Courage, Fortitude and a Little Insanity are what it Takes to Survive in Post-K New Orleans

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET

NEW ORLEANS - On any given weekend, my friend Mark Schleifstein can be found mowing the lawn in front of his ruined and gutted home in the Lakeview section of New Orleans. Even now, a year later, the brown ring around his yellow split-level still shows where the flood waters reached the second floor. The houses on each side of his are blighted, decrepit, the inner turmoil of the city reflected in the snarling weeds and grass-gone wild that reach up to the windows. But not at Mark's house.

He's out there alone mowing in the roasting sun on his abandoned block. He has the audacity to mow a few feet across the property line on either side, as if that might keep the decay that much more at bay.

His mowing makes no sense to people outside the Katrina Zone. And I thought it seriously called into question his sanity. But to people in New Orleans, it's perfectly logical in a Katrina Plus 1 Year kind of way.

Schleifstein, a Times-Picayune writer who knows more about levees and flood protections than any other, bought another home with his wife on higher ground in nearby Metairie. But he believes in Lakeview and doesn't want to add to the suffocating blight. Even here, in the so-called "best-off" of the still-decimated neighborhoods, no more than one in 20 or 30 homes is being rebuilt or renovated.

Mark also has it in his head that a tidy lawn will boost the sales price for his property. This is a little nutty since when houses around here do sell, they usually are bought by developers who knock them down and scrape the lots to bare dirt.

One of the most depressing things a year after the levees broke - and there are many depressing things to choose from - is the widening gulf between here and everywhere else.

It's as if the region has broken off, floating on its sorrows into the Gulf of Mexico, and the rest of the country can only barely make out what it is that they are trying to shout to us across the waves.

Let me help, even a little, to explain what they are experiencing and feeling a year after the storm.

Three friends and I founded Friends of the Times-Picayune, a relief fund for more than 185 families at the newspaper who still need help putting their lives back together. So I know about as much about life in K Plus-1 as anyone who doesn't live there. And let me tell you, life is difficult, dark and relentless. Recovery is slow. Hope is scarce. So much about it does not make sense to outsiders. And that makes it worse.

One Times-Picayune writer is typical. She still pays homeowners insurance on her destroyed and uninhabitable home, because she fears that if she cancels her policy, she'll never again get coverage, should she decide to rebuild. Based on the statements of insurance companies since the storm, this seems like a rational decision.

Katrina survivors are moved to tears by the legions of volunteers who still flock to town to gut houses, build new ones or perform vital services. Yet residents also feel profoundly alone and abandoned.

A year later, the city and state just opened the office that will distribute up to $8 billion in "Road Home" rebuilding money to homeowners and businesses. Until now, people have received emergency post-storm assistance, small SBA loans and the largely pitiful sums that their insurance companies cough up.

Let's skip the familiar blame game. The feds are woefully slow. State and local governments are broke and semi-dysfunctional. There's no strong local leader like New York's Rudy Giuliani after 9-11, and there's nothing like that kind of leadership coming from Washington.

My point is this: as dark as it was when the city filled with water and corpses floated in the streets, few people imagined then how bad it still would be now.

Jim Amoss, editor of The Times-Picayune, says the extraordinary adrenaline that carried his staff and others for so long is gone.

People are exhausted and depressed. Those who had the greatest hopes for the city have tumbled the farthest. Some Uptown stalwarts whose homes were not damaged are putting them on the market and preparing to leave town. The living is just too hard.

The city might get back to something approaching normal...well, when exactly? That not knowing is deadweight around people's necks.

Frank Donze, who covers City Hall for the newspaper, predicts a whole new shake-out of departures. It's like "Alice in Wonderland" and New Orleans hasn't hit bottom of the rabbit hole, he says. "We haven't met all the characters in the story yet.''

President Bush is correct in a small way when he notes how much has been done in a year. Much of the scattered debris is cleared and lawns are no longer filed with the regurgitated contents of homes. People who want FEMA trailers are getting them.

And the massive new flood gates and pumps on Lake Pontchartrain at the 17th Street Canal are a testament to the speed and muscle of American public works when the will is there. When the Army Corps of Engineers announced this week that its new pumps won't work, a rapid redesign was launched.

But in truth, these individual parts don't add up to any kind of whole. The city and surrounding parishes are in sorry shape. A crushing amount remains to be done.

People deal with the unrelenting stress and pressure in different ways.

One woman who lives on stately St. Charles Avenue makes regular rolling hotel reservations in Jackson, Mississippi, in case she needs to evacuate during this hurricane season. She follows up with well-choreographed cancellations when she doesn't need the rooms.

Times-Picayune photographer John McCusker tried "suicide by cop" a couple of weeks back. When he reached the breaking point, he took police on a wild and unruly but deliberately slow chase across the city, then tried to run over a cop. Officers used Tasers to stop him, thank heaven, and McCusker is resting at home now, awaiting trial on charges that include assaulting a police officer and unlawful flight.

The newspaper's columnist Chris Rose, a Pulitzer finalist for his Katrina stories, found another way to cope. Actually, his readers forced him, saying his writing had become too dark and dispirited. So Rose set out to find some tangible reminder of why he - and others - chose to live in this city in the first place. Finally, something that makes sense in and out of Katrina Land.

Rose invited me and his editor to join him for the regular Tuesday night gig of the Rebirth Brass Band, a local institution.

"If I don't feel better after doing this, I told myself on the way to the Maple Leaf, then I am irretrievable," Rose wrote.

He found what he was looking for as we watched "10, 11, maybe a dozen guys packed on to a too-small stage under bare light bulbs and a pressed-tin ceiling, feeling the release of the fist-thrusting call-and-response, staring into a wall of horns whose music is so muscular that it almost takes on a physical manifestation and reaches out and beats you about the head and grabs your face.

"You are ALIVE, boy! DID YOU UNDERSTAND? And I do. And I am home again," he wrote.

Rose understands what makes New Orleans such an extraordinary place. So I say, if he and people who are living through this nightmare have reason to believe, who are we to doubt?