For those of us outside of the New Orleans area, it's hard to believe that it has been four years since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita touched down on August 29, 2005. But for those people who either lived there and stayed or were displaced by the storms, it's as if that horrific day just happened. New Orleans has been slow to recover. Businesses are still feeling the pinch, even more now in this economic recession. Residents continue to be haunted by what they experienced that day and even more by what they saw in the days that followed. But through the rubble, there are small examples of community revitalization gleaming through. One of those diamonds in the rough is the newly developed Harmony Oaks, the first major housing project redevelopment program to come back to the area. Formally known as the CJ Peete projects and before that the Magnolia projects) Harmony Oaks will bring back many former CJ Peete residents and offer them homes in the now mixed-income community which will include 460 rental units and 50 affordable, for-sale, single family homes starting this fall.
The memory of segregated housing amongst low-income people will be replaced with the promise of new homes with better services and amenities including a new elementary school and job placement services and a range of new neighbors from various socio-economic levels who will add stability to the neighborhood.
Antoinette Morton, 31, is one of those former residents. The mother of four ages 13 to 4-years old is a native to New Orleans and moved to Baker, Louisiana after the storm. She is the only one in her extended family to move back to the city. Morton spoke to ESSENCE.com exclusively about her experiences in the days after Katrina, why she moved her entire family back and why Harmony Oaks is more than just a piece of property to her.
I moved into CJ Peete in 1998 after having my second child. I loved living there but I admit that anything could have happened when I walked out my door. I was living there the day that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. I had just had my youngest daughter who was about a month old at the time. I remember, the only reason I stayed was because so many people were saying, ‘Girl, nothing is going to come.' We stood and waited around. It wasn't until the day after Katrina hit that the floods started to happen and that's the day we left.
It was a hot, miserable day. We packed at least 16-people, all relatives, into a SUV. We grabbed what was important like birth certificates left with what we could. My son has sickle cell disease so I needed to take his medication, then I grabbed milk and diapers for the baby. We left all our clothes behind. It was a horrible time for us.
We were listening to the radio and heard that a stadium had opened up and turned into a shelter in Baton Rouge. The people, who couldn't get a ride out, went to the Super Dome and we knew exactly how packed that was going to be. Baton Rouge was the closest place to New Orleans so that's where we went. It took us 12 hours to get there and once we did, we still had to stand on line for hours to get in.
Living in the shelter was so bad I used to cry every day. We had to shower in the bathroom, just washing up using the sinks. Think of doing that after 25 to 30 people have already done it. They finally made a make-shift shower on the outside, which was bad too because it was open and anyone could have just walked in. I ended up staying there for three months.
I was ready to get out of there and find an apartment, but I didn't want to leave my baby with anyone. We tried many times to get housing and we got on the waiting list. Nothing came through until we moved into a FEMA trailer in Baker, Louisiana in December 2005.
Living in a FEMA trailer was like living in a box, especially with my four kids and their father. The back part had four small bunk beds that reminded me of dresser drawers. Plus, when you live in a trailer, you have to make sure that the toilets are flushed and cleaned because it could back up at any time and hit the whole trailer with a horrible smell. When we first moved in, they provided the propane tanks for us so I could cook and we had heat, but then after a few months, we were buying it for ourselves. Those people who couldn't afford to buy propane had to live off of sandwiches.
The first opportunity I had to go back home to New Orleans was in January 2006. When I came back to CJ Peete, the door to my apartment had been kicked in and clothes were all over the place. The mattress was upside down. The television was gone. Water and mildew were everywhere.
I finally moved back to New Orleans in 2007. I came back here because this is my home and where I wanted to be. The Catholic Charities organization helped me to get an apartment. Two months after moving in I left for a weekend to visit family and came back to find my apartment completely empty. I was robbed of everything that I had worked hard to rebuild and put back into my house. I cried for days.
Next we moved into the Fisher housing development which made room for former residents of CJ Peete. By then I was hearing that they are going to rebuild CJ Peete and I couldn't wait. I got a case worker who has helped me along the way. I hope that I can move in as soon as the first units become available. I want to have a beautiful place to raise my kids without all of this foolishness around them. I want to find a good school to put them in. Now, I'm working as a nurse's assistant and enrolled to classes to get my high school diploma.
Although I wanted to come back to New Orleans, things aren't really the same. The rest of my family decided not to return. I think they're scared that another storm will hit and we'll have to go through this all over again. Yes, it's a concern for me but if another storm does come, at least this time, we'll know exactly what to do.
For more information on the Harmony Oaks project, visit urbanstratergiesinc.org