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Holiday blues

A still-devastated New Orleans celebrates Mardi Gras as residents try to salvage wrecked neighborhoods

Holiday blues

NEW ORLEANS- Angelo Peltier drove nearly 400 miles from his apartment in Houston just to make the first of two weekends of Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans leading up to Fat Tuesday. Sporting a strand of gold beads, Mr. Peltier leaned against a black pickup truck with two friends, waiting for an afternoon parade to begin in the streets of St. Bernard Parish. As the elaborate floats began to roll and beads began to fly, Mr. Peltier talked about the home he lost to Hurricane Katrina nearly six months ago: It was sitting gutted and largely ruined less than two miles away. "We lost everything," he said.

Mr. Peltier isn't alone. Miles of modest homes in St. Bernard Parish-just east of New Orleans across the Industrial Canal-were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina last August when levees failed and allowed a massive wall of water into the community. Six months later the water is gone, but St. Bernard Parish, along with large swaths of New Orleans, looks largely the same: Homes lie flattened in piles, streets remain littered with ruined cars and debris, and snapped power lines swing from battered poles.

The destruction makes for a surreal parade setting. Pockets of carnival-goers lined the main drag in St. Bernard Parish, setting up picnics and camping chairs in front of hollowed-out storefronts and collapsed roofs. An abbreviated 2006 Mardi Gras schedule includes two dozen parades in other spots around town. Many are family-friendly affairs with lots of children, fancy floats, and middle-school marching bands.

A week before the parades began, city officials were still looking for a corporate sponsor to pick up the tab for extra police security and cleanup. Only one company, Glad Products, stepped forward, offering an unspecified six-figure donation and 100,000 trash bags. Two days before the parades began, the New Orleans city council voted unanimously to dig into its already busted budget to foot the $2.7 million bill, though no one knows where the money will come from. Officials say they hope Mardi Gras will pay for itself by drawing tourists back to the city, but during the carnival's first weekend, crowds were thin and store managers in the French Quarter said business was disappointingly slow.

None of that mattered to Mr. Peltier, who lived his entire life in St. Bernard Parish before the storm drove him and his family out. Standing next to neighbors he hadn't seen in months, Mr. Peltier said keeping the Mardi Gras tradition is important: "Everyone is so dispersed, when you get a chance to get back together, it's good. . . . We just want to get a sense of normalcy."

While there may be plenty of beads to go around this Mardi Gras season, normalcy is in short supply. Hotels remain full of contractors, emergency workers, and evacuees. The city estimates that less than 200,000 of its original 465,000 residents have returned. More than 66 percent of the city's remaining homes and businesses have no electricity, primarily because the city has only a handful of electrical inspectors to complete the inspections required to restore power to structures that sustained damage.

FEMA trailers dot the landscape, though thousands of residents are still waiting for mobile units while stuck behind a quagmire of both federal and city red tape. Scores of residents are waiting to find out if long-delayed FEMA flood maps will require them to buy more insurance and raise their homes-an expensive project that can cost as much as $10,000 per foot. Thousands more are waiting for word on whether their devastated homes and neighborhoods will be bulldozed.

Waiting, waiting, and waiting are nothing new for Jerry Kramer. The conservative pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Annunciation, located in New Orleans' low-lying Broadmoor neighborhood, spent a year-and-a-half as a missionary in Tanzania before being installed as rector at the Broadmoor church one month before Hurricane Katrina hit. Mr. Kramer, 38, and his family had hoped to be career missionaries in Africa but returned to the United States when their visas were revoked last year. Now, Mr. Kramer says, he realizes that "Africa was preparing us for this."

Mr. Kramer talks about the church's ordeal-and their hopes for the future-on a Friday evening from a secondhand couch in a small apartment in Kenner, just outside the New Orleans city limits. His family's bright yellow, two-story home in Broadmoor filled with water after Katrina, like everything else in the working-class neighborhood. Mr. Kramer was able to save a few pieces of clothing and his son's hamster from the home's second floor. "Everything else is gone," he says.

The 79-year-old sanctuary at the Episcopal Church of the Annunciation filled with several feet of water as well, but that didn't stop looters from paddling boats to the church's second-floor windows and breaking in. Nurses across the street at Memorial Medical Center, where 45 patients died during Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding, later told Mr. Kramer they watched looters use the church as a base of operations, going in and out throughout the day.

When Mr. Kramer paddled a boat to the church one week after Katrina, he thankfully missed the looters, but found cigarettes, beer cans, and switch blades littering ransacked rooms upstairs. There was one thing Mr. Kramer was glad the bandits didn't get-the church's silver communion set stored in a room called the sacristy off the sanctuary. "I knew we must have had low-church looters when I saw they didn't come in here," Mr. Kramer told WORLD during a guided tour of the small, dark room on a chilly Saturday morning.

While the church waits to hear from insurance companies and electrical inspectors before moving ahead with costly repairs, about 40 parishioners meet for worship a few yards away in a doublewide trailer in the church's small parking lot. (The church had close to 100 parishioners before the storm scattered the group.) The doublewide is one of four trailers recently moved onto the church's lot to house worship, church offices, and two church members. A handmade sign nearby reads, "Annunciation Acres Trailer Park."

Not all church members were accounted for until a church service on Christmas Eve. But as the church struggles to get by now, Mr. Kramer and his flock seem equally concerned about the survival of those around them. As soon as people began returning to the area, the church became a relief station that continues to serve as many as 100 people a day, five days a week. Folding tables next to the trailer are filled with bleach, sponges, and surgical masks for cleaning moldy homes, along with food, water, blankets, paper towels, baby wipes, laundry detergent, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap. The church buys some items with donated money, and many "just show up" from all over the country, says Mr. Kramer.

