The Old Man and the Storm
ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE-
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: My whole family's scattered. I miss the kids. I miss the grandchildren.
ANNOUNCER: -a story of a man and his family-
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: I want my wife to come back home. She wants to be here.
ANNOUNCER: -who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina.
CYNTRELLE KAPINUS, Granddaughter: Grandma, you don't have no house to go to. It's water from the floor to the ceiling.
ANNOUNCER: But they came home, determined to rebuild.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: I ain't going no place, man. I'm going to stay right here. This is it. This is my home, and this is where I'll be.
JUNE CROSS, Correspondent: [voice-over] When I came to New Orleans six months after the hurricanes-
ANNOUNCER: Correspondent June Cross tracks the struggles of one New Orleans family in the face of political turmoil-
RALLY SPEAKER: This damn government don't give a damn about poor people!
ANNOUNCER: -frustrated by bureaucratic inertia-
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: They drag and they drag so long, man, it's hell.
ANNOUNCER: -and broken promises.
Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes-
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: I guess I would have to be at the White House [laughs] in some of these damn meetings to find out what's wrong, why the people don't get the money.
ANNOUNCER: Tonight, the moving saga of The Old Man and the Storm.
JUNE CROSS, Correspondent: [voice-over] In the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, time stops on the morning of August 29th, 2005. Since the levees broke, the Alfred E. Lawless High School has lain in ruins, its children scattered so far, no one even knows where they all are anymore. You could fill this building with all of the studies done since Hurricane Katrina. You could read them all and still not comprehend what it means when 500,000 families are displaced, what it means to lose 200,000 homes, 220,000 jobs, 600 congregations. You wouldn't understand what it means to lose even one neighborhood.
When I came to New Orleans six months after the hurricanes, the devastation was overwhelming. The storm surge had pushed everything before it like a wall. Belongings had floated with the currents. Then, just four blocks from the levee in the Lower Ninth Ward, I saw one house still standing, and in the yard, one solitary old man.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: Why am I back here? Man, I'm back here trying to clean my place up. I'm back here because this is where I'm going to be. If nothing else happens, I'm going to be here till they pull me out of here. I ain't about to leave. It took me too long and I worked too hard to build what I had here to just pick up and leave like that. I ain't about to. I ain't about to leave.
JUNE CROSS: His name was Herbert Gettridge. He was 82 years old when we first met, and he'd built this house for his family more than 50 years ago.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: I'll be damned.
JUNE CROSS: Occasionally, he found a photograph, its colors fading as though the water had tried to erase history itself.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: My whole family's scattered. Everybody's in different places. Nine head of kids, seven living. I'm sorry about that. Seven of my kids living and they're all in different places. And I got some grandchildren 42, 43, 44 years old. They're all scattered. And the great-grandchildren, 60 or 70 of them, and they're all- ain't nobody in the same places with their mother and their dad. Everybody's gone.
This is what this storm did to us. So let's face it. You just got to own up to it. There ain't nothing you can do about it. Not a thing.
NEWSCASTER: This hurricane has the potential to strengthen even more than it already has, and that's something-
JUNE CROSS: Nearly 300 members of Mr. Gettridge's extended family had been scattered across the country by the storm. They were part of a diaspora one million strong.
GALE GETTRIDGE-BRANON, Daughter: We were in Baton Rouge, we were in Shreveport, Houston, Tennessee, Ponchatoula, Atlanta, Austin, as far away as Wisconsin. We were scattered all over. You're talking about a close-knit family, where we all lived five to ten minutes from each other.
JUNE CROSS: Mr. Gettridge and his wife, Lydia, ended up in Madison, Wisconsin, with their daughter, Cheryl.
CHERYL GETTRIDGE-STEELE, Daughter: There were still those that we hadn't heard from, and you wondered, you know, "God, are they OK?" And the more you looked at it, the sicker you became.
JUNE CROSS: Mr. Gettridge was glued to the television, trying to find his house in the flyovers.
CHERYL GETTRIDGE-STEELE: He was out of his mind, worried about when he was going to be able to get back to the house.
JUNE CROSS: When a second Hurricane, Rita, hit the Gulf coast in late September, it sent another storm surge over the levees. The family tried to hide the reality of the destruction from Mrs. Gettridge.
CYNTRELLE KAPINUS, Granddaughter: My grandma is 84, and she kind of was, like, confused for a while. She kept saying, "I'm ready to go." One day, I just said, "Grandma, you don't have no house to go to." She kept saying, "I'm ready to go." I said, "You don't have nothing to go to. It's water from the floor to the ceiling."
JUNE CROSS: The water stayed put until mid-October. After the Army Corps of Engineers pumped it all out, Cyntrelle and her aunt Gale snuck back into the Lower Ninth Ward. The house and everything in it had simmered in flood water for weeks. What water hadn't destroyed, mold had overgrown.
