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N. Orleans recovery reflects stark contrasts

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–The steps once led to a Lower 9th Ward home. Now they lead nowhere. The scene is repeated on block after block of this hard-hit neighborhood.

For some New Orleans residents these “steps to nowhere” represent their plight following Hurricane Katrina -– two years with very little progress. For others, the road has been marked with hope, healing and recovery.

The New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary family witnessed dramatic scenes of contrast as they ministered to the community Aug. 29 -– the second anniversary of the nation’s worst natural disaster. While they shared the love of Jesus Christ in word and deed, the students encountered the hope and the heartache of the recovery.

One mile from the desolation of the Lower 9th Ward, across the Industrial Canal, is the home of Carolyn Nogess, who described her home as “98 and three quarters percent” complete. The road has not been easy, but hers is a story of hope.

On the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Nogess was waiting on an electric meter for the utility pole in the front yard of her home. She had volunteers and contractors lined up, but they needed electricity for their tools.

But even with all the frustrations of her three-week wait for power, Nogess tried to be hopeful.

“There are days that I am very hopeful. There are days that I think it’s not going to happen,” she said at the time. “I’m praying and asking God to get us back, to make us whole again. I’ve got to be hopeful, I can’t be nothing else. Look, we’ve already been down. There’s nowhere else to go but up.”

On the second anniversary, Nogess is back in her home and is even more hopeful.

“I’m thankful to God that I have my home,” she said. “I have more to be thankful for than to be upset about.”

Nogess said that more and more of her pre-storm neighbors are returning. And with the Baptist Crossroads/Habitat for Humanity site across the street, many new residents are moving to the neighborhood as well.

“We’re just happy to have people [back],” she said. “We’re glad.”

New Orleans is a “front porch” community. It’s common to see residents sitting on their stoops in the evenings visiting with neighbors. Nogess said that she longs for cooler weather so she can sit out on her front porch again. A return to the porch will be yet another step toward normalcy.

To commemorate Katrina’s anniversary, Nogess hung a handwritten sign along her fence. It’s a tradition that her daughter Neshelle started last year. One sign lists all the volunteers and contractors that helped Nogess return. It reads: “This Year, We Are Home.” Another sign gives praise to God and bears verses 7 through 9 of Psalm 104.

“This one, ‘To God Be the Glory,'” Neshelle read from the brightly colored sign. “What else is there to say?”

The recovery of homeowners like Nogess and endeavors like the Baptist Crossroads Project are hopeful signs, but challenges remain. The Upper 9th Ward needs schools and it needs a grocery store. Residents are forced to travel to another part of the city for both. Even the district police station headquarters still is housed in temporary trailers.

“It’s challenges that you would not imagine,” Nogess said. “You’ve got the challenges but you’ve got the uplift. You’ve got people saying, ‘We’re in your corner.'”

The stark contrast of mixed results also is evident in the Gentilly neighborhood. The recovery of the New Orleans Seminary campus illustrates the power of cooperation. Southern Baptists gave of their time and money to make the reconstruction happen. And SBC volunteers have been actively involved in the Gentilly neighborhood’s recovery through Operation NOAH Rebuild, Arkansas Baptist Builders and other church groups.

But just a few blocks from campus in any direction, the signs of the city’s needs are clear. Buildings still bear the yellow-brown water lines left by the standing floodwater. Homes, businesses and schools remain in disrepair. Spray-painted markings left by search and rescue teams still spoil the facades of many homes and businesses.

A trip north on Music Street, from Gentilly Boulevard to Lake Ponchartrain, tells a story. The first few blocks are filled with restored homes and well-kept lawns, but further north the scene changes into block after block of mixed results.

That is the case on the 6400 block of Music Street. On Aug. 29, Josh Harmon, an electrician with Arkansas Baptist Builders, worked to complete the electrical work on the home of an elderly woman. Soon she’ll be moving back into her restored home, but it is the only home on the block that has been restored. The FEMA trailers in the yards of several other homes signify an intent to return, but much of this stretch of Music Street remains in disrepair.

Still, Arkansas Baptist Builders are making a difference. On that day, Harmon said he and a work crew from the seminary completed the electrical work on four homes in all.

In Chalmette, southeast of New Orleans, many neighborhoods also continue to struggle. Paul Gregoire, NOBTS registrar and pastor of Saint Bernard Baptist Church, said about half of his Chalmette neighborhood has returned.

Gregoire’s neighborhood recently reached a milestone -– five restored houses in a row. Many of his old neighbors have not returned, Gregoire said, but new younger residents are moving in.

The scene is different just across East Judge Perez Drive from Gregoire’s neighborhood, closer to Mississippi River Gulf Outlet which stretches from Chalmette to the Gulf of Mexico. Many blame the waterway for deep flooding in St. Bernard Parish. There, fewer people are moving back.

Many churches like Edgewater and Gentilly Baptist churches that have given so much to the community are not completely back in their buildings. Both churches have focused their attention on meeting community needs.

Jay Schroder, project coordinator for Edgewater Baptist Church’s rebuilding effort, said his church currently is using about 30 percent of its space. Work continues on the Edgewater sanctuary; Schroder said the project is about 60-70 percent complete and could be finished in as little as six months if they have enough volunteers.

Until just a few months ago, Edgewater continued to host gutting volunteers. As the need for gutting decreased, the church accelerated the work on the sanctuary. Currently the church is using its restored fellowship hall as an outreach tool –- allowing neighborhood associations to meet there.

Gentilly Baptist, which serves as a beacon of hope for some many in the neighborhood, continues to host volunteers with the Arkansas Baptist Builders. Though their sanctuary is still not complete, the congregation gathers each Sunday for worship, having gained a new standing in the community by sharing the hope of Jesus Christ in word and in deed.
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Gary D. Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.