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Route of recovery

Charles McCann has seen a lot of sadness since Katrina washed through the Lower 9th Ward. Now the letter carrier is in a perfect position to watch the neighborhood along a route of recovery.

Published August 19, 2007

Postal worker Charles McCann walks his route in the Lower 9th Ward on Aug. 7. He was set to retire shortly after Hurricane Katrina, but returned instead to deliver mail to the entire ward. "Who else is going to know these streets?" he said.
[Kathleen Flynn | Times]
[Kathleen Flynn | Times]
McCann holds his notepad of new addresses that will receive mail on his route - a record of returning life.


Progress is written in black ink on 4- by 8-inch pages he keeps in a notebook inside his mail truck.

5706. 5708. 5728. 5805.

Each scribble represents an address, a family, a light shining behind a living room curtain, a place where children could be called home for dinner, mothers will kiss their babies good night and husbands will worry about the next day's work, the too-long grass, the future.

Charles McCann, 62, a mail carrier in the Lower 9th Ward for 26 years, records these numbers like his city's life depends on it.

From the un-air-conditioned cab of his clackety mail truck, McCann measures New Orleans' recovery not by Sheetrock sold or coats of fresh paint applied, but by envelopes delivered and mailboxes erected.

"A person feels at ease when they feel like their mail is taken care of," he says. "Because everyone's looking for something coming through the mail."

The U.S. Postal Service didn't intend to become one of the city's most essential trackers of population return. But lacking reliable data to measure the fluctuations of a city in rapid transition, demographers like those at the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center turned to people who cover every inch of the city - the mail carriers.

The demographers can tell you mail deliveries in the city have reached 66 percent of what they were before Hurricane Katrina. That's up from 50 percent a year ago, which is up from zero just after the storm.

But, through McCann's eyes, the effort to rebuild is a daily chore, chronicled one address at a time. As he'll gladly show you, he has added 140 households to his log in the last two months alone.

He knows who is still missing, too, who won't be coming back.

* * *

McCann's small white truck rocks over the rusty metal drawbridge that crosses the Industrial Canal at N Claiborne Avenue.

This is where he was in October 2005 when he

first realized his childhood home was washed away. He looked across the sodden expanse of the Lower 9th and knew: Anything that used to be at Johnson and Benton streets where he grew up was history.

About 1,500 people died in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina made landfall Aug. 29, 2005, creating a storm surge the New Orleans levees couldn't withstand. One hundred forty square miles flooded in the city and took almost a month to drain. But no other neighborhood got the national attention focused on this little 2-mile-long section of New Orleans.

Today, as McCann's mail truck descends into the changing neighborhood, the levee breach is repaired. The overturned cars and splintered homes that were still there a year ago are gone, hauled off to dumps or scavenged for other people's homes.

But on much of the north side of the neighborhood, though the debris is gone, so are the houses. There's no church. No kids running through the streets.

No mail.

Some swaths resemble the country, with abandoned homesteads layered in a lush green overgrowth.

When McCann came back last year, he was the only mail carrier in the whole Lower 9th.

Before the storm, 12 carriers served about 6,800 households here. As one of the 12, McCann took mail to 841 houses out of a possible 923 on a much smaller geographical route.

But when he came back to the route in June 2006, he had the entire Lower 9th to himself and only 120 deliveries. Sometimes it took him 12 hours to finish.

A few weeks ago, postal officials trimmed off part of McCann's post-Katrina route. Enough people had moved back to justify two carriers for the Lower 9th.

Now McCann makes about 500 deliveries out of 1,800 possible addresses in one day.

That means that for every mailbox he checks, there are another two to three houses he passes by with hardly a glance. Those homes remain unoccupied, some boarded up, some burned out, their futures visibly uncertain from the street.

Laughter and forgetting

"It's hot!" a woman yells from her porch.

"Not like we can change it," McCann hollers back before rolling into a low belly-deep chuckle.

He lifts his cap from his head, pulls his glasses from his ears and buries his big white-bearded face into a moist towel.

McCann should have retired on Dec. 31, 2005. He had evacuated to north Louisiana. But after Katrina, he wanted to help. Others could gut houses and build. He could get people their mail.

