Dennis Persica column for Nov. 8, 2012

Signs of progress rising in New Orleans

by dennis persica

Special to The Advocate

I woke up the other morning to the sound of construction machinery outside. It sounded like it was right in front of my house, so I was hopeful that they were finally getting around to fixing a mean pothole that’s been there for several years now, wreaking havoc on unsuspecting drivers who don’t see it in time.

I was wrong, but what was really going was probably just as good. About three lots down they were finally getting around to demolishing a house that had been vacant since Hurricane Katrina. The demolition of a slab-on-grade ranch-style suburban home takes only a day. I knew that from personal experience when I had my own house torn down on the first anniversary of Katrina’s landfall.

A week later, they came and dealt with the slab. Once it was gone, piles of fill dirt were dropped off. On Monday, another piece of machinery arrived to smooth out the dirt, and new sod was laid down on part of the lot. Maybe one day soon, more machinery will arrive to drive pilings.

There’s been an uptick in new construction in my neighborhood all of a sudden. On another street just a block away, two separate lots now have houses going up. They’re only frames now, but just a couple of weeks earlier they were only newly driven piles, and before that, empty lots. Another house is going up on my own street a few blocks down.

This is how a wounded city heals itself, one lot at a time.

What makes this change so amazing is that my neighborhood is Ground Zero. Or, to state it more accurately, my neighborhood is one of the many Ground Zeros of Katrina.

The London Avenue Canal levee wall breached literally across the street from my house; the western floodwall, that is. The canal, swollen by waters brought in or pushed in by Katrina, also breached its eastern wall a few blocks further south.

While many homes across New Orleans were flooded, those in the direct path of the levee breach were shredded by the force of the water pushing out from the canal. A couple of homes across the street from me — houses that backed up to the levee — were nearly torn apart by the force of the water coming through the breach. My own house had a good part of its front wall pushed in, and almost everything that was inside the house was forced out the other side.

Slowly, though, we’ve fought back. Neighbors on both sides of me and behind me kept their slab-on-grade houses and simply redid them from the naked studs on out. Others, like me, rebuilt — higher.

It’s a slow process, and it’s not over yet. I still have a long list of things to do at my house.

The progress is even slower when you look out on a battered city with still far too many empty homes, some well-tended, others simply open to the elements, animal life and anybody who might want to use them for, well, anything.

The houses going up in my neighborhood, like green shoots of hope, are a sign that one day, finally, this will all be behind us. The blighted houses will be gone, replaced by new houses, or just more open space.

When that happens we can go back to wondering when the ever-present potholes will finally be gone.

Dennis Persica is a New Orleans journalist. In his weekly column, he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is dpersica@gmail.com.