Six months after hurricane Katrina drove them from their homes and destroyed their possessions, some still live in shelters, others in hotels and FEMA trailers. A few have begun to rebuild. The worst natural disaster in US history displaced some 770,000 residents - the most since the great Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s. The storm destroyed or made uninhabitable some 300,000 homes.
Few have returned - no matter their desire. In the city's hardest-hit areas, such as the Ninth Ward, there is still no power or running water. In St. Bernard Parish, some utilities make it possible to return, but less than 10 percent of its residents have done so. Along Mississippi's Gulf Coast, few FEMA trailers appear.
Those who are here live on lonely streets, along barren, windswept shores, and in tiny trailers beside gutted homes.
Here are a few of their stories.
After graduating from high school in the Lower Ninth Ward, Mr. Robinson moved into a rental home here and began attending the University of New Orleans. Not long after, hurricane Katrina forced him to evacuate to Florida and then Georgia. He finally made his way back to the city and is working as a contractor, gutting houses and repairing roofs. He says he plans to reenroll in college this summer, but needs to make money first. "Katrina turned everything upside down," he says on a return trip to his home to salvage car parts. Everything inside was destroyed as the floodwaters rose above the roof. The teenager is currently living with family in the Gentilly area of New Orleans, using generators for power. "Going to college coming out of this neighborhood is really rare," he says, "so it's important I go back as soon as possible."
Chuck and Rene Veazey, along with their teenage son, Justin, had just moved into their West Pass Christian home along the Mississippi Gulf Coast last August. It had taken four years to clear the land and build the house. Then, with moving boxes still unpacked, Katrina threatened, and they fled to Picayune, Miss. They thought all would be well since the house had been built to sustain 155 m.p.h. winds and was raised 20 feet above ground. But the entire first floor was flooded as the waters rose to 27 feet, washing everything away. Intent to stay in this idyllic location, they signed with a builder in November and, just this week, a crew began putting up new sheetrock.
"We had all these things but, in the end, we learned that it was just stuff," says Mr. Veazey. "Katrina taught us a lot of good lessons."
Being the only ones back on a street can be lonely, but Terry and Ed Held Jr. are determined to remake their lives in the heavily damaged St. Bernard Parish. After evacuating and living in a Louisiana shelter until November, the mother and son bought their own trailer without FEMA's help and set it in their driveway. "At first it was scary here at night, but then a streetlight came on and lit the area up," says Mr. Held, who has worked in the movie industry most of his life. He says he will rebuild but is still fighting with the insurance company over his losses. He's also waiting for the new flood maps to determine how to rebuild. St. Bernard Parish doesn't even have 10 percent of its residents back yet.
This was the Yarbroughs' retirement home, a spot by the sea near their grandchildren. But Katrina wiped their two-story house off the face of the earth when the eye of the storm came through Waveland, Miss., on the Gulf Coast. While almost all of their possessions disappeared with the wind, they knew they would return and rebuild. They finally received a FEMA trailer in December and parked it on their daughter and son-in-law's lot, not far from their own. Just this week, the couple received the architectural plans for their new, smaller home - to be raised 24 feet above ground. They have a builder lined up, but have to wait until he is available. "Seeing these plans and knowing that we are going to be able to rebuild makes living in this trailer worthwhile," says Ms. Yarbrough, wiping back tears.
She had wanted to buy a house in New Orleans for years but never could afford anything. She made trips here to visit her daughter and son-in-law whenever possible. After Katrina hit, she knew this was her opportunity to settle here for good. With so many residents looking to sell, she snapped up a small, still-intact cottage in the Garden District and moved all her possessions from Maryland in December. "I would really like to help New Orleans by buying houses and fixing them up," she says, decorating the outside of her new home with Mardi Gras beads. "There's no way this city is going to be allowed to just fade way; it's too special."
The Basses had never evacuated from their Slidell, La., home before, but Katrina sounded different. So the family packed up and headed to Pearl River, Miss. When they finally returned to their one-story home two months later, "it was a real mess," says Mr. Bass, cradling his granddaughter, Jennifer, in their front yard. The water had come in about six feet and nearly everything had to be thrown out. They quickly received two FEMA trailers for their family of five, and they have been parked outside the gutted house ever since. Mr. Bass wants to rebuild the house, originally built in 1921, but his insurance won't cover the cost.
The two half-brothers took different routes during hurricane Katrina: One rode it out while the other evacuated. Now they're reunited at a church in New Orleans. Mr. Lawrence was trapped in a Kenner, La., store for two weeks, surviving on sodas and hot dogs before being evacuated to Lafayette, La. Mr. Gilliam evacuated to his grandparents' house in Alabama, but returned to the city (sleeping in his car at one point) to make money after his daughter was born. Because both of their family homes are still unlivable, they are taking shelter at the Resurrection Missionary Baptist Church and working night security for $12.75 an hour. "That kind of money is all thanks to the storm. I never had a job like that before Katrina," says Lawrence.