As the Saints get ready today for America’s biggest party and the world focuses on Haiti, it’s easy to forget that New Orleans is only four and a half years removed from the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history.
But this city, while healing, still hurts.
In areas east of downtown, it’s still difficult to avoid the X that is painted on many houses. The mark was left by the first humans who entered those homes after Hurricane Katrina and who recorded a few cold facts with a can of spray paint - including how many people had died inside.
Katrina killed nearly 2,000 people and caused about $110 billion in damage on the Gulf Coast at the end of August 2005. Thousands of residents were displaced for years; many have never returned.
So the people in New Orleans feel for their Haitian brethren in ways no other people can. But some worry that New Orleans, which has depended so much on visitors and volunteers, hundreds of them from the Triangle, may now be left wanting.
“If there’s one child without a safe place to sleep, there’s a need there,” said Kate Snider, who directs one of many relief efforts in the city. “So there’s a lot of need still in New Orleans.”
Still, the rebirth of this city - whose NFL team plays today in the Super Bowl for the first time - is a remarkable story.
Like Haiti, New Orleans was, in many ways, already broken before disaster struck. “Katrina helped everyone see exactly what was needed,” Snider said. “It sort of ripped a bandage off of a huge wound.”
Now, as the city decks itself in three of its favorite decorations - Mardi Gras colors, Saints gear and campaign signs - evidence of its repair abounds.
“The silver lining of this craziness called Katrina is the number of people who have come down and helped bail us out,” said John C. Martin, who retired from Detroit to the historic Uptown area 16 years ago and now enjoys taking visiting volunteers on tours of the city.
“Recovery tours,” he now calls them. They were much more bleak four years ago.
As he escorted a group from First Presbyterian Church in Raleigh in his SUV recently, he pointed with pride to evidence of the rebirth.
Levees have been built higher. Canal walls that broke and poured Lake Pontchartrain into the city have been restored, much stronger. Gates and pump stations have been built at the lakeshore to keep rising water out of the canals altogether.
And the MRGO shipping channel, called “Mr. Go” by the locals, has been closed. It was built to ease access between the Gulf of Mexico and the city, and it did its job all too well when the Gulf surged 22 feet as Katrina came ashore.
From Canal Street in the heart of the city, west to Metairie, signs of the catastrophe - aside from newly vacant lots - are few.
On the human level, more than 55,000 residential building permits have been issued by the city since the storm.
Many homes have been elevated to survive a flood. Education, notorious before, has improved with a proliferation of charter schools. And the city’s population, which sank from nearly half a million to 223,000 after the evacuation, is back to more than 300,000.
In the Lower 9th Ward east of downtown, one of the city’s most devastated areas, actor Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation is building postmodern, ecologically friendly, storm-resistant houses that look a little like spaceships in a desert. One of them would actually rise and float in a flood.
Nearby in the Upper 9th, New Orleans musicians, including Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis, helped build Musicians’ Village, eight acres of new homes.
Expensive houses are being built in the shadows of canal walls, testaments to the bravado of residents (and insurers).
And stories abound of neighbors who banded together as never before, the Katrina diaspora connecting by phone and Internet after the storm to make plans for their neighborhoods upon their return, and maintaining close friendships since.
Martin gives much of the credit for the rebirth to volunteers from outside, more than 2 million of whom have come to the Gulf Coast. Hundreds have come from the Triangle, working with church groups, Habitat for Humanity and other organizations.
“The people here are not capable of doing it all themselves,” Martin said. “We’re really good at working with other people. But we don’t have the leadership here.”
Indeed, the recovery hasn’t come from a central authority. Its leaders are scores of small groups such as Rebuilding Hope In New Orleans.
RHINO is a ministry started three weeks after the storm by St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church, deep in the Uptown crescent where the Mississippi River curls around the old city. The ministry started by organizing volunteers to gut more than 200 flooded houses so they could be restored, and then did construction in Musicians’ Village. It’s now working with New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity on a street called Ferry Place in East Carrollton, between Metairie and the river, west of the central city.
Eleven of 14 new homes on the street are occupied, said Snider, 25, a Nashville, Tenn., native who came to New Orleans as program manager for RHINO a year and a half ago.
One of the raised, two-story pastel houses on Ferry Place soon will be home to Jonathan Temple and Henrietta Carr, New Orleans natives who lived in Texas for six months after the storm but wanted to come back.
“I feel like my whole life is here, and we wanted to be here,” said Temple, 23, who lost his mother to Katrina. She died of a heart attack during the evacuation, he said.
When Temple isn’t unloading trucks for Family Dollar and Carr, 26, isn’t working as a nursing assistant at a retirement home, they chip away at the Habitat requirement that owners put in 350 hours of “sweat equity,” 100 of them on their own place. They expect to move into their house in May.
RHINO’s work, while rewarding, is emotionally exhausting, Snider says.
“No matter how much you do, you see how much more needs to be done,” she said. “No matter how many times you tell yourself, ‘One family, one house, one day at a time,’ the reality is that thousands of families need to be helped.
“But once you really immerse yourself in a community, you see people who have a goal, and it’s very exciting to help them reach it. That’s why I keep doing it.”
Now the city is busy girding for two huge parties - the Super Bowl in Miami today between the Saints and Indianapolis, and Mardi Gras on Feb. 16. And it also held a primary on Saturday to pick a successor to Mayor C. Ray Nagin. But the community is finding time to give back.
When the earthquake hit Haiti on Jan. 12, the people of New Orleans felt it - not only because of the natural empathy among disaster survivors, but because of deep cultural ties. Many of New Orleans’ early settlers were Haitians fleeing that country’s slave rebellions in the late 18th century.
Church of the King in Mandeville, on the north shore of the lake, quickly sent an 18-wheeler load of medical supplies and a team of volunteers to Haiti, led citywide prayer nights and also started a drive to recycle a Katrina icon.
“Everybody around here had blue tarps,” said Lisa Arnold, the church’s video director. Many of those tarps, which covered thousands of damaged roofs after Katrina, will now shield Haitians from the rain.
Christ Church Cathedral, an Uptown Episcopal church, quickly organized a concert with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra that raised more than $13,000 for Haiti relief, parish secretary Suzette Follette said. Other churches all over town raised money.
But some residents worry about “disaster fatigue,” and they insist that though Haiti needs real help, New Orleans still does, too.
Albert Fall, 82, who works as conductor of the jury lounge in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, lost four neighbors to Katrina.
“We know what they’re going through with death,” said Fall, who said he spent three days in his attic before rescuers in a boat heard his daughter, Lark, singing “Amazing Grace.”
“But the U.S. wants to run everybody else’s life. We need to stick right here and get ours in shape first.
“It’ll take about five to 10 more years for us to get back where we were.”
Arnold agrees. “We know the needs are still here, but people across the nation don’t,” she said. “They don’t understand that parts of the city are still at 50 percent.
“People lose patience with volunteering, year after year. That’s where the churches have to step in.”
Ann Maier, 54, a New Orleans resident, spent three years in the 1990s working with Church World Service in Miami helping new arrivals from Cuba and Haiti. She worries about a trait of human benevolence that she noticed among the people in Miami.
“They liked the mission that was far away - more than the 23 people down the street, who are a little smelly, bringing down their property values,” Maier said. She worries that it will happen again.
“Now it’s not 9/11. Now it’s not New Orleans. Now it’s Haiti. I hope people can find a way to keep doing what they need to do.
“There’s enough pain and misery to go around.”
News researchers Brooke Cain and David Raynor contributed to this report.
Eric Frederick: (919) 829-8956. On Twitter: @Eric_Frederick