Five years later, Katrina victims still struggling

HOUSTON Eyewitness News begins our extensive coverage of Katrina five years later with the stories of evacuees who have returned to New Orleans and the challenges they are facing.

The first set of steps at Gertrude LeBlanc's leads only to memories.

"There's no place like home," LeBlanc said.

The bricks she now uses as decorations in her yard are what once took you to her original house on Tennessee Street, which was there for 40 years.

But now, it is long gone.

"It really was like a bomb dropped through here," she said.

When the 74-year-old finally returned to the lower Ninth Ward after evacuating because of Hurricane Katrina, she found much of her home wrapped around this tree. Just a few blocks over is where a barge broke the wall of the Industrial Canal and water poured in.

[KATRINA ANNIVERSARY: Look back at the storm that changed Louisiana]

The aftermath was just devastating.

Eyewitness News was there even weeks later and the city still hadn't dried out.

"I am glad we left because I don't think I would have survived it," LeBlanc said.

After spending years displaced, LeBlanc was determined to return even though many neighbors still haven't.

"I've lived here all my life," she said. "I had to come back."

"Every red dot here is a parcel that was active in July 2005 but not today," Consultant Greg Rigamer said.

Rigamer said almost 58,000 units are not being used today that were being used before Katrina; the units were in the lower Ninth Ward, where a once densely-populated neighborhood now looks rural.

Much of the lower Ninth Ward has weeds more than 10 feet tall, but right next door, there's a freshly-mowed lot as if the owners are still staking their claim, saying I'll be back.

It is a good sign after so many stories of loss and so much heartache.

Five years later, LeBlanc is optimistic.

"You can't go back," she said. "You've got to look forward."

Tour buses now cruise down her street.

"Let them come through here and see that we still need help back here," LeBlanc said.

And she welcomes them just as these steps will always welcome her visitors.

"I'm going to keep that as a reminder of what happened 2005 with Katrina," she said.

We've spent a lot of time going back and forth to New Orleans over the last five years. Two -- even three -- years after the storm, full recovery seemed questionable.

Now there's a real sense of optimism and there's traction. Still the city is down 93,000 jobs and rent is higher.

Watch Eyewitness News at Ten on Thursday to see the continuing efforts to bring New Orleans back.

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