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two tales of one city
rebuilding lives after hurricane katrina
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)

“You would not believe how many people on my street have cancer,” the delivery woman said as she placed box lunches at my feet. “Sure, our houses are repaired, but our hearts--well, some of us still have hearts flooded with despair.”

I was standing on a sidewalk of the flood-ravaged home of Mrs. Goff in the Gentilly neighborhood in New Orleans, fingers stuck together with window glazing and Dover White paint, my face slick with the humidity and 90-degree heat at 10:30 in the morning. To my immediate left, a FEMA trailer that 84-year-old Mrs. Goff had lived in for nearly five years. Straight ahead, an empty lot. To my immediate right, a gutted house hidden by a jungle of overgrown weeds. At my far right, another empty lot.

The lunch lady was delivering meals to Rebuilding Together volunteers during the organization’s “Fifty for Five” event in late August 2010. What started as a cheerful “My, you’re early, but thank you!” and “How ya’ll doin’?” exchange resulted in a sidewalk confessional of disaster, no recovery assistance, the slow rebuild, a cheating husband, his eventual suicide, the cancerous diagnoses of four of her neighbors, and the desire to break free.

Who tells a stranger with dirty knees, a sweat-stained shirt, and a Midwestern accent her story of the past five years in 15 minutes?

The same woman who, as a lifelong resident of the New Orleans’ neighborhood of Old Metairie, just wanted to believe she could start over. “Someplace cool. Maybe in the mountains. I hear Boulder is nice, even if there's snow. I’m just so tired of it all.” As she began to cry, I hugged her, told her I admired her resilience, and asked her to send me a postcard from Colorado. She thanked me, wiped her hands across her face, then got in her car and drove away.

I turned back to look at the 1960 brick ranch home of Mrs. Goff. She was an 80-year-old widow when she bought the house in February 2005 to be closer to her children. She returned from a family reunion in late August 2005 to nine feet of water damage in the house. The pressure of the water broke the front windows, rotted the doors, and left behind layers of muck and trash. Everything inside was ruined. Mrs. Goff got to work by climbing into the attic to kick out rotted ceilings, clearing debris, and gutting the home.

Mostly by herself.

Mrs. Goff hired a contractor for nearly $70,000 to help her rebuild. A contractor who, midway through the job, skipped town with the remainder of the money. So she did what she could over the next couple of years until the Rebuilding Together organization added her to the task list, designating her home as one of the 50 it hoped to finish during the August event.

A couple months prior to the event, Mrs. Goff contracted encephalitis from a mosquito bite and went into a coma.

When she eventually left the hospital, the FEMA trailer was still her only place to live. Already a petite woman, the illness caused her to lose 20 pounds--that’s in addition to the 30 she had lost over the past few years due to stress. It became a personal mission of the Rebuilding Together New Orleans' staff to help her return to her brick home, with its sunny patio room and tropical interior colors, by her 85th birthday in September 2010.

Naturally, Mrs. Goff was skeptical of what the organization could do for her--and why would it do it for free? Why did our team come down from Iowa, of all places, to help? Who were all these other people from Chicago and Maryland and local universities?

She was hesitant to come out to meet our group on the first day. But on the second day, after the lunch lady’s visit, while our group sat on the lawn eating, Mrs. Goff made her way tentatively out of the trailer and up the sidewalk. We all paused. She smiled and said sweetly, “I’m so glad to meet ya’ll. Had you come by sooner this morning, you might have thought I was Miss America, as I was still in my gown.”

Later, as we all posed for pictures, the cameraperson said, “Everyone say ‘Cheese!’” and Mrs. Goff said, “Say ‘Sex!’”

Over the next few days, she told me she liked to travel to follow a favorite bluegrass fiddle player from concert to concert. She showed me pictures of her meeting with a local news anchor. She bragged about her grandchildren, her son the artist, and the special lunch she shared with her daughter recently. She said she was proud of the deal she snagged on refurbished kitchen cabinetry, and how these $30,000 cabinets were a real steal at $3,000.

As far as Mrs. Goff was concerned, she was moving ahead, and that was that. When our group showed her the rebuilt kitchen, with the new cabinets and appliances, repaired window, fresh paint, and clean floors and counter tops, she told me how much she looked forward to cooking again. She had plans for the sunny patio room, and thought maybe some new houseplants would look nice in it. She was pleased we hadn’t painted the bathrooms blue, because she didn’t like that color in bathrooms. She said wasn’t certain where exactly the TV should go in the living room, but didn’t want it to be the first thing you saw when you walked in the front door. “Always so noisy to have a TV by the front door,” she said, shaking her head.

As we walked from room to room, I could tell she was getting tired, so I asked if she wanted me to get her wheelchair. She waved me off, turned over a five-gallon paint bucket and sat down. I got her a glass of water and some peanut butter crackers. We sat quietly as she had a bite to eat.

“I do wish I had my photo albums,” she said after a while. “You can never replace pictures.”

But maybe, just maybe, you can take new ones, of plants in a sunny room. Or of the mountains in Colorado.


Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

more about tracey l. kelley


pundit audit
a day in the life, examined
by tracey l. kelley
topic: news
published: 11.26.08

oops, i didn’t know we couldn’t talk about sex
and it seems we're not talking about it enough
by tracey l. kelley
topic: news
published: 8.26.02


russ carr
10.4.10 @ 12:46p

Great lessons of resilience, tenacity, hope, generosity and kindness.

I love to see how the this spirit of giving has been manifest from one community to another in the wake of disaster. Like the story of the FDNY guys who came out to Iowa to help the Boy Scouts rebuild their camp after the 2008 tornado/flood damage. And y'all going from Iowa down to NOLA to help them. Much more reassuring to see how real folks work through adversity to the point where they can in turn reach out to their neighbors. There's more depth and brotherhood to America than what the media cares to portray.

kathy carr
6.23.12 @ 9:49p

This is a great article Tracey!

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