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Katrina Evacuee Sharon White: Rebuilding Uncertain


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

On the Gulf Coast today, President Bush restated his commitment to rebuilding the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. In Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi, people still live in trailers and tents in front of what was once their homes. There, the president said the road back would continue to be difficult but the federal government was in it for the long haul.

SIEGEL: Earlier in New Orleans, the president praised Mayor Ray Nagin and others for producing a local master plan for recovery. That plan, which was released yesterday, starts the clock on the controversial decision about which neighborhoods will be rebuilt and which will not be. It was Mr. Bush's first visit to the damaged region since October and he was quick to point out the bright spots.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: New Orleans, it reminded me of the city I used to come to visit. It's a heck of a place to bring your family. It's a great place to find some of the greatest food in the world and some wonderful fun.

NORRIS: That was President Bush today. Sharon White once shared the president's optimism. No more. We've talked with White from time to time. She owns a duplex on Benita Drive(ph), and looking at the master plan, her block looks slated to become park land. To Sharon White, that realization and the plan came like a punch to the gut.

Ms. SHARON WHITE (New Orleans Resident): They were saying, `Come home. Come home. Come home.' I been going on my days off, cleaning out my house. I wanted to do it myself. I'm actually still finding little bits and pieces. And now they're telling me I might as well stop because, no matter what, if I don't group up with my neighbors, my neighborhood may not be rebuilt.

NORRIS: Now you're talking about this provision under the plan which would allow the neighborhood to come together and to prove that they're viable?

Ms. WHITE: Yeah. How am I supposed to find these people? My neighbors, we all work, a lot of us. It was like, `Hi, neighbor, how you doing,' when we're cutting grass, but I don't know these people. How do you get in touch with a whole neighborhood of people? I'm talking about blocks upon blocks upon blocks of people. All I wanted was to come back home to New Orleans. Now I got to wait till a whole bunch of people come back. And if a lot of people don't come back, that means, `OK. Well, you all tried. Twenty came back, 60 didn't, thanks but no thanks. Here's some money. Go.' I don't care how much money they give me. It's not going to be enough to buy another home. And I'm going to be honest with you. After this, I don't think I want to buy a home in New Orleans. I called my children and I told them I might be coming out there by them and they can't believe it either.

NORRIS: Sharon, it's hard for me to believe it because I've talked to you several times now on the air, on the phone in-between those times, and every time I talk to you, you say the same thing, `I'm going back to rebuild.'

Ms. WHITE: Yeah. And I planned to rebuild. My house to this point right now all I have to do is gut it. And I looked at my neighborhood. Yes, it's dead. Nobody's come back, but they came back. A lot of my neighbors have taken out their furniture just like I have. They want to come back. They cut all the electricity from our homes. They say because, you know, people try to cut it on themselves or whatever, it may blow a fire. OK. That's what I believed all this time. I didn't know that we were under some kind of plan. See, they never disclosed this till yesterday. Why should what others do--I'm not understanding this. I don't know. I mean, is this legal? Is this legal?

NORRIS: I know this is a very confusing time for you, Sharon. I'm trying to understand a few things. Since they turned off the electricity to your specific neighborhood, do you think that they had always planned to turn this into park land, that they never intended--or for some time now they've intended to turn this into something other than a residential neighborhood?

Ms. WHITE: You know, I thought they were just--I really--I may be wrong, but I really thought they were messing with the Lower Nine. Lower Nine is in total devastation. I've been there, I've seen it and my heart bled for my neighbors there. But I had no idea that they can take and do what they're doing at this level. This is the sneakiest thing I've ever heard. This is wrong.

NORRIS: Now, Sharon, as difficult as this is, have you tried to put yourself on the other side, to think about what the folks on the Bring Back New Orleans Commission might be thinking, what Ray Nagin, the mayor, might be thinking, that maybe they don't want to rebuild this area because it's low lying and maybe they want to protect the residents, God forbid, this should happen again?

Ms. WHITE: You know what? Shouldn't that be our decision? I bought this house. If I take that chance, that's my problem. And if I'm willing to take that chance and lose it again, so be it, you know? And I looked at this commission. These are lawyers, doctors, professional people. These people can't relate to a person like me. Where was our opinion in this? The president is in town and, you know, my mind was just saying crazy things. `Sharon, find the motorcade. Maybe you could find it and talk to him.' But I'm--they'll shoot me down first, you know?

NORRIS: Sharon, your daughters are in Texas. You son is in the Midwest. You really are considering leaving New Orleans?

Ms. WHITE: Yeah. I thought about my mom was buried in Resthaven in New Orleans East. And I'm wondering what they're going to do with the graves. There's a lot of stuff that these people are not thinking about. Resthaven is one of the biggest cemeteries back there in New Orleans East. This is wrong. Any way you look at it, this is wrong.

NORRIS: Sharon, in one of our many conversations, you explained to me what that house and what living in that neighborhood meant to you. You told me how before you moved there, when you lived in the housing projects, that you used to dress your children up and put them on the bus and walk them through the neighborhood where you eventually bought your home. Why did you do that?

Ms. WHITE: To give them a sense of pride, just let them know that there was other places they can live and go, and if you do the right thing, you can own some property. I didn't know in doing that I was lying to them 'cause look at me. I thought I did the right things and look at me. This is worse than Hurricane Katrina. I'll take Katrina again over this. This is horrible. I'm 42 years old. I can't start over right now. I want my own house. And, yeah, the city may be smaller but you can't--that's a nice neighborhood I stayed in. If you come to it, I will show you. Even through the destruction that's there now, you can see when you look at the houses that I was in a nice little area. I thought this was all about getting the people back. Who are you trying to get back 'cause you sure have forced me out? Listen, I've been talking about New Orleans and how much I love New Orleans and I still do, but I can't do this no more. I may have to leave New Orleans, but, you know, it's not my decision though. It's not my decision.

NORRIS: Sharon, thank you again for sharing your stories with us.

Ms. WHITE: Thank you very much.

NORRIS: New Orleans resident Sharon White. We'll be checking in with her again in a couple of months.

SIEGEL: You can see a multimedia show on New Orleans' first steps toward rebuilding and read the city's new action plan at our Web site, npr.org.

This is NPR, National Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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