CYNTRELLE KAPINUS: It was a dream and I was waiting to wake up. This was the living room. This was the blue room. And to be in there in the mud, and the refrigerator was across the hallway, it had floated all the way from the kitchen and it's in the middle of the hallway now- I thought I was dreaming. I thought I was dreaming. And it was hard. When my aunt wasn't looking, I cried.
JUNE CROSS: But New Orleans is a city where despair gives way to celebration, and so it trumpeted the first Mardi Gras after Katrina as a triumph over adversity. Leading the parade was Mayor Ray Nagin. He pretended to be Army General Russell Honore, who had saved the city after the levees broke. The tourism industry pretended that the city had come back from the dead.
The next day, as the debris from Mardi Gras lay on top of the debris from Katrina, was when I'd first met Mr. Gettridge.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: I got to go in the attic and take out three bags- three bags of asbestos.
JUNE CROSS: He'd left his wife, Lydia, in Wisconsin and moved back to the family home. He was living without electricity, drinkable water, or even a bed, in an area most city officials had written off as uninhabitable.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: I don't need no electricity. My grandfather was a Choctaw Indian man. I can make it with a flashlight. We got water. I got water. That's all I need. And if I didn't have water, guess what? When it'd rain, I'd catch what I can. And what I couldn't catch, I'd do without. But I'm making it.
I ain't going no place, man. I'm going to stay right here. This is it. This is my home, and this is where I'll be.
JUNE CROSS: Meanwhile, an intense political battle brewed over how New Orleans would be rebuilt.
RALLY SPEAKER: Did any of these local politicians do anything for you?
RALLY SPEAKER: Have they done anything for you?
JUNE CROSS: Suspicions were rampant that the city might use the evacuation as an excuse for a land grab.
RALLY SPEAKER: This damn government don't give a damn about poor people, and especially don't give a damn about black people.
JUNE CROSS: Those suspicions were heightened when Mayor Nagin appointed a group of high-powered businessmen to his "Bring New Orleans Back" commission. One of the mayor's supporters, developer Joe Canizarro, made it clear that the rebuilt city would have fewer poor people.
JOE CANIZARRO: We're going to make doggone sure that our African-American population is as strong as ever. But I will tell you we will not have as many poor people. There's no question- I've talked to a lot of them- they're better where they are. They want to stay where they are because they have a better life. Bear in mind that as we went into this storm, we had a lot of crime in our community. We were having lots of difficulties that we were trying to deal with.
JUNE CROSS: The commission's job was to recommend a rebuilding plan for New Orleans. Their draft report suggested turning the most devastated areas of the city into greenspace. No one was happy with that proposed plan.
Mayor RAY NAGIN: None of us want to be in this particular place.
JUNE CROSS: Especially not the residents of the Ninth Ward. They focused their anger on Joe Canizarro.
RESIDENT: Mr. Joe Canizarro, I don't know you but I hate you. I hate you because you been in the background, trying to scheme and get our land. Just like that lady said, I'm going to die on mine!
JUNE CROSS: Pressured from all sides, Nagin shelved the commission's report.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: From what I can understand, they wanted this section down here for casinos, gambling places, golf courses. That's what they wanted to put back in here. Now, I don't know how true that is, but some people say it was in the newspaper. I didn't see it. But if that's what they want, if everybody's like me, they got a tough struggle to get it because I ain't turning this one loose.
JUNE CROSS: 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, Fmr. Metro Editor, 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: How's the rebuilding going?
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: It's going pretty fast but-
JUNE CROSS: In time, CNN would find him, too. And Billy Crystal with HBO's Comic Relief.
BILL CRYSTAL: I tell you what. After we do Comic Relief, I'll come back and we'll paint this together.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: That'd be all right. That'd be fine.
JUNE CROSS: To each of them, he expressed one goal: he wanted to fix his house so he could bring home Lydia, his wife of over 65 years.
BILLY CRYSTAL: When you talk to Lydia, do you talk to her on the phone when she's in Wisconsin? [crosstalk]
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: I talk to her every other day, and that's her main question, "How long is it going to be?"
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 these different crafts. And they didn't only learn plaster, 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 Creole-type of people, light complexion, your complexion and lighter, some of them looking like real Caucasians. So for that reason, we couldn't get to be a plasterer or a bricklayer 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 as 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, that's the same way, plus 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 plasterwork. It's a house designated a historic landmark in the city. All three homes suffered major damage in the storm.
Mr. Gettridge had two different insurance policies. Home owners Hazard Insurance had covered wind damage. His flood insurance policy was underwritten by the federal government.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: Don't ask me nothing about insurance.
JUNE CROSS: [on camera] OK. What would you say if I asked you?
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: The insurance people I don't think was- flood insurance was decent about playing off. But home owner's- any insurance you went to, they wanted to show you the place where your damage wasn't from the wind, it was from the water, this, that and the other. So I can't say much for the home owner's insurance. They paid a little something. But sticking to the policies, they didn't do that.
