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A year later, recovery in New Orleans not easy

By Eliott C. McLaughlin
CNN
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NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- After months of rebuilding, Henry and Flora Hamilton's house doesn't look like it was sitting in 7 feet of water a year ago. The same can't be said for most of their neighbors' homes.

Shells of houses surround the Hamiltons' eastside residence, many missing patches of roofing and brick exteriors. Some of the Hamiltons' neighbors live in emergency trailers as they try to repair their houses; most have given up and abandoned them. The once-bustling Lake Kenilworth ballpark, still struggling to push up grass in the infield, has sat for months without a visit from its young sluggers.

In many ways, the Hamiltons' New Orleans East neighborhood looks like Hurricane Katrina struck last week. Call it a theme in a city still reeling a year after one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

According to the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, roughly a third of the city's schools, hospitals and libraries remain closed, as do half the city's public transportation routes.

Thousands remain displaced, either living in FEMA trailers or calling a new place home. But a sign in the Hamiltons' yard points to the perseverance of those who stayed or returned to build: "We're home."

After evacuating their home of 16 years in the wake of Katrina, the Hamiltons had to make a daunting decision during their monthlong refuge in Centerville, Mississippi.

"When we finally got back, we seen the devastation and at that time we had decided we'd tear the whole thing down and we probably wasn't gonna return. But each time we came back, we were leaning more toward rebuilding," Henry said.

After gutting the house, Henry realized the foundation was still sound. The 53-year-old sugar-plant worker decided, "This was home." With the help of friends and family -- including son Jamie, 28, and longtime pal Charlie Mills, a retired plumber -- Henry "just got on back and started working."

Jamie Hamilton and Mills have not been as fortunate. Jamie's nearby apartment was leveled. Mills' uptown home won't be habitable until March. Both are living in FEMA trailers -- Mills' in front of his house, Jamie's in his parents' front yard.

Cramped quarters is an understatement. Five paces in the trailer will take you from the master bedroom through the living area and kitchen to the bathroom. Everything -- stove, closet, beds, shower -- is miniaturized.

Jamie Hamilton's wife Lovey doesn't live in the trailer. She lives on the other side of the Mississippi River with family, but their kids, 3-year-old Elijah and 4-month-old Joshua, visit often and like sleeping in the bunk beds wedged snugly behind a bathroom wall.

"It's not what you're used to, but it's better than not having anything at all. It's a small sense of having a home and some place to lay your head," said Jamie, who is working in a downtown casino to scrape up the funds to reunite his family.

'Tale of two cities'

Parts of New Orleans scream recovery; others scream for it. On one side of the city, you can't find a gas station intact. On the other, all three of Larry Flynt's Hustler clubs are blinking on Bourbon Street.

"We are a tale of two cities," said Mary Beth Romig, spokeswoman for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We have a long way to go in those residential neighborhoods."

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The Louisiana Superdome will host its first post-Katrina NFL game when it reopens in September.

However, much of uptown, downtown, the French Quarter, and the business, Garden and Warehouse districts -- all areas that draw out-of-towners -- was "spared from the flooding and they're all thriving now," Romig said.

The city lost about half of its convention business this year, but it should be up to about 75 percent next year, and "things are looking much better for 2008 and beyond," she said. "In many ways, we are back; we just need to get the word out."

Even the once-ravaged Louisiana Superdome advertises its September 25 reopening, just in time for the Saints' first home game -- an NFL Monday-nighter against the Atlanta Falcons.

Signs of Katrina are sparse in the salvaged areas, though the shops in the French Quarter peddle T-shirts showing the city still has a sense of humor. "Make levees, not war," read one. Another: "FEMA evacuation plan: Run, (expletive), run." And in a shot at the New Orleans police, some of whom were accused of abandoning their posts during the disaster: "NOPD: Not our problem dude."

The Quarter is not yet the draw it once was, though. Booze specials and strip shows are still ably promoted amid a cacophony of rap, rock, blues, jazz and zydeco, but to an audience that is a trickle of its former flow.

About $107 billion in federal recovery money has been poured into the Gulf Coast, but New Orleans is still floundering, according to the Brookings Institution.

Down 190,000 workers since the storm, New Orleans has restored gas and electricity to most of the city, but only a fraction of pre-Katrina customers are using it, according to a Brookings report examining recovery factors. Only 17 percent of city buses are running.

And 54 percent of the city's restaurants, many of them famed for their Cajun cuisine, are still closed, according to the Louisiana Restaurant Association.

