- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 30, 2009

Just as Doctor John croons in his tribute to the Crescent City, it’s “sweet home, New Orleans” for lifelong resident Robert L. Green Sr.

This weekend, he slept on a bed in his own home in the Lower 9th Ward for the first time in the four years since Hurricane Katrina flattened his neighborhood and killed both his mother and infant granddaughter.

“I will put a sign up that says, ‘There’s no place like home,’ because it’s true,” Mr. Green told The Washington Times during a recent visit to Washington. He has previously appeared on the newspaper’s front page for a story on President Obama’s Katrina policy.

Mr. Green’s home is a brand new 1,800-square foot, four-bedroom, two-bathroom house, built as part of actor Brad Pitt’s Make it Right program in New Orleans.

Four years after the storm, more families also are finding their way.

RELATED STORY: Obama taps New Orleans for U.S. blueprint

D.C. public housing authorities recently reunited a 73-year-old New Orleans man with his brother, thanks in part to Google and the publicity surrounding the Pitt project.

Herlin Griffin had been living in D.C. courtesy of Katrina vouchers. He had arrived here with no identification and case workers had been searching for any family members, but his memory was hazy and he didn’t even have an emergency contact.

Earlier this month, Mr. Griffin’s voucher was expiring and he was about to transfer into another housing program, when he told special programs coordinator Vickie Ryan of the housing office he wanted his little brother, finally remembering a name. She called the Federal Emergency Management Agency and New Orleans organizations trying to find Lloyd Griffin but had no success until she went the new technology route.

A quick Google search revealed several news stories about Lloyd Griffin moving into one of the Make it Right homes.

Ms. Ryan turned the monitor around for Mr. Griffin to see the photograph and the 73-year-old exclaimed, “That’s my brother, that’s my brother!”

These stories aren’t impossible to imagine, since in the days after the storm the situation was chaos as residents were scattered across the country, said Ms. Ryan, a Katrina survivor herself.

She couldn’t find a phone number for Lloyd Griffin, so asked the New Orleans Police to go to the home on Tennessee Street, a short walk from Mr. Green’s new home.

Twenty minutes later a woman called, asking whether Herlin Griffin was there.

“When I told her yes, he was sitting right there with me, everybody started screaming and yelling in the background,” Ms. Ryan said. “And when I handed him the phone words can’t even describe how he looked when he heard that voice. He suddenly seemed like a much younger man.”

Mr. Griffin for years had been on a list of missing residents who were thought to be dead, but within hours officials in the D.C. office raised more than $400 in a collection to send him on a flight bound for New Orleans to be reunited with his brother. Another nonprofit helped him buy a suit and he was on his way.

He just kept repeating that he was going home, Ms. Ryan said.

“I thought my brother had passed,” Lloyd Griffin told WUSA television after the happy reunion.

Virginia Miller, a spokeswoman for the Make it Right program, lauded the “incredible spirit” of Lower 9th residents. She said the Griffin reunion was heartwarming and said Mr. Green is “one of those people who captivates everybody.”

“We’re so excited to be bringing so many people home,” she said.

Earlier this year, Mr. Pitt met with President Obama, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu to talk about his project. Ms. Miller said the group is glad to have a partner in Washington, adding, “It’s clear we have a lot of priorities in common.”

As for Mr. Green, he spent the past two weeks in New York and Washington on a sort of thank-you tour, just as the house was finished. Along with his daughter, a nursing student, Mr. Green dropped by colleges and veterans halls to show his appreciation for volunteers who went to New Orleans to help.

Sporting buttons from many of the groups who made their way south during and after the storm, Mr. Green said he’s seen true generosity.

While in town, Mr. Green lobbied Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, told his story to newspaper reporters and promoted the Aug. 29 Katrina commemorative ceremony he holds to honor his family members. In New York, the Greens had a special screening of “Waiting for Godot” on Broadway, even getting to meet actor John Goodman.

Mr. Green’s property on Tennessee Street is one of the first things tourists and volunteers see when they enter the 9th Ward, and he frequently stood in the front yard to showcase photos, talk politics and sometimes recount the tale of the 2005 storm.

It’s not an easy story, because his mother and 3-year-old granddaughter Shanai died as his family of seven clung to their rooftop during the August 2005 hurricane, but he considers it a solemn duty to share with anyone who stops by.

He’s working with the Smithsonian to see whether the FEMA trailer he lived in four years could be part of an exhibit to showcase the lives of the storm. He wants his new home to be for the entire family, and said several of his children and grandchildren will stay there with him.

Mr. Green said he loves the “green” element of the home, even joking that former Vice President Al Gore would be welcome for a tour. Thanks to the solar panels on the roof, his utility bill will run $10 to $35 monthly, compared with $160 per month when he was living in a trailer on the property.

Mr. Green said he paid for two-thirds of the construction and the foundation set up by Mr. Pitt paid for the rest. Because he owns the property, he has no mortgage and doesn’t have to worry about trusting contractors in a shaky environment.

“I saw it being built and knew it was going to be mine but then I got the keys and I had to cut the grass before I could feel like it was really mine,” he said.

The home is equipped with high-end appliances and is above the new flood level requirements. The Make it Right homes are brightly colored to generate publicity and show signs of life in what used to be one of the most populated New Orleans neighborhoods.

Ms. Miller of Make it Right said the projects are moving at a “good pace,” but noted there is still great need in the Lower 9th.

Mr. Green said Mr. Pitt is a “blessing.”

“The reality is going to set in when I close my eyes and realize I’m not sleeping in a trailer and that reality was made possible by one person,” he said.

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