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Category: Art and Entertainment, Environment

Battling to Rebuild New Orleans

| January 6, 2009

For her Frontline documentary, airing Tuesday evening on PBS stations, the author documented the determination of a family that refused to give up on their city. The struggle remains daunting for those with community around them. It is nearly impossible for others more isolated, no matter what their circumstances might have been before Katrina hit.

New Orleans had received a glancing blow from Hurricane Katrina—the eye of the storm passed 70 miles to the east—but had drowned when its badly maintained levee system gave way.  Six months later, in February 2006, barely one-quarter of thecity’s population had returned.  They were urban pioneers, men like Herbert Gettridge, 82, living without heat or running water in the lower ninth ward, and the many women around him who held his family together.

I followed the travails of three generations of the Gettridge family for my film “The Old Man and the Storm” on Frontline.  The men physically rebuilt their homes, but the actions of women—unseen because their pain was too private—allowed this family to survive.  While the Gettridge men set up camp in trailers, their spouses and sisters, often living alone, reared children, fought with insurance adjusters, and in general stayed on top of the myriad shifting bureaucratic battles that have marked the city’s first few years of rebuilding.

Herbert Gettridge’s daughter Cheryl, a former insurance adjuster herself, cared for his ailing wife, Lydia, in Madison, Wisconsin, while she tracked insurance claims for the entire clan.  Another daughter, Gale, bought a house in nearby Baton Rouge so family members would have somewhere to stay while they rebuilt.  Meanwhile, she studied the shifting rules of the Road Home Small Rental Homeowners’ program for the several rental properties she and her husband own.  She also cared for a son and a grandson, each coping with post-traumatic stress in different, emotionally exhausting ways.  A third daughter could barely talk to us about the trauma of rebuilding without bursting into tears.  “I did everything right, and now I’m in so much debt I can’t ever see a way to pay it all off,” she said.  Mental health professionals assured me that she spoke for at least half of the city, black and white.

Other women, in other parts of the city, took on responsibility for getting Congress to act.  That first Thanksgiving after the flood, as Herbert Gettridge determined to leave his wife in Madison, Wisconsin, to return home and rebuild, others in New Orleans were making plans to persuade Washington to keep the promises made.

Anne Milling, a cousin of Democratic strategist James Carville and married to a prominent progressive banker in the city, sat down with a group of her friends who had also lost their homes that year.  Their meal turned into a brainstorming session.  The result, in January 2006, was “Women of the Storm.”  The group comprises about 80 women who have made three trips to Washington with the goal of convincing Congressional members to visit the ravaged city. “More Congressmen have visited Iraq than have come to New Orleans,” Millings points out.  She hopes that by seeing the extent of the devastation firsthand, Congress can be made more sympathetic.  Experts say that the city may need as much as $120 billion to cover infrastructural costs over the next ten years.

Kera Mosely, a public health professional, thinks the long-term human impact may be even greater. Pre-Katrina, Moseley worked as an assistant professor of public health at Tulane. She had survived the civil war in Sierra Leone just in time to watch the U.S. government bungle Katrina. She owned two homes:  one she lived in, one she rented and used as an office for a non-profit she ran, which worked with prisoners who had HIV/AIDs.  In the aftermath of the storm, she says, “there were no mental health professionals, no food distribution in the neighborhoods most in need; no NGOs on the ground.” International relief efforts in Sierra Leone, she said, had gone faster than U.S. efforts in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast post-Katrina.

I reported on the Gettridge family because it seemed to represent that black middle class, which lent both a cultural and economic vibrancy to the city. But while I was off filming my documentary, something happened to Kera Mosely.  As I neared completion of filming, I tried to contact her again to get some final thoughts.  I couldn't find her.  Her elegant mansion in the Garden District of New Orleans was abandoned.  Her cell phone had been disconnected; her emails bounced back.

It took me a couple of months to locate her, and even longer to find out what had happened:  Post-Katrina, Tulane had had to cut a couple of thousand jobs.  She had been one of those who lost her position.  The house she owned with her husband had sustained wind and water damage—but as their marriage disintegrated, the couple couldn’t agree on an insurance settlement. She lost her homes. 

Without the network of family support that characterizes most New Orleanians, Kera Mosely found herself alone.  She ended up on welfare, a client in the very system that she had once been paid to critique as a professor at Tulane.

The latest statistics from the Brookings Institution show that as the city comes back, it’s better educated, richer, and whiter.  Median income has jumped by twenty thousand dollars a year.  Yet, lost in those numbers are stories of single middle-class women, who didn’t have the know-how to rebuild with their own two hands.  In some ways, they are the canaries in the coalmine of the current economic crisis:  women who did everything right, but who lacked the resources to outwait the bureaucratic process.  They counted on insurance, and the state's Road Home program, and the honesty of contractors, and they lost everything they'd work all their lives to build. 

Ensnared in a complex web of systems, they now have less than before the storm—and no hope of ever getting their lives back.