"It just felt like it was needed," he says.

He wanted his old route, as he always had, for the simple reason that he knew it - every house, every old lady, every son and daughter. He knew it without needing street signs or addresses, a necessary skill even two years after the storm.

"It was home," he says. "It was like going to see your family every day."

When the out-of-state mail carriers struggled to earn the trust of residents, McCann said he went out one day and came back with a list of 100 people wishing for mail delivery.

Though when he thinks too much about another list, he gets inescapably sad over things he's trying to forget.

After Katrina, when McCann scoured the names of the confirmed dead, he picked out a couple of hundred he knew. Eight were family, including his 82-year-old aunt and two cousins.

"I buried six of them," he says. He won't say more than that.

He drives and stops and gets out. Drives and stops and gets out. Two houses here, three on the next block, none on the next.

He can laugh on one block and then fall silent on the next.

"I guess I be happy to see those who did come back," he explains. "All the sadness came when you saw all the people who died."

Mail call on Royal

McCann makes his way through the Holy Cross section of the Lower 9th, where land hugs the Mississippi River on slightly higher ground.

All around, people are toiling, hunched over in hot, empty houses with spray-painted X's still scarring the fronts. Sanding. Hoisting drywall. Pounding roofs. One man looks like he walked through a shower of white plaster: His chocolate skin looks gray.

"When I first came back I thought it would be three or four years for this number to come back," McCann says.

Quickening the pace of recovery is the flow of dollars - insurance money and checks from Road Home, the government assistance program.

Mail carriers say they enjoy delivering those big white envelopes from Road Home - the award letters that tell people how much money they'll receive.

Ask McCann how often he sees those and he laughs again: "We don't hardly get any here."

What's in the mailbag today:

There's an ACT test packet for a 19-year-old single mother who misses her own mom, who evacuated to Memphis, and lives in a crowded house on Sister Street with her cousins.

There's an issue of AARP magazine with Tony Bennett and Christina Aguilera smiling on the cover and a feature article about the long-term toll of the storm on the elderly.

There are small letter-sized envelopes from Road Home small means they aren't award notices, Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans (the possibility of a free renovation for low-income elderly or disabled) and State Farm (could be good news, could be more hassle).

At the 5400 block of Royal Street, McCann stops his truck in front of a boarded-up house. Nearby, Shelia Frey, 40, of 5439 Royal, turns from her contractor - nobody here turns their back on a contractor - and snags McCann.

"We're back!" she says.

And she wants her mail.

Where did they go?

The sun is finally fading.

McCann has reached St. Maurice Avenue. Earlier in the day, part of this street was crowded with mourners paying tribute to blues singer Oliver Morgan, 74, with a jazz funeral.

McCann recalls Morgan and starts singing Morgan's famous song, Who Shot the La La, then laughs at himself for singing in front of strangers.

Everywhere around McCann are reminders like this of the Lower 9th's cultural significance.

On Caffin Avenue, a tour bus sits outside of Fats Domino's House. At Chartres and Flood streets, acclaimed 9th Ward photographer Keith Calhoun stands in the street dressed in a dirty T-shirt, trying to fend off a FEMA contractor set on hauling away the piles of 400-year-old cypress and brick from the house where he's still salvaging old negatives.

"This is my house," Calhoun says, gesturing to the piles. "I took it apart by hand."

There are people here fighting with sweat and hammers and cell phones to put it all back together. But there's a sense it could still slip away like some of the faces of people McCann hasn't seen since the storm.

Herbert Johnson from over on Tupelo Street was a childhood friend. They saw each other regularly as McCann worked his route. To McCann's knowledge, Johnson hasn't turned up on the list of deceased. McCann still wonders where he is.

And what about that older man who used to hang outside the grocery?

"He used to joke with me all the time," McCann says. "Every day, just mess with me."

Where did he go?

"All right! Whoo!" he finally says with exhaustion. "I'm on a mission to finish now."

It's nearing 7 p.m. McCann's been working since before 9 a.m. Another half-hour, he thinks, and he'll be through.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at or (813) 226-3383.

[Last modified August 19, 2007, 10:05:49]

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