I remember one woman with no shoes, shuffling her feet as her turn got closer. There was another couple huddled together and crying. It was there that we also met 5 children under the age of 6 who had been separated from their parents. Only one was verbal enough to tell us his mother's name. Ironically, it was Katrina. They had come in on a rescue helicopter with only neighbors from their housing project. Aid workers were worried they would never be reunited with their parents. We found out weeks later, thankfully, they were.
Over the last 5 years, I've been back to New Orleans many times--several times immediately after my initial 9 days there which included sleeping in the car or on a street. I went back for the first anniversary of Katrina and a couple more times when subsequent hurricanes were threatening the city. Other trips were to update the recovery process and highlight personal stories since many of our viewers have close ties to the area.
Through all of the visits, I have never been as struck by the progress as much as this last time back. I was there August 20-23rd...just a few days before the official 5 year anniversary. In the first two or even 3 years since the disaster, the city struggled just to survive. The focus was on rebuilding infrastructure such as the power or sewage grid, repairing rippled roads or establishing trash pickup. These are the things we all take for granted.
But now the city is working again and the focus has shifted to moving forward. The usual tourist places are thriving and there are tens of millions of dollars in construction projects underway--most notably in the city's "biomedical research district." These projects, once completed, are expected to provide jobs with a median income of $90,000.
Additionally, neighborhood associations and non-profit organizations are rebuilding neighborhoods as best they can. They've stepped in where government has left off...although they have a along way to go. Almost 58,000 homes are out of service compared to July of 2005, according to GCR & Associates. On this last trip back, I met a family in Vista Park near the London Ave. Canal (the site of 2 levee breaches) who returned only because they could do it "right." They raised their home 8 feet and constructed it with more durable material. They live across from an empty lot, however, all the rest of the properties around them are occupied. Their neighborhood is slowly coming back.
And that's my point. Five years ago, I could have bet on the fact that New Orleans was a lost cause---not that I wanted to. I had known (and loved) it and its charm before the storm. But there was just so much suffering, so much destruction. In the quiet times, I asked myself, how could this city and its people come back?
Now I know the answer -- -with determination, drive and a sense of belonging. New Orleans is unique. Its people identify with the city and there is a pull that says simply, I'm not happy until I'm back home. We've met many people along the way who have echoed that sentiment. They hope it resonates. They want to see their neighbors again. They are optimistic and so am I.