NOLA a Work in Progress, 5 Years After Katrina

Rebuilding New Orleans, five years after Hurricane Katrina.
Rebuilding New Orleans, five years after Hurricane Katrina.

Five years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is looking forward, and looking back. Michelle Miller takes the pulse of a city on the mend…

It was the day the unthinkable happened . . . an American city was drowning.

Streets became rivers. Roof-tops became life-rafts. Whole lives washed away before our eyes.

But incredibly, in New Orleans today, there is celebration . . . a celebration of survival.

There are tales of hope, tales of despair . . . but mainly, this is the story of a work in progress.

Complete Coverage: Katrina Five Years Later

At Dooky Chase's restaurant, 87-year-old Leah Chase is back in business, dishing out down-home cooking and hospitality as she has for more than 65 years.

"I'm lucky," Chase said. "We lost people, and if we're still here that means we got to work. We have to work. And I will do the work I have to do."

What used to be the steps to someone's home five years ago is now a vacant lot. There is progress, but it's house by house, and block by block.

Dierdra Taylor-Ordogne had just moved her family into a new home in the Lower Ninth Ward when the floodwaters swept it, and everything they owned, away.

"My mother got a call from somebody, one of her friends," she said: "'Where's your daughter? 'Cause I see her house floating down the street.'"

"I had just bought new furniture. I mean, my kids had just went shopping for school, and it was like, you know, 'Can we take our clothes?'" Taylor-Ordogne recalled. "And I said, 'Girl, leave them clothes here. We'll be back in three days.' You know, three days turned pretty much almost into three years."

Now she has another new home, built on the very same spot, a just-completed, architect-designed house built by actor Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation.

Progress . . . but it's just one of just fifty built so far.

Before Katrina, there were thousands of owner-occupied homes in this neighborhood, along with grocery store, schools and a post office. All of that is gone.

After Katrina's onslaught, Alex Beard moved himself and his family back to his native New York, worried about the city's health, and the health of his three-month-old son.

"Locally, on a state level, and on a federal level, we were clearly abandoned, right from the get-go," said Beard. "And everybody knew it."

Last year, Beard came back, and opened a new gallery in the heart of the French quarter. Where government may have failed, he says, people have made a difference.

"All of a sudden, nationally, we had a lightning rod where you no longer had to feel helpless. You could come, and bang nails into a roof, and see a difference, a positive difference," he said.

Just this past week, hundreds of volunteers poured into New Orleans to help Habitat for Humanity make a "positive difference." Their goal: To build five new homes in five days.

Still, there are nearly 50,000 vacant houses on blocks across New Orleans.

"Every home in this neighborhood was damaged or outright destroyed when the water came through the levee wall on the morning of August 29th," said Rick Prose.

In fact, in the city's most battered neighborhood's, five years later, abandoned houses outnumber occupied homes almost everywhere you look.

Prose founded to try to change that.

"Our population return in the Lower Ninth Ward now stands at about 20 percent," he said.

His organization supplies free labor to homeowners, like Deborah Massey, who bought an abandoned home for $30,000 but didn't have enough saved to renovate it on her own.

Massey just has to pay for materials. "And some red beans and rice maybe once or twice a week, and some hot dog and nachos, water, cold drink. I was like, 'Okay!'" Massey laughed.

Tales of hope, tales of despair. But again, New Orleans five years after Katrina is work in progress. One hundred thousand people who left after the storm haven't returned.

But consider this: New Orleans is now the second-fastest growing city in the United States.

And those who've persevered - folks like Leah Chase - count their blessings.

"I am a blessed woman," she said. "I had so much help. I enjoy seeing the changes we're looking at now. Some people, they don't like change. But change is good."

A new perspective since the storm . . . and a willingness to embrace whatever changes life has in store.

"Bad things happen to us here," Beard said. "You know, look at this last summer with the oil spill. But it's much less a sense of 'We can't get over it,' and much more of a sense of, 'Life is full of hard things, we will rise to the occasion.'"