JUNE CROSS: [voice-over] 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.
Without adequate insurance, charity was the solution of last resort for those like Mr. Gettridge. More than a million volunteers have flocked to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild after Katrina.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: I had people like the Baptist laymen out of Kansas City, Kansas. And there's a church in Philadelphia called Enoch. I had the people from Georgia, from a Baptist church. And who else? Common Ground. They helped me. The city hasn't done anything for me, putting this house back. The state government hasn't done anything, and the feds haven't done anything. Nothing federal happened here. Nothing.
JUNE CROSS: But the federal government had promised to do a lot. After the storm, the Bush administration had committed itself to a massive Gulf Coast rebuilding effort, including an Urban Homesteading Act that would resettle home owners like the Gettridges.
Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.
JUNE CROSS: Bush had also appointed Don Powell, a former banker and chair of the FDIC, to coordinate federal reconstruction efforts.
DONALD POWELL, Fed. Coordinator, Gulf Coast Rebuilding, 05-08: I don't think, when I first did this, I had an appreciation of the complexity and how large, how devastating this catastrophic event was.
STUDENT INTERVIEWER: In terms of your responsibilities coordinating the federal response, what keeps you up at night?
DONALD POWELL: Not having the power or authority to do what I know needs to be done.
STUDENT INTERVIEWER: What would you want or need?
DONALD POWELL: Dictatorship. [laughs]
JUNE CROSS: Six months after the flood, clean-up had barely begun in New Orleans. The president's initiatives to help home owners had gone nowhere. A congressional proposal that would have essentially put the federal government in charge of rebuilding Louisiana was killed by the White House at the last minute.
Gov. KATHLEEN BLANCO (D), Louisiana: For many people in Washington, Katrina is yesterday's problem and Rita never happened.
JUNE CROSS: That decision-angered Louisiana's governor, Kathleen Blanco.
Gov. KATHLEEN BLANCO: It's time to play hardball, as I believe that's the only game that Washington understands.
JUNE CROSS: Publicly, Governor Blanco threatened to block federal leases that allow oil and gas drilling off Louisiana's coast. Privately, she sent an emissary from the state's Louisiana Recovery Authority to negotiate.
SEAN REILLY, Louisiana Recovery Authority: I took the opportunity to call Don Powell back channel. He had been to LRA board meetings. He had confidence in the LRA. And I said, "Look, can we get together and just talk about possibilities?"
JUNE CROSS: Over the next few weeks, a delegation traveled to Powell's Washington office.
DONALD POWELL: We talked to our friends at FEMA. We talked to the SBA. We had satellite image. We talked to people in the insurance business. We talked to a lot of people and came to a consensus about how many of those homes were destroyed and what the need would be.
JUNE CROSS: Over lunch, on a paper tablecloth, Powell and Reilly had begun to hammer out the numbers. FEMA had estimated that there were roughly 123,000 damaged homes in Louisiana. Private consultants suggested that some $60,000 would be needed by each underinsured home owner. That would make this the largest federal rebuilding effort ever.
SEAN REILLY: You take your level of damage, you subtract your insurance collected, and that gap is covered up to $150,000. So the more insurance you have, that gap is smaller, you get less. But theoretically, you get to cover the extent of your damage.
[www.pbs.org: Watch this program on line]
JUNE CROSS: The money for what would become known as Governor Blanco's Road Home program reached the state about one month before the first anniversary of the storm.
The Road Home could potentially be a lifesaver for thousands of underinsured New Orleans home owners, like Mr. Gettridge's son, Leonard. Two years before the storm, Leonard had brought his dream home in the middle class suburb of New Orleans East for $154,000 dollars. Flood insurance hadn't covered his losses.
LEONARD GETTRIDGE, Son: I was underinsured. I didn't get the value of the house. I mean, we lost everything, and I guess I might have gotten three quarters, maybe, if that much, of what we lost.
JUNE CROSS: Leonard works as a switchman for the Kansas City Southern railroad.
LEONARD GETTRIDGE: I work full time, six days a week, eight-plus hours a day, so I do what little I can with the time that I have.
JUNE CROSS: When he wasn't working at the railyard, Leonard worked on gutting his house.
LEONARD GETTRIDGE: They tell me they got a machine that does this a whole lot easier. But using Arnold Schwarzenegger's- one of his terms, that's for "girly men." [laughs]
JUNE CROSS: Leonard was living in a FEMA trailer parked at his house. His wife, Geraldine, showed me around.
GERALDINE GETTRIDGE: As you can see, he's a junk food eater. He reads the newspaper and figures out bills and paperwork. And he sleeps here, and I'm back in the hubby-hole and I toss and turn all night. That's why he said-
JUNE CROSS: [on camera] Your bed's not comfortable?
