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Documentary Traces Family’s Struggle After Katrina

January 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Herbert Gettridge struggled for years to rebuild his New Orleans home in the lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. In an interview, producer June Cross describes how she documented Gettridge's story in "The Old Man and the Storm" which airs on "Frontline" on Jan. 6.

RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, a unique perspective on post-Katrina New Orleans. Independent filmmaker and NewsHour alumna June Cross spent two years tracking the struggles of one man and his family to rebuild their lives after the hurricane. The resulting film is called “The Old Man and the Storm.” It will air Tuesday night on PBS’s “Frontline” series.

I talked with June Cross earlier this week.

You know, it’s been almost three-and-a-half years since the storm. What drew you back to New Orleans to continue telling that story?

JUNE CROSS, Filmmaker, “The Old Man and the Storm”: It was impossible to not keep going back to New Orleans. After I had gone that first time, I really thought that city had died. And it just refused to — it sort of refused to die. The people in it just insisted on bringing it back.

And then the story itself was just amazing. I mean, it was like being in a third-world country, except I think even in third-world countries the NGOs were able to get in and do a better job than the United States government did in New Orleans.

So it was one of those stories that, once I got into it, I really couldn’t leave it. It kept calling me, and I had to keep going back.

RAY SUAREZ: The old man of “The Old Man and the Storm” is in his 80s, a tough old guy. How did you find Mr. Gettridge?

JUNE CROSS: They don’t make them like that anymore. They really don’t.

I was walking around the Ninth Ward. I had been actually talking to a family that lived a couple of blocks away from Mr. Gettridge, who decided that the trauma of dealing with the whole situation and trying to reveal their lives on a documentary was just going to be too much to bear.

And so I was walking around. And a couple of blocks away, I found Mr. Gettridge, who was out there cleaning his house. He lives four blocks away from where the levees had breached in the Lower Ninth Ward. And he was there with a wheelbarrow just wheeling — he didn’t even have a truck. He was just wheeling his stuff from the yard back to the street.

And at first, he didn’t even want to talk to me, because he had set himself a task, a goal for that day, and I was going to interrupt his progress. And we did finally sort of persuade him to sit down and at least tell us what had happened to him and his family. They were scattered all over the United States.

And the more I got to know Mr. Gettridge, I began to realize that he represented more than a man, an old man in the Lower Ninth Ward. He represented really a — he represented several things, but most immediately the craftsmen who had built that city.

His home, which he had built with his own two hands in 1952, had withstood that flood, when most of the houses, almost all the houses on that block had been totally destroyed. It was one of the few that were still standing and still intact.

And he just seemed to — you know, he represented literally the hands that had built New Orleans. And the hands that had built New Orleans were going to ensure that New Orleans came back in some way, shape or form. And he felt that…

A struggle to rebuild

RAY SUAREZ: We have an excerpt from the film, June, that introduces us to Herbert Gettridge. Let's take a look.


Soon after I met him, Mr. Gettridge began attracting wider media attention, first in the pages and on the Web site of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

JED HORNE, Former Metro Editor, The Times-Picayune: Herbert Gettridge is an old retired merchant seaman who one or another of the reporters discovered down there banging together his house. In a world of absolute ruin, he's become kind of a poster child for Lower Ninth Ward struggle, perseverance, resilience.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN Anchor: How is the rebuilding going?

HERBERT GETTRIDGE, New Orleans Resident: It's going pretty...

JUNE CROSS: In time, CNN would find him, too, and Billy Crystal, with HBO's "Comic Relief."

BILLY CRYSTAL, Comedian: I'll tell you what. After we do "Comic Relief," I'll come back and we'll paint it together.

HERBERT GETTRIDGE: That'd be all right. That would be fine.

JUNE CROSS: But I would discover there was much more to Mr. Gettridge's story, that he was a fifth generation New Orleanian, that his house sat on land his ancestors had once worked as slaves, that he was part of a special group of craftsmen who built and maintained New Orleans' distinctive architecture.

HERBERT GETTRIDGE: The slaves were the first black people to learn the different crafts. And they didn't own their own crafts, but they learned everything.

JUNE CROSS: He quit school when he was 10 years old during the depression and began his career mixing mortar for a neighbor. That was his introduction to the elite Plasterers Union.

HERBERT GETTRIDGE: The plasterers were all a Creole type of people, like (inaudible) and lighter, some of them looking like they were real Caucasians. So for that reason, we couldn't get to be a plasterer or a brick-layer, because it was all those Creole people and they didn't take just any and everybody in there. And that's what I had to fight. And did I fight it.

JUNE CROSS: Along with his brother, Herbert Gettridge broke the color line in the union. Among his peers, he became known as the wizard. The owner of this house says he watched in awe at Mr. Gettridge improvised these designs.

