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Long After Katrina, New Orleans Fights For 'Home'

by NPR Staff
Aug 19, 2012 (All Things Considered)

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The Fight for Home cover. Daniel Wolff is the author of How Lincoln Learned to Read and 4th of July, Asbury Park.

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In just a few weeks, we will mark the seventh anniversary of one of the country's deadliest hurricanes. New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are still recovering from the devastating damage and loss of life caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita — the storm that would follow.

What the disaster also revealed was the steadfast determination of so many residents to not forsake the Gulf Coast and to rebuild — in some cases by any means necessary. Writer Daniel Wolff witnessed that effort, traveling to New Orleans regularly over a half-decade. He writes about what he saw there in a new book, The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back.

Wolff tells NPR's Cheryl Corley that he first went to New Orleans five months after the flood, with filmmaker Jonathan Demme.

"Everybody told us ... the story was over," he says. "But ... it struck us that there was this ongoing battle going on, for people trying to return to the city."

What was supposed to be a short series of visits became six years, as Wolff and Demme promised to keep documenting the struggles of New Orleans residents until they got back into their homes.

"[Demme and I] just sort of wandered through the city, meeting people," Wolff says, and eventually the subjects of their book came to them — among them a single mother in a FEMA trailer and a minister preaching to ex-addicts.

Demme and Wolff gathered around 500 hours of tape — and Wolff says people were more than willing to tell their stories.

"Part of why they were so welcoming was, they were worried about what's been called 'Katrina fatigue,' " he says. "That people were going to give up on what they were doing, that the story was over, the media had moved on. And here were we, sort of stubbornly returning."

But at first, he says, they couldn't understand why people were fighting so hard to stay.

"They couldn't get back in their homes; the police protection was awful; there was almost no health care," he says.

One of the women in the book had to bathe in water from a fire hydrant, and keep her house lit with batteries.

"To us it was unbelievable that they wanted to do this, and a real testament to how much they cared about their home city and their home itself," he says.

Wolff says the flood brought down the levees — but it also brought down some of the barriers that had kept people divided in New Orleans. He points to a friendship that grew up between a dreadlocked African-American activist named Suncere and Mike, a former Marine who — still — flies a Confederate flag from his porch.

"[Mike] stood in his backyard and pointed to the sky and said, 'I realized, we can't come back as neighbors; we've gotta come back as family.' And that was his position," Wolff says. "I think one of the things people are hoping for is people can continue that."

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