Remembering a Symbol of Resilience from Post-Katrina New Orleans

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December 15, 2014

When FRONTLINE first met Herbert Gettridge, he was 82 years old. He was working to rebuild the house he had built more than 50 years earlier after it was torn apart by Hurricane Katrina, so that his wife of more than 65 years could return to New Orleans.

Like several generations of the Gettridge family who appeared in FRONTLINE’s The Old Man and the Storm, she was displaced by the disaster.

“We were in Baton Rouge, we were in Shreveport, Houston, Tennessee, Ponchatoula, Atlanta, Austin, as far away as Wisconsin,” Gettridge’s daughter, Gale Gettridge-Branon, told FRONTLINE at the time. “We were scattered all over.”

Leaving his wife Lydia in the care of one of their daughters in Wisconsin, Gettridge returned to his Lower Ninth Ward home, which had no electricity, drinkable water or even a bed to sleep in.

“I ain’t about to leave,” Gettridge said, as he began a grueling, two-year effort to rebuild the family home. “It took me too long and I worked too hard to build what I had here.”

And it was at that home, FRONTLINE recently learned, that Gettridge died from a heart attack at the age of 91. His death on Oct. 31 came nearly two years to the day of his wife’s passing.

Lydia returned to New Orleans in July 2007, but the homecoming was bittersweet. The house remained a lonely monument, with many families from the surrounding areas unable to rebuild and return home.

“Two years, and we’re still not back in shape. Two years. Some people’s been away from here exactly two years in August,” Gettridge said in 2007. “They’ve been away from their homes, homes torn down, automobiles lost, the few pennies they may have had that went down in the drain.”

The hurricane displaced more than 378,000 people from New Orleans, according to Census Bureau data, and damaged approximately 134,000 homes. The damaged houses accounted for 70 percent of all the city’s occupied housing units.

In the years since the film, the Gettridges’ neighborhood has seen the introduction of some of the eco-friendly homes built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation. FRONTLINE producer June Cross, who traveled to New Orleans several times in the intervening years, joked, “Mr. Gettridge never had any use for any of those houses. He swore they were going to be blown away.”

In the Ninth Ward specifically, Gettridge became “a poster child” for “struggle, perseverance, resilience,” Jed Horne, a former editor for the Times-Picayune told FRONTLINE in 2009. And he remained that way right up until his death.

“Five preachers eulogized him at his funeral,” said Cross, who last saw Gettridge in July. He always had people coming by, she recalled. “He was sort of a star within that area.”

Gettridge is survived by six children and “generations of grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins, other loved ones and friends,” a Times-Picayune obituary noted. You can watch his full story from The Old Man and the Storm in the video below:


Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@priyankaboghani

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