Lives left unrepaired

New Orleans neighbors banded together to ride out the storm, but they are struggling to pick up the pieces

August 29, 2006|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

NEW ORLEANS -- The Uptown school that sheltered them has been repaired and refurbished and stands as a beacon in a city struggling to come back. But the neighbors who rode out the tempest within its walls are symbols of a different sort: storm victims pushed over the edge by Hurricane Katrina who can't quite find their way back.

Glenda Perkins-Avery and Greg Avery, due to celebrate their first wedding anniversary next month, are living with Glenda's brother in a FEMA trailer no bigger than an office cubicle. Their landlord tells them he doesn't know when their shotgun house will be rebuilt. It has been stripped to the frame like nearly all the others on La Salle Street, across from the school.

Allen "Sarge" Smith, the Persian Gulf War veteran who orchestrated the conversion of school to shelter, lives in a FEMA trailer in his mother's front yard. As for his house around the corner, he has pledged to rebuild it on his own, though it remains mold-infested and littered with debris.

Vance Anthion, Smith's longtime friend and a fellow veteran, lives amid the wreckage in an apartment in Smith's house. He lost his home and his relationship during Katrina and remains estranged from the woman in his life for 29 years and their children.

Raymond and Dale DuVernay are temporarily living apart, with little plan on when they will reunite and where they will live when they do. Their granddaughter Sierra Smith, the rambunctious 9-year-old who kept everyone's spirits up during the storm, lives with her mother in West Virginia - for now.

A year ago today, as Katrina-driven floodwaters were rising around them, these neighbors banded together in Samuel J. Green Charter School, the tallest structure in their Uptown neighborhood, and built their own orderly society as the city descended into chaos.

There were rules: Women slept on the third floor, men on the second, and supplies were stacked neatly in a storage-room-turned-kitchen. There were laws: When neighborhood thugs seeking refuge in the school smashed vending machines and stole computers, they were forced out.

Finally forced to evacuate by machine gun-toting National Guard troops on the sixth day after the storm, the group was determined that, after surviving Katrina, they could endure whatever came next.

Their frantic evacuation landed them in a foreign world: Camp Dawson, W.Va., a 4,000-acre National Guard base nestled in a crevice of the Alleghenies. Homesickness has driven most of them to return to Uptown.

Longing for W.Va.

Since their arrival in New Orleans last December, few days have passed when the Averys have not longed for West Virginia.

Volunteers at Camp Dawson treated evacuees like rock stars, showering them with gifts, welcoming them to their churches. They persuaded the couple, who had been in a relationship for 15 years, to get married and paid for everything from Glenda's regal purple dress to the tulle that dripped from picnic tables.

When the state agency ended the evacuee program on the base last October, the Uptown crew split up and the Averys moved into an apartment in Morgantown, expenses paid by FEMA and kind strangers.

They loved the mountains, the people, the clean air and safe streets. Glenda, 53, and husband, Greg, 54, dreamed of taking classes at the University of West Virginia, creating a documentary about their Katrina ordeal and working with foundations to help other evacuees.

But a call from their landlord in December derailed those plans. They needed to return to New Orleans to retrieve what could be saved so that renovations could start on their home.

Anxious, they arrived to an unrecognizable hometown,

Their landlord had piled their belongings into a mountain in the front room, much of it destroyed.

"All our furniture, clothes, it was gone," Greg said.

What they could salvage they put in storage at a family home in New Roads, La.

Today, their gutted house is bare with the exception of Greg's old mahogany piano, its keys unspoiled by Katrina. On a recent afternoon, Greg sat before it, as he does on days he needs comfort, and pounded out a solemn tune.

"It's therapy," he said.

Greg's mother, who had lived with the couple for six years, died two months ago after a bout with emphysema. When asked about her illness, he freezes up.

"When we got her out, when she evacuated, that was the last time I saw her," he said, and moved to another room - an avoidance technique that epitomizes the couple's approach to life after Katrina.

Rather than focusing on their own plight, they talk at length about how they must help out family members whose situations are more tenuous.

"When people say, when are we coming back [to West Virginia], we can't say because all the delays have been legitimate delays," said Greg, sitting in the living room of Glenda's aunt's house in New Orleans' 7th Ward. "It hasn't been like we are partying, having a good time, showing people around. We are actually trying to help people rebuild their lives and their emotional state of minds."

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