New Orleans Five Years Later: Lower 9th Ward

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana The numbers are mindboggling: 180,000 homes were damaged or destroyed by Katrina. Fifty-five-thousand remain empty today. Clearly, a lot of work remains.

But there are positives too.

In the first part of the series "New Orleans: Five Years Later," I take you into the historic but hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood many thought would never come back.

A warning: You may find some of these images disturbing.

The Lower Ninth Ward still is horribly scarred.

Hurricane Katrina's imprint is everywhere.

Each home still bears the markings of rescue crews, graffiti that often tells a sad story.

The historic neighborhood is now a mixed bag of successes and failures. Some people have returned, trying to get their neighborhood off of life support. Many others have buried all hope.

I visited this neighborhood in the wake of Katrina five years ago along with the Los Angeles County Fire Department's Urban Search and Rescue Team, we went house to house, searching for survivors.

The water was putrid, the smell unbearable. Bodies were floating in plain sight.

I remember even these veteran fire fighters found the experience incredible and shocking.

Today I'm able to use street signs and other more prominent landmarks to get my bearings and determine where I was five years ago.

Like the intersection of Marais and Sister streets. It leads to a house with a distinctive brick archway.

Right after Katrina it was deep in water, but the archway was very apparent.

Five years ago a home in a flooded alleyway was virtually ruined. Today that alleyway is dry and the home on the right is unrecognizable because it has been refurbished and remodeled, one of the fortunate.

Residents in the Lower Ninth Ward say the blight is what they hate about their neighborhood. They are working hard to get their homes up and running. They take a lot of pride in the way the houses look, yet there are many homes just like these, left to rot.

The Davis siblings have little left of the home they grew up in, just an empty lot. Yet they visit and tend to it, making the best of what remains.

"This is where we played, we grew up, played ball here, had holiday weekends here," said Melvin Davis. "Right here on this property."

Melvin tells me his father always took great pride in his lawn. So he is here with his sisters Carol and Juzelle, making sure it stays the way their father liked it.

"My mother and my father died in that house and this is our land and we plan to rebuild it," said Carol Davis.

But like so many in this city, the Davises need help rebuilding.

"There's about 55,000 unoccupied housing units right now in the city of New Orleans," said Allison Plyer, chief demographer at the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

Plyer says there's an enormous need for help. Many people have received money from the government, just not enough.

"The reason, by the way, they didn't get enough money to rebuild is because the formula was set up based on the pre-storm home value rather than the cost to rebuild," said Plyer. "So it's not really their fault that they don't have enough money to rebuild."

On top of the levee that broke you can see the water, and the Lower Ninth Ward is on the other side. Can you imagine moving back into your home right next to this levee that broke five years ago?

For the Davises it means getting back a little bit of what they lost. They couldn't even provide a picture of their old home. Casualties of the storm.

"I'd like to see the family house again, see the sisters and brothers be able to come down and come to church down here," said Melvin.

While they don't have enough money to rebuild, what they do have that is invaluable is optimism.

"We see people coming back into the area," said Melvin. "Slowly but surely they're coming back."

"I have hope and we are Christians, we trust Jesus, so if it's for us to rebuild we will rebuild," said Carol.

There are a number of nonprofit organizations trying to help people like the Davises rebuild their lives.

Tuesday at 5 p.m., I'll introduce you to two Southern Californians who, to their own surprise, decided to drop everything, move to New Orleans and voluntarily help people rebuild.

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