, the kitchen has yet to be repaired.
"I've become the queen of the Crockpot and toaster oven," Quinn jokes.
Throughout the city, institutions have learned to adapt, too.
For more than 150 years, those who attended Sunday Mass at the Church of the Annunciation heard the scripture read in Elizabethan English. Now, the traditional Anglican church's priest reads the ancient scripture, still dotted with 'Thees' and 'Thous,' inside a doublewide trailer, parked in the flooded Broadmoor neighborhood. Because there is no air conditioning, the clergy shed their ornate wool cassocks.
Still, the Episcopal bishop came carrying a tall, hooked staff and wearing green-and-gold vestments to bless the trailer.
"We do the best we can. But there's only so much pomp and circumstance you can have inside a doublewide," said the Rev. Milton Gibson, the church's deacon.
Even though life is pushing through, it's come at a cost.
Dentists are reporting that an alarming number of patients are arriving for checkups with chipped or grooved teeth, a result of grinding at night.
Funeral home directors say they're seeing a disproportionate number of suicides, a rate that health officials estimate could be as much as three times higher than pre-Katrina.
Even in the unharmed French Quarter, where jazz tumbles into the street from ornate, cast-iron balconies, residents speak of a lingering depression.
"I can't even remember how many going-away parties I've been to in the last few weeks. Every night I lay in bed, thinking, 'Should I stay or should I go?'" says Maggie Beal, the manager of a store selling 19th century French antiques. All day, she says, she waits for tourists to walk in, but there are few. And the ones who are in town rarely are interested in the expensive armoires and Louis XV furnishings.
Yet even in the Quarter, the day-to-day struggle has created a society of intense, highly committed, pro-city New Orleanians. Many have proudly hoisted City of New Orleans flags outside their 19th century shotguns. Bumper stickers proclaim "Proud to swim home" and "I love New Orleans."
Even in a restroom at The Spotted Cat, a hipster bar just outside the Quarter, hope shines through graffiti: "Stay strong New Orleans. You are beautiful," someone wrote with a black-felt pen on the door.
Throughout the city, those who stayed, who didn't throw up their hands, are trying the best they can to make meaning out of the destruction.
When Miss Barnes first returned to her flooded bedroom, she hoped to find a crucifix studded with diamonds that for years she'd worn around her neck. She couldn't find it.
Yet she was able to salvage one item: A present given to her years ago, still inside its gift box. It's a porcelain angel, holding a battery-operated lantern.
Although the waters rose to the house's cypress beams, the box must have bobbed on the surface and not gone under, because when she unwrapped it and switched it on, the lantern lit up — a soft, fuzzy yellow.
Holding the angel in her hands and straining to make out its inscription, she reads aloud: "You are the Lord. Keep my light burning and turn the darkness into light."