"You can't live in the past," says 71-year-old Gertrude LeBlanc, whose FEMA trailer is the only inhabited structure on her Tennessee Street block in the Lower Ninth Ward. "(The past) is there, but you got to think of the future and think positive."
The retired postal worker's positive attitude recently changed the course of Rev. Jesse Jackson's hurricane recovery march through her battered neighborhood. She didn't even have to get up from the rocking chair outside her FEMA trailer. She simply smiled and waved at the dozens of demonstrators as they turned a corner a half a block from where she sat.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" someone in the procession yelled.
The march that Jackson organized "to refocus America's attention" on the sluggish recovery in New Orleans 20 months after Hurricane Katrina suddenly stopped. Congressman Bill Jefferson, Mayor Ray Nagin, former Mayor Marc Morial and other front-row marchers halted first. Several hands tightened their grips on the banner that read: "Marching to Reclaim Our Land." Swarming news photographers stopped backpedaling. A man in a T-shirt then approached Jackson and pointed toward LeBlanc. The civil rights minister looked across the weed-choked lots where houses once stood, and he saw the elderly woman waving from underneath a blue-and-white striped umbrella on her porch.
Without expression, Jackson ordered the march to back up onto Tennessee Street, and in short order, the activist and a stream of elected officials took turns climbing the flower-decked steps of LeBlanc's porch, greeting her warmly.
"Keep the faith, ma'am," City Councilman James Carter said.
"I hope this makes a difference," LeBlanc said, as she greeted each marcher, state Sen. Cleo Fields of Baton Rouge among them. She later said she had never met the senator or any of her other high-profile visitors.
"Let's see if any of them come back," said a young woman seated next to LeBlanc.
The marchers then proceeded toward the Industrial Canal, which Hurricane Katrina breached on Aug. 29, 2005, flooding the poor, mostly black residential neighborhood. LeBlanc's house was washed off its foundation in the flood. "My house was crumbled against that tree," she said, pointing to a live oak nearby. The flood also turned her station wagon upside-down.
LeBlanc suffered a stroke shortly after the storm, but has recovered. She's also diabetic and copes with arthritis and heart trouble. Like tens of thousands of homeowners, LeBlanc says she applied for the state's Road Home program a year ago and is still waiting on a grant. "The mail is not THAT bad," says LeBlanc, who finished her 37-year postal career as a window clerk.
The woman says she gave Jackson information about her delayed application in the hope he will call attention to her plight for a new home. She moved into her FEMA trailer about a month ago, after living with her daughter in Napoleonville since Katrina, and says she's glad to be back in the Ninth Ward. The trailer has running water and electricity, but she has to depend on a cell phone because no land-line phone service is available.
Her area is a neighborhood in name only. Vacant, weed-filled lots and damaged houses surround LeBlanc, and her trailer is the only inhabited dwelling on her block. There is only one trailer on the next block. LeBlanc hopes the recent march will somehow help her and other elderly storm victims.
"I'm looking for neighbors to come back," she says. "You can hear the birds now and the ice cream man comes by." Her church is expected to reopen in several weeks.
While crime is the top concern in post-Katrina New Orleans, LeBlanc says she finds security in prayer and nightly National Guard patrols. She also marvels at the church workers and college students from around the country who continue to volunteer in the Ninth Ward, gutting houses and cleaning up debris. "The church students come and say prayers over me," she says. "With all the destruction, there's been a lot of good."
Allen Johnson Jr. is a native New Orleanian and freelance journalist. He may be reached at email@example.com.
- Allen Johnson Jr
- The Rev. Jesse Jackson and a host of political leaders and concerned citizens took to the streets of the Lower Nine recently stressing the need for recovery in the area.