GERALDINE GETTRIDGE: Uh-uh. He said I was all around the bed because I can't stand that confinement.
JUNE CROSS: [voice-over] Geraldine so hated the trailer that she'd moved 40 minutes away. She drove down on weekends to help Leonard with the house.
LEONARD GETTRIDGE: You want to do a little bit?
GERALDINE GETTRIDGE: I can't use the [unintelligible].
LEONARD GETTRIDGE: Just push on it easy. You see my African violet? See? That's what I'm talking about. I like that. That is so beautiful!
GERALDINE GETTRIDGE: Yeah, the kids, they used to call me Sheera, talking about, Oh, mama's a he-man! _[laughs]
LEONARD GETTRIDGE: Look at these shoulders. That's why I married her. Look! I needed help with an air conditioner one time and she lifted up her end and it went higher than my end. I said, "Oh, I got to marry this woman." [laughter] I want me a strong woman, man. A strong black woman is worth her weight in gold!
JUNE CROSS: Leonard and Geraldine put on a jovial front, but it was clear the everyday rhythm of their lives had been destroyed.
[on camera] What's the hardest part?
LEONARD GETTRIDGE: The absence of normalcy. I mean, you know, on a normal day, I would be out working in the garden, cutting grass. The grass would be beautiful green and flowers and everything else. And So that's the hardest part is just no normalcy. Another hard part is not being able to see my grandkids. They're all over the place.
GERALDINE GETTRIDGE: I hate to talk about them because I cry a lot. My kids are my world. For years, we grew up together and there's not a day went by they weren't around me or I didn't- I couldn't touch them. And now it's not like that, so it's hard for me to have them away from me, you know?
JUNE CROSS: [voice-over] Geraldine's two grown daughters had moved to Texas and they had no plans to return to New Orleans. Asanthe, her daughter from a previous marriage, had started life anew in Galveston with her two small children.
ASANTHE BOOKER: I had got my kids in school and I just sat down and just went to thinking, "What is the first thing that you're supposed to do to start over?" And you didn't know. I'm the only one here out of our immediate family, besides my sister. There's nobody else. So I do get bored. I do get homesick. Some days- I have my good days, I have my bad days. I cry some nights and just work through it, you know?
JUNE CROSS: Geraldine and Leonard's daughter, Nya, works in Houston. A seventh generation New Orleanian, she's found the transition particularly difficult.
NYA GETTRIDGE: [sighs] It's just so huge. Houston is so, so huge. I get homesick a lot. And it's not really homesick for New Orleans, because that's where my mom and dad are and that's where I would normally be. They were 40 minutes away, so I could get in a car and drive if I needed to. Here, it's, like, I have to have a week off of work to drive home and visit and then come back. So I think that's the biggest adjustment, has been not being able to have them accessible. And that just- that's the hardest thing.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: It's altogether a different life from before the storm. I'm here by myself almost day and night. I miss the kids. I miss the grandchildren. I miss a lot of stuff, everyday actions in this household we used to have, kids playing in the yard, kids sitting, looking at the television, shooting video games and stuff like that. I miss all that.
I have 36 grandchildren, and of them 36 grandchildren, I bet you 26 of them would be here in a week's time. Ain't a month passed that they all don't pass by. "Hi, Grandma. Hi, Grandpa." That's it. But you miss that, you know?
[www.pbs.org: Growing up in the Lower Ninth]
JUNE CROSS: In pictures taken just after the flood, the eyes of Mr. Gettridge's grandchildren revealed the trauma. Among the dozens of Gettridge family members we met, many conceded they could probably use some counseling. The signs of their distress were everywhere.
Like the afternoon we spent with Mr. Gettridge's youngest son, Ronald, who was also working alone to rebuild his family home. As Ronald was finishing up for the day, we asked how he was handling the stress.
RONALD GETTRIDGE: The depression is constant. It's a day-to-day, you know, situation that you deal with, just like the stress, as well, but I cope with the stress quite well. But the depression, you know, you think about, "OK, my sister's not here." I got a sister in Baton Rouge, a sister in Dallas, a sister who's been up in Wisconsin. You know, those type of situations, you know, family is kind of, like, separated, and that makes the days that much harder.
Basically, late at night, you know, when the house gets quiet and everybody's asleep and it's just me, I'm thinking about, OK, all that I have to do. And that's not- that should not be. And you look back at, you know, the day to see what you've accomplished, and it's very, very little. And that often leads to- [weeps]
I'm sorry. That hurts. To look back and see and really not have accomplished a whole lot when it's your intentions. But I can usually- when I get into that state, I'll pick up a book, one of those self-help books or the Bible, and I'll do some reading time to dismiss that depression.
Now my sinuses just flared up. See what you done, Julia! I need to get a handkerchief. Otherwise, you're going to get a pump.
JUNE CROSS: Ronald reassured us that he'd found a way of coping with his despair, but a lot of New Orleanians had not.
