Published November 17, 2014
A mother of four feels trapped in the same New Orleans public housing complex from which she was rescued when flood waters ravaged the city. Ninety miles to the east on U.S. 90, an elderly couple in Biloxi, Miss., are resigned to life in a government-issued cottage surrounded by vacant lots where friends once resided.
Both households lie along the highway that runs the length of Hurricane Katrina's fiercest front, and five years later, both have a hard time seeing very far up the road to recovery.
From the beaches of Mississippi to the funky neighborhoods of New Orleans, the imprint of the Aug. 29, 2005, storm has faded with each home that is rebuilt, every business that reopens and every tree newly planted by resilient residents and those who've come to help.
The debris from tens of thousands of shattered homes that littered the highway for months is long gone. And billions of federal dollars have helped many residents build even better homes than they had before.
But U.S. 90 is dotted with "For Sale" signs on weed-choked vacant lots, boarded-up strip malls and concrete slabs where homes once stood, all reminders that a full restoration from Katrina is years away.
Signs of a more recent, manmade disaster also are evident. Many fishermen who launch boats near the highway have been idled by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In rural St. Tammany Parish, La., contractors set up a command post to clean oil-soaked boom. On Mississippi's coast, workers in hard hats and fluorescent vests shoveled tar balls out of the white sand.
The spill put a fresh ding in the region's tourism industry, though some of the areas hit hardest by Katrina have been least affected by the oil.
Randy and Nora Chambers have been to Biloxi 10 times since the storm, and each time the Tennesseeans return to the area's casino resorts, they are amazed at how much has been rebuilt.
"I've seen a lot of progress," Randy Chambers, 57, of Pigeon Forge, said outside the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
The oil spill didn't scare them off, though Nora Chambers admits she is leery of eating the seafood.
"I'd rather have my shrimp blackened by the chef, not the sea," she said.
After Katrina, Mississippi law was changed to allow floating casinos to move ashore and build up to 800 feet inland. The law seemed to set the stage for a land rush in Point Cadet, a blue-collar neighborhood on a peninsula in southeast Biloxi.
Many residents whose homes had been destroyed were eager to sell to casinos or developers. Few found any takers.
Ronald Baker, one of the last residents on his block, said a casino expressed interest in buying his land for $20 per square foot but never followed through.
"Nobody is buying at all," he said.
Before Katrina, at least 32 homes were on Baker's block. Today there are five, including Baker's modular home and the cottage that the state provided for Loyce and Nicolas Hire to live out their days.
Loyce Hire, 77, is saddened by her nearly deserted neighborhood, but can't imagine leaving the plot of land where her 88-year-old husband was born and raised.
"No, we're too old, honey," Hire says. "Why would we want to go into debt at our age?"
Aside from the Hires, "all the old folks are gone," said Baker, 67, a shrimper. "The young folks, they don't want to live down here."
On an eastern New Orleans stretch of U.S. 90 called Chef Menteur Highway is a hub for volunteer labor, on the grounds of what was a Lutheran church until the storm.
Thousands of volunteers have passed through Camp Restore since it opened in 2006, helping rebuild hundreds of homes. Kurt Jostes, director of development for RAI Ministries, said the project still averages 2,500 to 3,000 volunteers per year.
"There are still a lot of homes being rebuilt, but the process is slowing down," he said.
Grant money and insurance proceeds have dried up. The recession hasn't helped, either.
"It's paycheck to paycheck," Jostes said. "We just have to be patient and work with the homeowners as they're able to come up with the funding."
This month, Camp Restore moved its volunteers' bunk beds out of a building to make room for a charter school, one of many that have sprung up since Katrina. The next batch of volunteers will sleep in air-conditioned shipping containers behind the school. Jostes expects the group's work to continue for years.
Countless others are pitching in too, either through charitable groups or on their own. Many idealistic, young professionals who knew little of New Orleans before the storm have made it their home, seizing a chance to help rebuild a city.
Sprinkled among the no-frills motels, bars and auto repair shops not far from Camp Restore on Chef Menteur are stores and restaurants catering to Hispanics, a population that grew quickly as cleanup and construction after the storm created jobs.
Jambalaya News, a free, bilingual newspaper published every other week, has more than doubled its circulation to 15,000 since Katrina, said editor-in-chief and publisher Brenda Murphy, who is from Honduras. Murphy said the influx of thousands of workers from Mexico and Central America attracted new advertisers.
"They see in Hispanic media the opportunity to promote their business," she said.
Murphy runs the newspaper out of a convenience store called La Prieta.
Spanish and English services at Iglesia Cristiana Pentecostal, a congregation down the street that opened after the storm, draw about 200 people. Windsor Semexant Jr. came here from Orlando, Fla., after the storm in search of drywall work and stayed to be the church's pastor.
Men like Semexant helped Gerald Cannon, a Loyola University art professor, rebuild his home in the Venetian Isles community after it was wrecked by an 18-foot wall of water. Cannon said migrant workers did more to renew his neighborhood than did any government official.
"We learned that institutions are absolutely helpless, from the federal government on down," he said. "They didn't do anything but mark up my home, make a big stink about things and create an inordinate number of problems."
Murphy said the new arrivals, including a second wave of workers seeking oil spill cleanup jobs, have left an indelible mark on the area.
"This is the new New Orleans life," she said.
Most days, Danielle Posey wants to be anywhere but B.W. Cooper. The public housing complex in New Orleans reopened in 2006, but part of it has been razed. Posey, a tenant before and after the storm, wishes they would finish the job.
"They need to tear down these buildings," said Posey, who yearns to move herself and her four kids to the suburbs.
"I was better off before the storm than now," the 31-year-old says.
The fate of public housing has been the subject of heated debate since Katrina. Many who lived there considered them a stain on the city long before the storm.
Yet in December 2007, New Orleans police officers clashed outside City Hall with a group of demonstrators protesting demolition plans for some of the complexes.
Like Posey, Jacqueline Green had to be rescued by boat from B.W. Cooper after the storm flooded 80 percent of New Orleans. Four months ago, the 67-year-old moved back into the complex from a nursing home. Plagued by medical problems, she has trouble caring for herself and relies on neighbors to bring her food because she can't stand up long enough to cook.
"This place here, it can take your pride," she said. "It's a roof over your head, keeping you from sleeping on the street, under a bridge."
Even Posey doesn't regret moving back to the city.
"This is home," she said. "Might not be much of a home, but it's our home."
Basil Kennedy calls it the "Katrina Krud," those sudden crying jags, fits of anger or mental blocks that take hold without warning. Kennedy said he recently caught himself looking in a closet for a tool he knew had been washed away by the storm.
Kennedy and his wife, Weezie, have every reason to be happy now. Last October, they finished rebuilding their waterfront home in Bay St. Louis, Miss.
"Our life is about as back to normal as it could possibly be," he said. "There are a lot of other people who are a long ways from back to normal."
Weezie Kennedy is all smiles as she gives a tour of her new house, but her voice cracks and she sobs when she recalls meeting a group of college students who gave up their spring breaks to help Bay St. Louis residents rebuild. When the Kennedys poured the foundation for their new home, several of those students scrawled their names in the concrete foundation.
"That's the most wonderful thing about the storm, all of the people that came down to help us," Kennedy said, wiping away tears. "You just couldn't believe the generosity."
The couple flirted with the idea of moving to North Carolina or Oxford, in north Mississippi, but never seriously considered leaving.
"Bay St. Louis is our home. It's God's country," Weezie Kennedy said.
"We're back. We're here. We're not going anywhere."