HERBERT GETTRIDGE: I don't think there's another house in the city with a design on the front door. In and out, it's the same way, across those columns it's got there. I never did another one like that in the city of New Orleans. I've never seen one.

JUNE CROSS: Mr. Gettridge had built his own home on a lot in the Lower Ninth Ward that he bought for $2,500 in 1952. He bought the house next door for $30,000. He paid $10,000 cash for this house that he renovated with his signature plaster work. It's a house designated a historic landmark in the city.

All three homes suffered major damage in the storm.

The flood insurance paid off within two months. Mr. Gettridge received $97,000 for a three-bedroom, one-bath home valued before the flood at $125,000. The other two houses had no insurance. So, for them, he received nothing at all.

Gettridge represents city's loss

RAY SUAREZ: June, by having a large number of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Herbert Gettridge helps you tell the story of other parts of the New Orleans diaspora, doesn't he?

JUNE CROSS: He does. He does. I mean, while everyone was focused on those who were living in public housing and the loss of public housing, which was very real in the city, the vast majority of renters in New Orleans rented from small landlords, like the Gettridges, who, among those seven children, owned 13 homes and rented out several apartments in those homes.

So if the people like the Gettridges can't come back, it means that there's a trickle-down effect. There's a whole lot of other folks who are less fortunate then they are who also can't come back.

So by tracking their story, I'm able to tell not only the story of sort of renters, but also the story, really, of the whole city, because they don't just -- even though they are African-Americans, they really tell the story of everybody in New Orleans.

The experience down there has been universal, sort of a universal one, from sort of hope to slow disillusionment to, I would say, almost a kind of despair that has settled over the city, that even though they're still rebuilding, there's still this sense of loss and betrayal, betrayal by their U.S. government, and a sense of being immigrants in their own country that I don't think has left yet.

RAY SUAREZ: And the extended Gettridge family takes you through the maze that faces homeowners as they try to take advantage of the programs that were introduced to help the people of New Orleans.

JUNE CROSS: Exactly. Exactly. I mean, you know, this all began, you know, when the insurance industry, you know, was not able to pay people, you know, tried to get their insurance. Insurance didn't cover their losses.

The state went to the federal government. And the federal government came up with a program through the community development block grant program, which in Louisiana was known as the Road Home Program.

And Louisiana has a much deserved reputation as one of the more corrupt states in the union. And it devised a fairly complicated bureaucracy that people had to figure out how to negotiate. And it also hired a company that had never sort of managed such a large program, although, you know, truth be told, there's never been such a large program.

So there were bound to be missteps. But caught up in all of these missteps and in the cogs of the bureaucratic wheels were individuals like the Gettridge family and others who, frankly, are not -- I've met white families that didn't fare as well as the Gettridges, who lost everything, lost homes that had initially survived the flood and lost everything in the ensuing sort of battles with insurance and, you know, just trying to negotiate all of this bureaucracy. It wears you down.

And you have to remember you have people who were traumatized by an initial event. And, you know, when no hope -- you can go for so long on that sort of initial burst of adrenaline, "I'm going to come back. I'm going to bring it back." You know, this has been three years now.

And, you know, to the degree that you feel like, you know, nobody's coming, they've forgotten, you know, this is just going to be one long slog through a rather Kafka-esque battleground, a lot of people are giving into a sort of malaise. And they say they're doing all right, but there's still a lot of mental health problems.

Changes in the recovering city

RAY SUAREZ: It sounds like you've come away from your reporting convinced that the old New Orleans is just not coming back.

JUNE CROSS: Well, there will be a new New Orleans. And the new New Orleans will be somewhat the poorer for having lost some of the folks that were in the old New Orleans.

You know, it's -- at the end of the day, there will be, you know, a good $18 billion to $20 billion that gets pumped into the region down there, although what happens, you know, in the face of all the other Wall Street crises, how much is going to be left over, we'll see. But a lot of this money has already been authorized and appropriated.

So, in the long run, something's going to come back. What something is going to look like and who will live there, it's going to be a different place.

You know, when you look at the numbers of people who left New Orleans, you're looking at numbers that begin to approach the great migration out of the South in 1915. So this has been a huge displacement of people.

And, you know, there's really -- it's a story I want to keep tracking, but it's really a story that we all need to keep tracking for the next 10 to 15 years.

RAY SUAREZ: "The Old Man and the Storm" airs on "Frontline" January 6th. Filmmaker June Cross, thanks for being with us.

JUNE CROSS: Thank you, Ray, for having me.

Editor's Note: You can find more information about "The Old Man and the Storm" on the Frontline Web site.