In New Orleans, one battered community coming back, but different

The population of Orleans Parish has increased by 100,000 since last fall.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Ronny Bertucci has the tallest house on Lake Catherine island, and that's saying something.

Measuring 21 feet, six inches, from the ground to the floor, the construction techniques for his new lakeside perch are taken from an oil platform. "She'll hold," the journeyman electrician says from his tall porch as he looks out at the bayous of the Rigolets, the "hurricane highway" that steered Katrina onto the Gulf Coast and into infamy exactly two years ago.

So far, life is clinging to – sometimes thriving on – the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, as rickety fish camps give way to a new crop of colorful modular homes on high stilts, a new crab house clatters with activity, and the fire department has more donated firetrucks on hand than it has firefighters.

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"Those who are coming back have come back," says Mr. Bertucci. "Those who haven't come yet aren't coming."

Call it the great Katrina shakeout. The combination of blight and prosperity, hope and despair evident out here on Lake Catherine, the remotest and most destroyed corner of New Orleans, represents a microcosm of the recovery. Like the rest of New Orleans, the rebuilt island community is likely to be sturdier and safer, but less economically diverse, with many of its quirky people and places missing in action.

Katrina survivors generally fall into four categories: those who have completed rebuilding, those who are under way but encountering barriers, those who haven't started, and those who've given up, says Silas Lee, a sociologist at Xavier University.

The recovery from the disaster has been carried out with a pioneer mentality as residents have been maneuvering though thickets of bureaucracy without much leadership, he says.

"It has become a very individualized experience and not something you can broad brush," says Mr. Lee. "But I think people are holding onto optimism. They haven't given up yet."

The population of Orleans Parish has dropped 39 percent since before the storm, but has increased by nearly 100,000 people since last fall. Thousands of old businesses are gone, but thousands of new ones are popping up. The population changes reflect a generational shift, with many older residents and shopkeepers using the storm as a reason to retire elsewhere.

Now, hip 20- and 30-somethings are mixing with the local "Where y'at?" crowd of barstool regulars – a scene that extends from Bourbon Street in downtown New Orleans all the way to Crazy Al's, the lounge that just reopened on Lake Catherine and where things don't get swinging until 2 a.m.

"The people of New Orleans all have stories to tell, and everybody's story is a really good story with all the elements of great drama: uncertainty, last-minute flight to leave the city, and all the problems they've faced since then," says Errol Laborde, editor of New Orleans Magazine. "The problem is there's a million of them."

This year's anniversary also marks a crucial turning point in the city's recovery process. Wednesday is the last day to file an insurance lawsuit. Moreover, recently published flood maps are giving residents more information to determine whether they are able to return.

As the last piece of storm litter was picked up in the city last month, construction dollars have begun to roll in. Although only a third of 158,000 expected Road Home grants – government rebuilding grants that average about $70,000 – have been distributed so far, that pace is likely to pick up this year.

Several massive commercial and public projects are expected to get under way, too, including a $60 million residential conversion of the downtown American Bank Building and a $200 million renovation at Jackson Barracks military base in the Lower Ninth Ward.

"We're getting there," says Chuck Schmalz, who rode the storm out on Lake Catherine.

The city's most distant outpost on the old Chef Highway – Hwy 90 – Lake Catherine is a salty hideaway for crabbers and retired lawyers known mostly for its curvy road and frequent wrecks. Only 17 of more than 500 buildings still stood after a surge thick with loosened railroad ties slammed across the island, and then surged back in the ricochet wave that loosened the levees around New Orleans.

Today, debris from the storm is still in the lake. Only 40 out of 200 regular island association members now come to meetings, many of whom drive in from off island.

But eight houses are being built, all about 20 feet in the air, and nearly all of new modular construction. This week, buyers were nosing around the island. New businesses – a busy bar, an icehouse, and a seafood dealer – are getting off the ground. A new project is underway to clear the lake of sunken boats. "Everything that was old is gone," says islander Ronny Kreger.

In some ways, the island is better prepared than ever, says Wayne Gagliano, one of three core members of the Fort Pike Volunteer Fire Department, the only volunteer squad in the city. The department will regift most of the eight firetrucks donated after the storm, but it will keep a ladder from New York because it's ideal for fighting fires in an elevated village.

"We'll be stronger and better for the storm," says Mr. Gagliano.

The storm tore Louis Neal's house right off its pilings. In a way, he says, Katrina helped him make a decision that he couldn't make by himself: He chose to move his family off the island so his three children could have access to a better education and a better job than being a crab fishermen at a time when a gallon of diesel costs $2.70.

"I'm never coming back," he says.

Boat builder Chuck Deckelmann says he can only dream of buying one of the new lofty modulars down-island. His camp floated away, and the landowner has stopped leasing plots since the storm. But a friend is lending him a space to put a trailer.

"A lot of people have moved on, but I'm coming back to where I've been raised my whole life," he says.

Mary Bryan began building a massive camp on Lake Catherine the summer before Katrina. Two years later, the family is finally planning a housewarming party.

"It's going to be bigger and better, and it's going to be perfect," she says.

[Editor's note: The original sub-headline misstated the number of people who returned to Lake Catherine since the storm.]

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