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Long After Katrina, New Orleans Fights For 'Home'

Aug 19, 2012
Originally published on August 19, 2012 6:20 pm

In just a few weeks, we will mark the seventh anniversary of one of the country's deadliest hurricanes. New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are still recovering from the devastating damage and loss of life caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita — the storm that would follow.

What the disaster also revealed was the steadfast determination of so many residents to not forsake the Gulf Coast and to rebuild — in some cases by any means necessary. Writer Daniel Wolff witnessed that effort, traveling to New Orleans regularly over a half-decade. He writes about what he saw there in a new book, The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back.

Wolff tells NPR's Cheryl Corley that he first went to New Orleans five months after the flood, with filmmaker Jonathan Demme.

"Everybody told us ... the story was over," he says. "But ... it struck us that there was this ongoing battle going on, for people trying to return to the city."

What was supposed to be a short series of visits became six years, as Wolff and Demme promised to keep documenting the struggles of New Orleans residents until they got back into their homes.

"[Demme and I] just sort of wandered through the city, meeting people," Wolff says, and eventually the subjects of their book came to them — among them a single mother in a FEMA trailer and a minister preaching to ex-addicts.

Demme and Wolff gathered around 500 hours of tape — and Wolff says people were more than willing to tell their stories.

"Part of why they were so welcoming was, they were worried about what's been called 'Katrina fatigue,' " he says. "That people were going to give up on what they were doing, that the story was over, the media had moved on. And here were we, sort of stubbornly returning."

But at first, he says, they couldn't understand why people were fighting so hard to stay.

"They couldn't get back in their homes; the police protection was awful; there was almost no health care," he says.

One of the women in the book had to bathe in water from a fire hydrant, and keep her house lit with batteries.

"To us it was unbelievable that they wanted to do this, and a real testament to how much they cared about their home city and their home itself," he says.

Wolff says the flood brought down the levees — but it also brought down some of the barriers that had kept people divided in New Orleans. He points to a friendship that grew up between a dreadlocked African-American activist named Suncere and Mike, a former Marine who — still — flies a Confederate flag from his porch.

"[Mike] stood in his backyard and pointed to the sky and said, 'I realized, we can't come back as neighbors; we've gotta come back as family.' And that was his position," Wolff says. "I think one of the things people are hoping for is people can continue that."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

CHERYL CORLEY, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Cheryl Corley, in for Guy Raz.

In 10 days, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast will mark the seventh anniversary of one of the country's deadliest hurricanes. The region is still recovering from the devastating damage and loss of life of Hurricane Katrina and of Hurricane Rita, the storm that would follow.

What the disaster also uncovered was the steadfast determination of so many residents to not forsake the Gulf Coast and to rebuild, in some cases, by any means necessary. Daniel Wolff witnessed that effort, traveling to New Orleans regularly over half a decade and pouring over 500 hours of interview footage with filmmaker Jonathan Demme.

Daniel Wolff was conducting research for the documentary "I Am Carolyn Parker," which he was producing with Demme, when he began work on his new book, "The Fight for Home: How (Part of) New Orleans Came Back." And Daniel Wolff joins me now. Welcome to the program.

DAN WOLFF: Well, thanks for having me.

CORLEY: You know, since 2005, there have been several books that have been written about the hurricanes and New Orleans. What made you want to tell the story?

WOLFF: Well, when I first went down to New Orleans, it was with Jonathan Demme, the filmmaker, and everybody told us what's implied in your question, which is the story was over, that the story was the flood and then the government's just about criminal negligence in not responding to it.

But when we get - came down there five months after the flood, it struck us that there was this ongoing battle going on for people trying to return to the city. And we thought we'd go down for a visit or two. We ended up going down for six years, I guess, about every three months, because we got to know the people, and we sort of vowed to ourselves and to the people that we wouldn't stop documenting what was going on until they got back in their homes. And it took that long.

CORLEY: Mm-hmm. Well, you introduce us to several people in the book: a preacher who works with former addicts and his family, activists who founded the volunteer organization Common Ground and others who live in particular areas of New Orleans like Carolyn Parker and the Lower Ninth Ward and Mike and Kim in St. Bernard Parish, which is right outside the city. How did you choose those folks over others, or did you think their struggles were just kind of symbolic of what's happened to so many there?

WOLFF: Well, in some sense, they chose us. And that is that we just sort of wandered through the city, meeting people. And, especially our first visit, they'd tell us their story and then say, but if you think this is bad, go that way. And we'd go a little farther, and there would be some more devastation.