The church is also helping Broadmoor residents by gutting or "mucking" houses for free. Volunteer teams take everything inside the homes to the curb for debris removal, and tear out dry wall and insulation, a service for which professionals are charging as much as $3,000. When the church mucks a house, it assigns one volunteer to sit and talk with the family while their home is gutted. "One of the worst days of your life is the day you throw out everything you own," says Mr. Kramer, whose own family threw out ruined baby albums, wedding photos, and family heirlooms. "It helps to have church people doing it."

This "frontline triage," as Mr. Kramer calls it, doesn't keep church members from thinking about the future. Church leaders are working closely with the Broadmoor Neighborhood Association to develop plans for redeveloping the neighborhood. The church plans to soon open a Laundromat for the neighborhood, which is largely still without power. And the doublewide trailer will be open on Saturdays as a "respite center" for neighbors to talk, rest, and learn more about the church. Mr. Kramer is enthusiastic. "We've gotten more neighborhood outreach done in the last six months than in the last 10 years," he says.

As difficult as things are in Broadmoor, just seven miles north in the Ninth Ward, they are dire. The neighborhood, once ranked as one of the poorest and most dangerous in the country, remains mostly empty, a dizzying mixture of homes salvageable and unsalvageable ("Katrina: Week 2," Sept. 17, 2005).

Desire Street Ministries (DSM), a Ninth Ward ministry that was home to a Christian school for boys from low-income homes before the storm, is focusing on the salvageable. On a clear February morning, Ben McLeish, area director for DSM, gives a quick orientation to volunteers from churches in Austin and San Diego on how to muck a house: Make separate piles on the street for electronics, chemicals (such as paint and cleaners), appliances, and general household goods. He also includes the most important tip: No matter what, don't open any refrigerators. (To drive the point home, Mr. McLeish tells a horror story of one volunteer group that opened a freezer full of months-old seafood.)

Later in the morning, volunteers dig into two mildew-filled homes nearby, dragging out furniture, appliances, mounds of clothing, photo albums, and years of personal belongings. Outside, Mr. McLeish says that mucking homes for needy neighbors is part of a bigger plan: "Any plans for this area have to be huge. Macro." To that end, DSM is working with urban planners like Stephen Fairfield, who helped revitalize Houston's poverty-stricken Fifth Ward several years ago.

Though all the plans are "very much in the conceptual stages," DSM and Mr. Fairfield are discussing the possibility of providing job training to Ninth Ward evacuees in Houston that they could use if they return to New Orleans. DSM is also working with other professionals to develop plans for better housing, better jobs, incentives for marriage, and other ways to "take a welfare class and make them a working class. . . . From the beginning the goal of Desire Street Ministries has been to transform this neighborhood, and this may be our chance." Mr. McLeish admits these are lofty, big goals, but he says: "We serve a big God."

Standing in the empty street with crumbling houses three blocks away, Mr. McLeish says he has no doubt people will return to the Ninth Ward if they have the chance: "Everyone wants to come back. . . . Our city is like no other. Either you hate it or you love it."

That people must love New Orleans is even more evident when one considers the residents who want to return to the Lower Ninth Ward. Just east across the Industrial Canal, the Lower Ninth Ward makes the areas surrounding DSM look desirable. The once impoverished neighborhood is now miles of mind-boggling destruction that appears impossible to undo. Houses and cars sit stacked up on top of each other, while piles of rotten wood and bits of roofs mark where homes once stood. Emergency workers worry that dead bodies may still be hidden beneath the debris.

The city has left the Lower Ninth Ward largely untouched, officials say, because homeowners have demanded they be informed before the city hauls off what's left of their homes. The city says it's formulating a plan to inform owners of homes marked for demolition. But at a recent meeting of the Lower Ninth Ward Homeowners Association, residents said they are determined to return and rebuild. Pam Daschel, who is not a homeowner, lost everything in her rental home in the ward's Holy Cross Neighborhood but says she can't imagine living anywhere else. "I've lived in the Lower Ninth Ward for 20 years," she told WORLD. "It's the best neighborhood in the world."

While residents of devastated neighborhoods wait to return, progress seems to move at a snail's pace. Though the Army Corps of Engineers says the levee breaks will be repaired by June 1, it's hard to imagine the hardest-hit areas being habitable by then. In mid-February, Louisiana lawmakers passed only a handful of proposals during a special legislative session dedicated to hurricane recovery, including an overhaul of the New Orleans levee boards. But other proposals, such as an optional buyout plan for homeowners without insurance, failed to pass, and definitive plans for long-term recovery remain elusive. As lawmakers haggle over the details, New Orleans residents are painfully aware that hurricane season begins again in just three short months.

In the meantime, FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers (DRC) will remain open to help residents with short-term needs. Generators buzz outside a 40-by-140-feet white tent in the parking lot of a now-closed Wal-Mart in St. Bernard Parish, where Gary Dorman oversees a FEMA DRC that has served 43,000 households since Katrina hit last fall. Mr. Dorman says residents can get help with travel trailers, food stamps, Medicaid, low-interest loans, tax preparation, mental health services, rental assistance, insurance, and job opportunities.

The job is challenging for FEMA, he says, because of the complications of local politics, and because FEMA is ultimately "just a band-aid." Mr. Dorman's DRC has been open in the parish six days a week since October, taking breaks only for Thanksgiving and Christmas. But in February, the DRC got one more break: The sign on the tent door informed residents that the FEMA center would "be closed on February 28 for Mardi Gras."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.