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A year after Katrina, life grows back in New Orleans

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published August 13, 2006


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 strength began pounding the deformed walls of her living room until they fell to the floor. She filled buckets with the broken drywall. Bucket by bucket and week after week, she kept at it. 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 9th Ward.

Ask her to explain how a nonagenarian succeeded in doing what thousands of younger families have failed to do, Barnes offers an analogy: "I'm like bad grass. Because it never dies. You got to 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 remains in tatters: Nearly 60 percent of homes and business are still not receiving electricity or heating gas. Only three of nine New Orleans hospitals have reopened. Only 56 of 128 public schools will enroll students this fall. The city 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 whether 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, rebirth is taking place.

Like pioneers that have survived a winter in an unforgiving wilderness, those who have returned to live here proudly proclaim their existence.

"I'm back. R U?" asks a sign in the window of a flooded pickup at a house slowly being repaired.

Down the block, past the flooded Victorian shotgun houses, another sign stands outside a gutted home. "I'm Coming Home," it says - except "Coming" has been struck out with a bold red line.

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.

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.

Those who stayed, who didn't throw up their hands, are trying the best they can to make meaning out of the destruction.

When Barnes returned to her flooded bedroom, 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 switched it on, the lantern lit up - a soft, fuzzy yellow.

[Last modified August 13, 2006, 02:27:03]


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