CORLEY: It's interesting that you say that you just went, like, from one place to another and people would say, well, here's another person. Were people just very open with you, very willing to tell their story?

WOLFF: Unbelievably so. And New Orleans, I think, brags a little that they have the best storytellers in the world. And it may be true. But lots of cities, I think, brag that way. They were certainly very good spokespeople for what was going on. And part of why they were so welcoming was they were worried about what's been called Katrina fatigue, that people were going to give up on what they were doing, that the story was over, the media had moved on, and here were we, sort of stubbornly returning. And they were grateful, as were we.

CORLEY: Mm-hmm. Well, you said you went to check on folks every three months or so. Did you find progress each time you went down or not?

WOLFF: Oh, the first couple years were horrifying. I mean, the first couple years, we couldn't figure out why people were still trying to live there, because they couldn't get back in their homes. The police protection was awful. There was almost no health care. Someone like Carolyn Parker was, for a long time, bathing with water from the fire hydrant, using batteries to keep whatever lights she had on in her house.

So to us, it was, you know, unbelievable that they wanted to do this, and a real testament to how much they cared about their home city and their home itself.

CORLEY: Mm-hmm. If you're just joining us, we're talking to Daniel Wolff, author of a new book, "The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back." Well, race is a huge factor in the rebuilding effort and in the politics of the city. You show how it played out on a much more intimate level.

And I'm thinking of Mike who lives in St. Bernard Parish who used to fly a confederate flag at his home and how all of that changed during the recovery efforts. Can you talk about what happened with him? And did you see that type of change often?

WOLFF: Sure. We met Mike because we were riding with a volunteer for Common Ground called Suncere. And Suncere was a radical lefty with dreadlocks and a little tattoo of the African continent on his left cheek. And he said: I want you to meet one of my best friends. And we went driving down this desolate street out in St. Bernard Parish, which is - was 90 percent white and was the place that white flight went to in New Orleans before the flood.

And at the end of the street is this house with a Confederate flag and a Marine flag flying above it. He said: That's my friend's house. And we kind of looked at him and looked at the house again.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLFF: And he said: Well, yeah. I first went there as a dare because we saw the flag and Mike was back real early. And I thought, now, who's flying that? I want to meet this guy. And so we pulled up with Suncere and got out, and Suncere goes over with his big dreads and his African tattoo and gives Mike a hug. And Mike turns out to be a big sunburnt white guy with a Cajun accent.

And he says essentially over the time we got to know him: Sure, I did some bad things and had some prejudice beliefs - however you want to put it - beforehand. But when the flood hit, and even a little before as our neighborhood was falling apart anyway, I realized - and he stood in his backyard and pointed to the sky and said - I realized, we can't come back as neighbors. We've got to come back as family.

And that was his position. And we ran into that a lot in New Orleans where a bunch of the barriers that had separated people came down the way the levies came down. And they found each other. And I think one of the things people are hoping for is that the city can continue that. That when you rebuild New Orleans, you don't necessarily go back to all of old New Orleans, because some of it wasn't so hot. And Mike's an example of someone who wants, I think, a new future.

CORLEY: What did you learn from the people that you featured in "The Fight for Home"?

WOLFF: Oh, that human beings are stronger and braver and crazier than I ever thought. And there's a certain madness to all these folks who came back, but there's also an amazing bravery, I think, and a kind of inner faith, whether it's overtly religious or not, or whether it's about home and family, that is just awe-inspiring.

CORLEY: I was wondering, as I read this, whether or not the challenges faced by New Orleans, are those unique to that city's politics and their history and just the landscape of that city, or can American cities struck by disaster learn from what happened there?

WOLFF: I think American cities that aren't struck by disaster can learn from what happened in New Orleans. The problem of - and this struck me really hard after some years down there - that the problem of a service economy is a severe one. New Orleans is known for showing us all a good time.

The way it does that is by feeding us and giving us hotel rooms and so on. And the people who do that work were the people we ended up running into in the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly. They didn't really have good jobs, and they didn't have a chance to get ahead. And so I think the challenge of New Orleans is the challenge of Detroit and Baltimore and Oakland and East St. Louis, which is how you set up an economy in a city where everybody does get a chance at a decent living.

CORLEY: Daniel Wolff is the author of "The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back." He joined us from our New York bureau. Thanks so much for joining us.

WOLFF: No, it's a great pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.