The Salem News
---- — Boarded up homes, collapsed roofs, shuttered businesses and empty overgrown lots lined the streets as I drove into the Lower Ninth Ward on the outskirts of New Orleans. It broke my heart to think it’s been eight years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the region.
Over the years, there’s been significant progress with families returning and homes being rebuilt — some 150 new homes alone built with funds from a foundation started by superstar Brad Pitt. Among the remaining devastation, I saw kids riding bikes, people sitting on front porches and families gathering outside for dinner as the sun set.
While I saw signs of life, I was overwhelmed by the amount of work that still needs to be done. I questioned: Has America forgotten?
I traveled to the Big Easy earlier this summer with a group from Grace Chapel in Lexington to work with ReachGlobal, a relief organization affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church of America. I didn’t know what to expect going on the trip until I saw the wreckage with my own eyes. Like many others I had become numb to the aftermath of the tragedy.
Hurricane Katrina is considered to be one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in recent U.S. history. More than 1,000 people died across the Gulf Coast and hundreds of thousands of others were displaced. Who can forget the images of the floodwaters overtaking much of New Orleans when the levees broke?
Lionel Lewis Jr. sure hasn’t. He was trapped on his roof alongside his elderly mother, brother, sister-in-law and niece after the flood waters overtook his home in the Upper Ninth Ward.
“You couldn’t see the street signs, which are eight to 10 feet tall,” Lionel recalled. “They were totally engulfed by water.”
They were eventually rescued by helicopter.
They lost everything in the storm — photo albums, vehicles, prayer beads and Bibles that were passed along to him by his mother. The home had to be completely gutted after the water resided. To this day, eight years later, Lionel, 63, is still struggling to move back into his home of almost 40 years. Right now, he is living out of a hotel room.
Our group had the opportunity to help refinish the exterior of his home by scraping the clapboards and painting a fresh coat of primer. He paid for the paint and we provided the labor. He is hoping to eventually get a loan to finish the interior of his home and move back in.
Theft has been a major issue.
Every time he would complete significant plumbing and electrical work his home would be broken into and thieves would steal thousands of dollars of newly installed pipes and wiring. He is working on his plumbing for the third time and electrical wiring for the fifth time, which is a major challenge because he is retired on a fixed income.
He said the aftermath of the storm is constantly on his mind and weighs on him, but he has decided to persevere instead of giving up. He said he finds his hope in his Christian faith.
“There is always hope,” Lionel said. “If it wasn’t for Jesus, I don’t know what I’d do or where I’d be. He is my strength and light in the darkest moments.”
While it might be easier to restart his life somewhere else, Lionel said he’s committed to staying in the city where he has lived his entire life. “I wouldn’t have even considered leaving,” he said.
He said thousands of other people like him are also struggling to get back into their homes. There have been issues with people hiring fraudulent or underqualified contractors, crime and insurance companies not honoring policies for countless reasons. There were few jobs for anyone looking for work in returning to the city after the storm.
Lionel said the city has lost many homeowners who died in the storm or decided to pack up and leave. This has been tough for the economy and renewing the city’s vitality.
I was inspired to hear stories from several people we met on walks in the neighborhood about how they were able to overcome the storm and move back in. One woman across the street shared how she got a job directing traffic for construction vehicles immediately after the storm while working to renovate her home.
A few blocks away, the owner of a local diner decided to spend her life savings to reopen the restaurant in hopes that others would return as well. It wasn’t easy with few customers at first and a high crime rate in the area.
Lionel told us throughout the week that he felt a burden lifted as he saw his house being painted for the first time in eight years.
While I entered New Orleans heartbroken by the work that still needs to be done, I left inspired by the optimism, faith and spirit of the people who live there. I enjoyed visiting the French Quarter and hearing the lively jazz music from the street corners and eating a bowl of jambalaya.
Has America forgotten? There are no easy answers and there has been much controversy surrounding the relief efforts. But Lionel doesn’t think so. He thinks the country is overwhelmed right now by other tragedies such as forest fires and people being slaughtered in foreign countries.
When his home is finished, Lionel hopes to help other homeowners in need. That’s what it’s all about — neighbors helping neighbors, friends helping friends and even strangers helping strangers. That’s what will rebuild New Orleans.
There is still a lot of work to be done, but through it all Lionel Lewis still has hope. Maybe he can be an inspiration for all of us in the face of adversity. He sure is for me.
Jonathan Phelps is a staff writer for The Salem News and a Salem resident. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.