JEFF ROUSE, Chief Dpty. Coroner, Orleans Parish: The overwhelming stress since August 29, 2005, has worn out many a brain. And you know, both drinking's gone up, domestic violence has gone up for a time. The suicide rate was triple what we'd ever seen in the city. And you know, those people, too, are coming in, seeking treatment.
JUNE CROSS: A year after Katrina, it was estimated that nearly 50 percent of the population of New Orleans had a diagnosable mental disorder. Yet the city's health care system was in disarray. Few psychiatrists were left, and where there had once been nearly 300 psychiatric beds, there were now just 20.
PATIENT: I knew I was right, but I couldn't explain it!
THERAPIST: About Cuba?
JEFF ROUSE: The need has never been greater. And our infrastructure, both on a personnel level and on a bricks and mortar level, is not adequate at present.
JUNE CROSS: As New Orleanians coped with the psychological impact of the storm, tens of thousands of home owners pinned their hopes for the future on the governor's Road Home program.
In New Orleans East, Leonard Gettridge showed us all the paperwork he had to fill out.
LEONARD GETTRIDGE: This is the Road Home application. I don't know how many pages that is but- it says, "Congratulations. We have determined that you are eligible for benefits under the Road Home Assistance program." They take the pre-storm value, they take the insurance proceeds that you received, estimate minus insurance minus FEMA, and that's how they arrive at the figure that the Road Home is going to give you.
Oh, I've got so much stuff with FEMA. FEMA's name is on everything. I dream about FEMA- not pleasant dreams.
JUNE CROSS: Over in the Lower Ninth, Leonard tried to persuade his father to submit his Road Home application.
LEONARD GETTRIDGE: They got you the Road Home stuff?
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: I got to sit down and fill that paper out and mail it in. And I don't know how much good that will do because when they give you this kind of stuff- if they give you $150,000, you got to get a contractor, the contractor has to do your work for you and then they pay it. You don't get no cash money.
I'm not particular about no cash money. I'm particular about getting somebody that's going to do my work the way it's supposed to be done. So for that reason, I'm skeptical about it. But I'm going to send the papers in. I'm going to finish filling it out and send it in, see what they tell me.
JUNE CROSS: By the winter of 2007, 18 months after the flood, over 100,000 Louisiana home owners had applied for Road Home money, but fewer than 500 had received a check. Governor Kathleen Blanco's administration had to answer some tough questions about why the company she had picked to run the Road Home program prospered while Louisiana home owners struggled.
ICF International, based in Fairfax, Virginia, had done work for the Department of Homeland Security, but it had never run such a large and complex program. So when public filings revealed that more than $2 million in bonuses had been given to its leadership team, home owners and officials across Louisiana expressed outrage.
WALTER LEGER, Jr., Louisiana Recovery Authority: I was pretty upset about that, too. I've taken a year-and-a-half off from my job. I was working for free. These guys are getting paid the big bucks and they were giving themselves bonuses, and I was pretty upset about that. And here, we volunteers and the staff of the LRA, were helping- were solving- were identifying and solving their problems. The home owners are right to be upset about that and- but on the other hand, that's what private companies do.
JUNE CROSS: ICF declined the opportunity to discuss the Road Home contract on camera. In an email, they defended their overall performance, and they justified those bonuses by saying that their executives get paid less than the average industry standard.
Meanwhile, the city had begun to demolish homes in earnest. Lawmakers told home owners that a year's time was more than sufficient to decide whether to come back and rebuild. But in the Lower Ninth, Mr. Gettridge worried that the financial obstacles were so great, many of his neighbors just couldn't afford to come back.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: There is a lot of people that would be back here now, but what they're going to come to? A lot of these people built these houses, just like I built mine, from week to week, paycheck to paycheck. They ain't got a quarter in the bank to start working. But if somebody give them some money, if they get some money from Road Home, then they can come back and put their places together.
[www.pbs.org: More on rebuilding the city]
JUNE CROSS: Mr. Gettridge had been working on his own home for nearly a year. He didn't know when it would be ready for his wife's return.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: That's what I'm aiming for right now. I want my wife to come back home because this is what she wants. She wants to be here.
JUNE CROSS: A thousand miles north, in Madison, Wisconsin, Lydia Gettridge yearned for New Orleans.
LYDIA GETTRIDGE: That's my birth place. I went to school there. So I miss it. All my friends are there. The churches that I was raised up in are there. So I miss everything about it.
JUNE CROSS: As she waited, Mrs. Gettridge's health deteriorated. Then in December, 2006, there was a crisis.
CHERYL GETTRIDGE-STEELE: Her blood pressure spiked and she was just incoherent, didn't sleep for two days in a row. She had been up all of 48 hours. And she took a fall. And when she did that, I called the doctor and they said, "We're going to send an ambulance. It sounds like it's a stroke."