On the positive side, permits for housing rehabilitation have doubled in the last six months, but rent has jumped 39 percent in the city and home prices in the suburbs have spiked, Brookings reports.

Natalie Wyeth, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Recovery Authority, said more than $7.5 billion has been earmarked for helping 120,000 families rebuild their homes.

Billions more have gone toward health care, transportation, rebuilding schools and economic development, including a $38 million program that taps high school dropouts and ex-cons for work-force training.

"We want to connect those people with the opportunity to be part of the recovery effort," Wyeth said.

There appear to be efforts to make recovery as indiscriminate as Katrina and the ensuing flooding, which devoured homes and businesses in neighborhoods ranging from the upscale areas along Lake Ponchartrain, to the middle-class Gentilly Terrace and New Orleans East neighborhoods, and down to the impoverished 9th Ward.

Slow road back

Still, some, like 46-year-old Ron Stump, note that recovery comes easier for the haves than the have nots. Stump, a St. Bernard Port employee, puts in 27 hours a week after work offering affordable home-gutting and property cleanup to needy families and his friends at the sheriff's office.

"I don't do it for people who have everything. They can pay to have everything done," Stump said.

But despite his generosity, Stump's bitterness over the torpid pace of rebuilding is evident.

"I think a lot of people aren't aware of what's happening because they're not here. How long is somebody supposed to live in one of these things?" he asked, pointing to one of the scores of FEMA trailers littering the Arabi neighborhood, east of the 9th Ward. "It's a year later, and we're still gutting houses. ... You hear what you hear. You don't see a whole lot."

There's not a grocery store near Arabi, Stump said, and while the Brookings report shows parts of the city on the rise, St. Bernard Parish is not one of them. According to the report, no hospitals or libraries are yet operational in the parish.

Only 7 percent of the public schools there have reopened, and the average price of a home as of June, according to the report, was a paltry $36,880, about a third of what it was in August 2004.

The devastation has not soured the spirits of Elbert Jourdan, a fellow port employee who earns extra cash helping Stump clean up homes in the parish.

"Quit all that cussing and fussing and carrying on. The Lord's saying, 'Work with me, so I can help you,' " said the 37-year-old. "We gotta pull together more than we've ever had to pull together in our lives. Otherwise, this house won't get done; that house won't get done."

A Crescent City comeback?

Pulling together is the only hope places like Arabi and the 9th Ward have. Though Katrina left her footprints all over the city, these areas saw the apex of her annihilation.

Cars were dismantled, and homes were regularly reduced to piles of board, pipe and insulation. A year later, some houses are still missing from their foundations, either razed and hauled off or swept away by Katrina and the flooding.

The decimation and its aftermath have left some longtime residents cynical about returning. Mike Barnett, now of Clearwater, Florida, who grew up in New Orleans and whose father is a Loyola University professor, thought he would stay when Katrina first hit.

A former Green Beret, Barnett holed up on the 10th and 11th floors of a downtown high-rise with pistols, bread, lunchmeat, a generator and hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel. His task was to keep watch over a friend's business, an Internet data center. Even though his fiancée left after 10 days, Barnett stuck it out for three weeks before deciding to relocate to Florida.

"The politicians were promising a comeback. I knew immediately they were dreaming, and as much as I love the city, I couldn't live there anymore, not the way it was. It was hideous, horrendous," said the 35-year-old freelance economic consultant. "I'll never come back to live in New Orleans. I don't have much hope for the city."

Others cannot shun their love for the Big Easy, and it is the only thing bringing them back. Charlie Mills, the Hamiltons' plumber friend, knew he was coming back even as he led an evacuation convoy of 24 friends and seven dogs to his father's home and deer camp in Woodville, Mississippi.

"I been here since 1956, so you come back. You say you're not going to come back, but you're in love with New Orleans," said the 68-year-old. "Ain't no sense in moaning and groaning. You come in this world with nothing. You gonna leave with nothing."

Jamie Hamilton agrees. Standing in his FEMA trailer as his mom's beans simmered on the tiny stove, the young casino worker said Katrina may have taken everything from some people, but it did not leave the hopeful helpless.

"It's a new beginning, and you make do with what you got," he said. "It's kind of given a lot of people a new attitude about things."


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Henry Hamilton, left, and Charlie Mills are still repairing Hamilton's New Orleans home, a year after Katrina hit.

SPECIAL REPORT

• Rebuilding: Vital signs
• Gallery: Landmarks over time
• Storm & Flood: Making history
• I-Report: Share your photos
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