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New Orleanians long for home

Deborah Davenport is really tired of being asked: "Why would you stay?"

BY SUSAN KIM | NEW ORLEANS | August 6, 2006

"We're not willing to be stopped."

—Bruce Davenport

Deborah Davenport is really tired of being asked: "Why would you stay?"

She walks around her New Orleans neighborhood on the fringe of the St. Bernard Housing Development. The housing project - once home to 5,000 people - never reopened after Hurricane Katrina. People are sleeping where they can, some in vacant houses that haven't been gutted, some on the second floors of ruined buildings, some in travel trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Ruined belongings are still piled up in yards, and it looks like a week has passed since Hurricane Katrina, not a year.

Hope isn't seeping out of the woodwork here, Davenport acknowledged. But she's emphatic that you'd better hold your judgment until you understand the people.

"This is a comfort zone for them," she said. "People don't understand that the key is a sense of normalcy. You have to begin to look at yourself. What is normal to you is not normal for them."

As tired of the question as she is, she asks it again herself: "Why do they want to stay? People say: 'They were living in poverty before Katrina ever hit.' That's what all the news channels said. They said the storm would be an opportunity for people to build better lives. Well, what's better to you - that might not be better to somebody else."

Davenport said she was "already in the trenches" before Katrina came along. She was helping to operate the St. John #5 Camp Alert Community Empowerment Social Ministry. The ministry is partially funded through grants and partially through the St. John #5 Faith Church, where her husband is the pastor.

The Davenports were working with economically disadvantaged children, youth and adults who lived in the St. Bernard Housing Development. They bought up several homes on the block, rehabilitated them, and opened them as shelters and education centers. Now they're in the process of repairing those homes and trying once again to serve a tattered community.

People who have stayed still feel like they want to go home. "There's this lady, she said, 'I just want to go home. I just want to get on my porch and talk to the people in the neighborhood.' "

The problem is that there is hardly any neighborhood left.

Like his wife, Bruce Davenport speaks with what seems like a blind determination to carry on. "We're not willing to be stopped," he said, looking at the shattered, vacant housing behind him. "They have to open this back up. They will open them up."

In a strange twist, people evacuated to the two-story housing project during Hurricane Katrina. "They could get higher than the water," said Davenport. "And it had never flooded. That's why people came here. But there was water up to the second floor."

He holds out hope as he watches the crime get worse in a neighborhood that already had high rates of drugs and violence. "You have to understand people from the housing projects. They don't fear the police. They don't fear jail."

Now he has seen gang activity increase as people desperately reach for ways to find community. "We used to identify ourselves by neighborhoods and wards. Now we identify ourselves by gangs."

The Davenports have been attending meetings of the Crescent Alliance Recovery Effort (CARE), a long-term recovery committee comprising faith-based and community organizations.

Their struggle to bring their community back is echoed across New Orleans in neighborhood after neighborhood.

The oft-given statistic in the press is that about half of New Orleans residents have returned. But that's a misnomer in some ways, said Church World Service Disaster Response and Recovery Liaison Lura Cayton.

"Some areas are 75 or 80 percent occupied, while others are nearly uninhabited," she said.

Across the city in Chalmette, where a tank ruptured and poured oil into the streets along with a 30-foot storm surge, the homes look like the hurricane happened yesterday. Many sit untouched with marsh grass still on the roofs. A few have been gutted, and FEMA trailers are scattered up and down the streets.

The topsoil has been removed from some front yards in an attempt to clean up the oil, but black bubbles are already seeping back up through the ground. Other lawns are overgrown with weeds that invite rodents, snakes and alligators.

Most Chalmette residents aren't in a favorable position to complain about an oil spill, said Cayton. "It's a company town. Most everybody works for one oil company or another."

People staying in Chalmette and trying to gut their homes are greeted by a bleak scene every day, said Cayton. "I can't imagine what this must be doing to people psychologically, emotionally, spiritually."

And few people ever mention the prospect of another storm. Cayton, who lives in Oklahoma City, said she wouldn't feel safe living in New Orleans until the levees are better repaired. But she tries to voice her understanding of why people would want to stay.

"I know people have trouble understanding why you would live in hurricane country. Well, I live in tornado country. And I'm okay with that. It's home."

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