JUNE CROSS: It was a stroke. She was hospitalized, then moved to a nursing home in Madison. One weekend, her youngest son, Ronald, came to visit.
RONALD GETTRIDGE: New Orleans is quite miserable.
LYDIA GETTRIDGE: You could take New Orleans anyway-
RONALD GETTRIDGE: You could take New Orleans pre-Katrina, but post-Katrina New Orleans is quite different. I mean, you have nothing there, you know?
LYDIA GETTRIDGE: What do you mean, you have nothing?
JUNE CROSS: Mrs. Gettridge insisted she wanted to go home, while her son tried to explain how inadequate the city's medical services remained.
RONALD GETTRIDGE: I had to sit in the emergency room on Friday the 13th. I cut my eye cleaning out my shed, cleaning storm debris out of the shed.
CHERYL GETTRIDGE-STEELE: He had to sit in the emergency room five hours before they even touched him. He had towels, putting them to his eye.
RONALD GETTRIDGE: And one lady said, "Why don't you all get this man some service? He's out here bleeding!" And they just said, "OK, we'll get to him." The medical service is just totally out of whack. What've we got? We got Ochsner running, we got Touro running, and East Jefferson. Three out of seven hospitals.
CHERYL GETTRIDGE-STEELE: She said to Ronald that she was ready to come home. Did we ever stop to think that she was tired, tired of all of the medicine she takes? It's 45 pills she's taking. And she just wants to come home to be at peace to be at rest, and maybe the Lord will call on her.
JUNE CROSS: The next morning was Mother's Day. During the church service, Cheryl struggled with the idea that she'd have to let her mother go.
CHERYL GETTRIDGE-STEELE: She's up here with me, and I'm just being selfish. And I realize that I need to get her back to the home house in order that maybe there can come some normalcy in everybody else's life.
JUNE CROSS: Back in New Orleans, the family home was coming along. Volunteers had put up new walls and painted. The floors needed finishing. Mr. Gettridge said he could do that chore himself, if he only had electricity.
LEONARD GETTRIDGE: Have you talked to the city yet in terms of when they're going to come and hook it up to the house?
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: No, I haven't talked to the city. The fellows that did the electrical work have been down here with papers for me to sign so that they can go and file for the electricity.
LEONARD GETTRIDGE: Right.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: That's been since Tuesday or Wednesday.
LEONARD GETTRIDGE: OK.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: I'm still waiting.
LEONARD GETTRIDGE: OK.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: But they drag and they drag so long, man, it's hell.
JUNE CROSS: Mr. Gettridge had no electricity because of the problems facing Entergy, the city's utility. More than 25,000 of Entergy's utility poles had been destroyed in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, 6,700 miles of transmission lines needed to be replaced.
Entergy New Orleans had declared bankruptcy six weeks after Katrina. It had asked Congress for $500 million to help pay for repairs, but the Bush administration said it opposed the idea of bailing out private corporations.
JED HORNE, Author, Breach of Faith: This, of course, was enormously irritating to New Orleans because the exact analogy was Ground Zero in New York, where they threw a big chunk of change at Con Ed and they got that electrical grid back up and running real fast.
In New Orleans, the neocon element in Washington remembered that we don't bail out corporations, we will let them fend for themselves. And so the signals were given that there was going to be no immediate bail-out or perhaps no bail-out at all to compensate them for these damages, which were enormous. The whole grid was shredded.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: This is a cruel world, in a sense, and it's not the world, it's some of the people that live in it because- such as electricity. I don't know why- I've got- there is electricity on Claiborne, electricity on Galvez, electricity on Derbigny. Why can't they have electricity back here? I've been here since March. I don't know if it's because of the builders who's helping me to repair or what, but it seems like I should have some electricity by now.
JUNE CROSS: Walls and electricity can make a house, but a neighborhood needs police and fire stations and schools. Alfred Lawless Junior and Senior High School had been a neighborhood institution in the Lower Ninth Ward. Three generations of Gettridges had been educated here.
GALE GETTRIDGE-BRANON, Daughter: That's where I started off in music. You had the sports, but most of all, you had the basics, which was English, reading, writing, arithmetic, foreign language, libraries. And this was an integral part of the Lower Ninth Ward.
JUNE CROSS: Two years after Katrina, Lawless High School remained mired in red tape. Its recovery was stymied by the regulations of the Stafford Act, the federal law that governs how public infrastructure gets rebuilt after disasters.
SEAN REILLY, Louisiana Recovery Authority: Under the Stafford Act, you pretty much are relegated to building it back the way it was. You get the depreciated dollar and you get a vision that says, OK, that was a 40-year-old building, let's rebuild back a 40-year-old building. But you know, the world changes, needs change, communities change, state of the art changes. And what we need is a Stafford Act that allows you to be flexible, allows you to say, "You know what? There's a new and better way to educate. Let's build this kind of classroom instead of the old classroom." That's where the Stafford Act is immensely frustrating and is, again, broken and needs to be fixed.
