I first went to New Orleans four days after the storm, camping out in a Goodyear Tire parking lot in Kenner, west of the city. I've been back 10 times, give or take a few.
Businessmen are now flying down to New Orleans. They land, take a cab to the French Quarter, eat and drink at all the now-open, first-class establishments; sleep at the Hilton, the Sonesta or the Ritz, and fly out. The businessman's tour of New Orleans shows a city that's back. There are drunks on Bourbon Street, musicians in Jackson Square and families walking along the boardwalk.
But take the tour of New Orleans with a resident. Go see their home in Lakeview. Chances are they're the only ones on the block. Looking at pictures from two years ago, the neighborhood has definitely cleaned up. The mud and the debris are gone - but they've been replaced with skeletal houses and overgrown, wild grasses.
Last week Harry Smith and I met a woman who has lived in her trailer for two years. That means she hasn't been able to cook spaghetti for two years - steam sets off the fire alarm. She hasn't had a real bathroom, with real water pressure. Thieves run through the neighborhood at night, going into empty homes.
In the Lower Ninth Ward, there has been demolition. Houses are no longer sitting on top of each other - after being carried off their foundations by the waters from the canal. But it looks like a jungle. There are rabbits and raccoons where there should be residents.
For the one-year anniversary of Katrina, The Early Show broadcast from the corner of Flood and Marais Street in the Lower Ninth Ward. We picked the intersection because on each corner was a microcosm of the ward. Two houses were abandoned, rotting hulks. One had been gutted - but the water damage to the studs was so great that the bones of the house were buckling out. And the fourth was being painstakingly rehabbed and rebuilt by Joe and Denise Bienemy. Denise is a home health care worker - lucky to have a job after the storm - who leaves the house at 5 a.m. and returns around 8 p.m. She and Joe live in a trailer behind their house … when she leaves, he starts to gut and sheetrock and wire and plant, by himself.
Last week, we went back to the Bienemys. The house has brand-new tile, pictures on the wall and a new refrigerator. But they're still waiting for the city to turn on the lights and the sewer system, still waiting to get out of that trailer. The two houses across the street are still rotting, windows long since knocked out with rocks. The fourth has been torn down.
It's the unfortunate truth of New Orleans that any development in the hardest-hit areas is being done by the residents themselves, individually and with their own money. Barely anyone got the insurance money they expected - and in my travels to the area, I have yet to meet anyone who received something from The Road Home program or anything from the government beyond the initial checks from FEMA.
They're pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, using their retirement money and their own tools in a city where some places are still without power. They're suffering from post-traumatic stress, taking antidepressants, watching one public official after another go down for corruption charges. They're busing their kids to one of the few open schools in the district, looking for jobs that no longer exist, driving 20 miles to an open grocery store, hearing gunshots at night and watching rats forage around their trailers.
No wonder it's taking so long.