It was the Thursday of spring break when I found myself on the front porch of a dilapidated house in the 13th Ward of New Orleans. Sitting beside me was a woman whom I formally met as Firdella, but she quickly told me that everyone just calls her Della.
Della always seemed to have a smile on her face and a cigarette between her fingers as she walked around the rotting building where her children had grown up. She spoke very candidly about the hurricane almost four years ago that had changed her life forever.
The process of returning to rebuild her house and old way of life had been anything but easy. As Richmond students worked in her house, Della sat in the shade of a tree and read the daily newspaper to pass the time.
In a conversation with Della's mother, I learned that there was more to this story of slow recovery than the typical news coverage would admit.
More than a year ago Della signed a contract with a local handyman named Nathaniel Dowl Jr. to repair and finish her house. After accepting $50,000 in cash, Dowl quit the job and disappeared from Della's life forever.
Detective Byron Francois from the Economic Crime Division sent Della a stock letter that told her the matter was not a criminal offense and he instructed her to contact an attorney to settle the dispute in Civil Court. Another lawyer told Della to give up the case entirely because Dowl was probably already in jail and couldn't repay her money or court fees. She told me that after losing so much money there was no way they could hire a lawyer.
Della's mother looked at me for a second as she told this story, looked around the neighborhood and at her daughter's house, then said, "I'm tired."
I can find few other words to describe the attitude gripping many neighborhoods in this city and the residents that live somewhere in between the past and the fading hope for a reconstructed future.
Before this weekend, my only knowledge of life in New Orleans had come indirectly though a friendship with a young man named AJ. Through his eyes I began to view the struggles of residents who had been displaced to Texas and elected to return to New Orleans, but never truly found home again.
A quiet teenager when I first met him, AJ could often be both my friend and my enemy in the same conversation. I will never know the extent of the hardships he endured, but through our friendship I began to see his life as one of a refugee in a strange place. Much as Della struggled to balance her temporary life in Texas, AJ's post-Katrina life was torn between a city that was permanently changed by the storm and a subsidized apartment that was hardly a home.
Desperately longing for what he described to me as a better life in New Orleans, he often visited, but always came back to Texas eventually. I could never understand this lifestyle or the reason he so desperately desired to go home. One day he left for New Orleans and never came back. I haven't spoken to him since, but I have never forgotten his story as a glimpse into the life of a young man shaped by both the city of New Orleans and the destruction of Katrina.
I will never forget his life and his longing for this very special city. This resolve to return to New Orleans baffled me before I visited the city and realized for myself that The Crescent City is an enigma and a dream.
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My time in New Orleans began in the famous French Quarter where culture develops and tourists flock. In the bustling streets I saw preppy college students on their spring break, local entertainers and even a few protesters offering some messages of condemnation.
Before this visit, I imagined the whole city as merely an extension of the Lower 9th Ward - destroyed and deserted. For that reason, I was surprised to see the architecture and vibrant life that fills this older area.
While walking down the famous Bourbon Street, I began to find it to be an odd mix of historic French architecture and contemporary Cancun culture. Signs in front of beautiful merchant buildings read "HUGE ASS BEERS" and "TWO FOR ONE" in an attempt to attract visitors. There is a great desire to keep the party going in this city and Bourbon Street is the place to be. By the end of the trip I decided that the culture of the city is neither embodied in the old building nor the new party, but within a unique combination of both.
I soon left the party on Bourbon Street to find the parts of the city that have still not come back to life. The group piled into vans and began to drive toward one of the most devastated and publicized neighborhoods during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Lower 9th Ward.
As soon as I stepped out of the van I noticed that the whole area was terribly quiet. As I walked down the streets I saw entire city blocks that sat empty save for various concrete foundations where houses once stood. I saw a house with the words, "home this was" spray-painted onto the outside wall.
Considering the boards over the windows and the overgrown yard, I can tell you this building and the entire neighborhood was a home no longer. Perhaps the first truly sobering moment of this trip came when we found a house (pictured above) that Richmond students had gutted two years ago. They had been told that the owner of the house was coming to rebuild once the place was gutted, but for two years the structure sat unchanged.
Brett Holtzman and Lindsey Foss, two members of leadership who had worked on the house, were truly at a loss for words. We quickly learned that improvements in this city come when there are people and communities able to continue the rebuilding and see it to completion.
In a matter of days it became clear that while the party laughs on Bourbon Street, empty lots and vacant houses throughout the city cry out for justice. Residents have been tossed around so much that many never return and most never find their homes the way they first left them. There is no way to know how many residents of New Orleans have been scammed like Della and have no viable course of action.
Nathaniel Dowl Jr. is thought to be in jail, but Della and her mother said he might just be in other neighborhoods still fronting as a handyman. When I called the number on Della's invoice for "Nat Handyman Services" a child answered the phone, told me that he was sorry and that I had called the wrong number. I then considered that if Nat is in jail for fraud, his family is wishing he had never made the money in the first place.
It seems there are very few winners in this city who were not already wealthy before the storm. Inside Della's house there are piles of sheetrock, ladders and a skeleton frame still gutted years after Katrina. She doesn't know how long it will be before the next team of college students comes to work, but judging by the state of the house after almost four years of work, the process is far from over.
Contact staff writer Michael Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org
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