JUNE CROSS: FEMA finally granted the state nearly $19 million to rebuild Lawless High, but then Louisiana decided to hold that money, most likely to use in another school with more teenaged children. So Alfred E. Lawless High School may never be rebuilt.
Mr. Gettridge had finally gotten his electricity, and so in May of 2007, when Mayor Nagin gave his "state of the city" address, we watched it together.
Mayor RAY NAGIN: New Orleanians are very determined. They fight for insurance proceeds. They have applied for Road Home money and are waiting to hear back- and waiting.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: And waiting.
JUNE CROSS: Six months earlier, Mr. Gettridge had mailed in his Road Home application. Now the state wanted additional paperwork to meet the intricate requirements it had written into the program.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: I hear a lot of people talking about Road Home. I hope that this thing is for real and I hope that everybody gets their fair share, but I'm not betting on it.
JUNE CROSS: In fact, The Road Home program was running into big problems and major delays. Federal bureaucrats had reinterpreted their own regulations. Now they told the state each home owner would have to have an environmental impact review before they received their check.
JED HORNE: All of a sudden, we're going to decide a year-and-a-half into it that it's a rebuilding plan, not a compensation plan, therefore we have to go to EPA standards of evaluation of individual projects. You know, this kind of stuff is crazy. You know, you don't do this in Baghdad. Why are you doing it in New Orleans?
ANNOUNCER: Now, from the heart of New Orleans, here's Garland!
GARLAND ROBINETTE, Radio Talk Show Host: Hello, America. As you well know, not my show this hour, it's Walter Leger Road Home show.
JUNE CROSS: The Road Home had so many problems that it had become grist for the city's most popular call-in show. During the summer of 2007, the Road Home program had stopped taking applications altogether. It was broke.
WALTER LEGER, Jr., Louisiana Recovery Authority: By the end of December, we will have basically run out of money to continue payments. And about 90,000 people have gotten their grants, but we'll have, you know, 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 more that will continue to need assistance that we'll just have to stop giving money to.
JUNE CROSS: A hundred and twenty-three thousand applicants had been expected, but 180,000 had applied.
WALTER LEGER, Jr.: You're one of about half of a Superdome full of people, you know, in line.
CALLER: Oh, yeah. That many?
WALTER LEGER, Jr.: So it's going to take a few more months.
JUNE CROSS: The problem was that FEMA had underestimated the number of destroyed homes. An analysis by ICF revealed that insurance companies had also paid less than expected. So as a result, the state faced a shortfall of some $2.9 billion.
But the White house said the shortage was Louisiana's fault.
DONALD POWELL, Fed. Coordinator, Gulf Coast Rebuilding, 05-08: That shortfall was because we- we- we know the numbers was based upon expanding the program unilaterally by the state to include wind versus just those homes that were destroyed by water.
SEAN REILLY, Louisiana Recovery Authority: It came as a bit of a surprise. I mean, it was- it was something that- you know, the Road Home had been in design and implementation for, you know, at that stage of the game, almost 15 months. And you know, we were off the diving board, and all of the language in the HUD application said that damage from whatever source, whatever cause was going to be covered.
[www.pbs.org: Timeline of The Road Home]
JUNE CROSS: The president signed an appropriation to cover the Road Home shortfall, finally, in November 2007, over two years after the flood.
By then, the Road Home program had destroyed Governor Kathleen Blanco's political career. She chose not to run for reelection. Soon, the president's Gulf Coast coordinator, Don Powell, would resign, too. He said he'd done all that he could do.
By the summer of 2007, Mr. Gettridge had almost finished rebuilding his house. He'd done so without any help from the Road Home. He wouldn't receive his check for another eight months. Right now, he was just worn out.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: I'm just wondering why the people can't get back here fast enough, why they can't get back home, why they can't make provisions for these people to get back home. Why can't they do that?
Those people in the White House, they sit down and they have their conferences together, I guess. I guess they say to themselves, "Let's put that on hold in New Orleans, we'll get to that later." They ain't worried about this place. Doesn't seem like it.
I don't know what's wrong. I guess I would have to be at the White House [laughs] in some of these damn meetings to find out what's wrong, why the people don't get the money. Two years, and we're still not back in shape. Two years. Some people's been away from here exactly two years in August. 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. Yeah, pretty soon, it'll be nobody but me and the weeds back here.
JUNE CROSS: At the nursing home in Madison, Mrs. Gettridge had finally won her battle to go home to New Orleans. It was the end of June, the beginning of a new hurricane season, when her daughter, Cheryl, finally relented.
CHERYL GETTRIDGE-STEELE: I didn't feel good about taking mom out of this facility, where she had done so well and she was thriving and she was talking to other people because at home, a lot of the people that she used to talk to aren't living anymore, and so just to have some people in her age group. And I was, like, I don't want to take her to this.
JUNE CROSS: Cheryl had avoided telling her father exactly when they'd arrive. She'd learned that he'd made a deal with CNN's Anderson Cooper to televise Mrs. Gettridge's return.
CHERYL GETTRIDGE-STEELE: I'm not letting my dad know because they were going to have a party with a band and all of that, and that's not my mother. That's not something she likes.
JUNE CROSS: Ronald was at the airport in New Orleans to greet her.
RONALD GETTRIDGE: It's good to have her back home, but I know it's going to be a struggle for her. Where she was, she had people who could look after her quite regularly, you know? Here she ain't got that.
LYDIA GETTRIDGE: Katrina messed up these people's lives.
CHERYL GETTRIDGE-STEELE: Katrina? Messed up people's lives?
LYDIA GETTRIDGE: Including mine.
CHERYL GETTRIDGE-STEELE: Including yours? If they cut this grass, you could see our house from here.
LYDIA GETTRIDGE: Oh, yeah?
JUNE CROSS: At the house, several of Mrs. Gettridge's grandsons welcomed her home.
LYDIA GETTRIDGE: I love you, too! Once upon a time, it was just you and I.
JUNE CROSS: But this long-awaited homecoming would be bittersweet. The stroke had affected her memory. Home did not seem like home.
LYDIA GETTRIDGE: I'm trying to go in my room.
JUNE CROSS: The house smelled different.
LYDIA GETTRIDGE: I don't like the smell.
JUNE CROSS: The bed was too high.
LYDIA GETTRIDGE: I can't sit up there! I better stay here.
JUNE CROSS: And the house was too hot.
LYDIA GETTRIDGE: You ain't got no air-conditioning here. I don't think I'm going to make it.
JUNE CROSS: In an attempt to lighten the mood, Mr. Gettridge tried flattery.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: Looking like sweet 16.
LYDIA GETTRIDGE: What?
DAUGHTER: He said you're looking like sweet 16.
LYDIA GETTRIDGE: I look like what?
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: [unintelligible] to see an old lady.
LYDIA GETTRIDGE: Old lady? Yeah, and I act my age, too.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: You look like sweet 16, girl.
LYDIA GETTRIDGE: Like what?
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: Sweet 16!
LYDIA GETTRIDGE: I know better than that. I ain't buying that stuff.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: You don't know what's on my mind. You don't know what I can see and what I can't see, do you? Huh?
LYDIA GETTRIDGE: Well, OK, sweet 16.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: Yes, you're right. How about that?
JUNE CROSS: But even sweet talk didn't work. Mrs. Gettridge was furious that her husband hadn't brought her home sooner.
LYDIA GETTRIDGE: When you came back, we should have came back together. We wasn't-
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: You couldn't have possibly made it down here when I came back here.
LYDIA GETTRIDGE: I don't know why. I've made it in worse times.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: No, you didn't make it in worse times, coming in here with nothing, no floors, no roof, no ceiling. You couldn't have made it in there. I keep trying to tell you that.
CHERYL GETTRIDGE-STEELE: She's overwhelmed and she's seeing that things are not like they used to be and saying, "God, what did I do?" She said, "What did I do? Why did I want to do this?"
JUNE CROSS: As the 4th of July holiday approached, the mood brightened. Generations of Gettridges gathered to welcome their Mama Lydia home.
GALE GETTRIDGE-BRANON: Now that Mom's home, it's a home again and not just a house. She's home and the kids, the grandkids, the neighbors, everybody's just flowing in. And that's what we missed. That's what I missed while she was away.
JUNE CROSS: It was tempting to see a happy ending here. By sheer force of will, Mr. Gettridge seemed to have accomplished more than the hundreds of millions of dollars promised to Louisiana. But his home remained a lonely monument.
Just blocks away, the carcass of Lawless High School, fought over by state and federal officials, sits empty and rots. In 2005, America had watched New Orleans drown on national television. It was, some said, like watching a good friend suffer a massive stroke.
Since then, I've watched the crippled city struggle to right itself. A bit of its old personality had returned, evidenced by the party that greeted Mr. Gettridge's benevolent association's annual parade. But he said it didn't quite have that old swing.
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: I don't like the music. I don't like the music.
JUNE CROSS: Mr. Gettridge left the parade early. He told me he was tired. He just didn't have it in him to dance anymore.
[on camera] If you had it to do all over again, would you do it?
HERBERT GETTRIDGE: I'm kind of skeptical about that now. Once upon a time, I could answer that question in a split second for you. I can't do that now.
ANNOUNCER: This story continues on our Web site, where you can watch the program again on line and join the discussion about it, read updates on the Gettridge family and see some additional video, read producer June Cross's essay on what she's taken away from this story, and more at PBS.org.
Andrea De Marco
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