- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — They said she was too frail, that the mold growing on the warped walls of her flooded house would make her ill. They said she shouldn’t bother since her mottled, mud-filled home likely would be bulldozed anyway.

But Willie Lee Barnes, who recently turned 94, didn’t listen.

Standing outside her house, she clasped her rosary in her frail hands and prayed. “Lord,” she said, “I’m not asking that you climb the mountain for me. I’m only asking that you give me the strength to do it myself.”

Strapping on a dust mask, Miss Barnes grabbed a shovel and with all her force began pounding the deformed walls of her living room until they fell to the floor. She filled buckets with the broken drywall, which her son ferried outside. Bucket by bucket and week after week, she kept at it, resting occasionally on a stool, the only piece of furniture in her house to survive the flooding. Flanked by a worn statue of the Virgin Mary, hers is now one of the few houses that’s been gutted in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward.

Ask her to explain how a nonagenarian succeeded in doing what thousands of younger families have failed to do, and Miss Barnes offers an analogy: “I’m like bad grass. Because it never dies. You gotta pull it up, and even though you do, it still grows back. I don’t care how hard something looks, I’m still going to try.”

In a city that still lies largely in ruin after Hurricane Katrina hit Aug. 29, life is pushing through like “bad grass,” forcing its way through cracks in the pavement.

Those who choose to return do so in spite of the city’s broken infrastructure, which nearly a year later remains in tatters: Nearly 60 percent of homes and businesses are still not receiving electricity or heating gas. Only three out of nine New Orleans hospitals have reopened. Only 56 of 128 public schools will enroll students this fall.

The city itself still has no master plan.

Still, even in the worst-hit neighborhoods, where homes were ripped from their foundations and spit into the street, and where mattresses still lie impaled in the branches of trees, the rebirth is taking place.

Those who have returned to live here proudly proclaim their existence.

“I’m back. R U?” asks a sign in the window of a flooded pickup truck at a house slowly being repaired.

Down the block, another sign stands outside a gutted home. “I’m Coming Home,” it says — except “Coming” has been struck out with a bold, red line.

“This house is my soul,” Carolyn Parker says. It has neither electricity nor running water, so each morning, until a government-issued trailer arrived last month, she walked to a nearby fire hydrant and screwed it open with a wrench. The water gushed out, and she filled two buckets. Then, she carried them back to her home, using them to bathe.

Throughout the city, institutions have learned to adapt, too.

For more than 150 years, those who attended Sunday Mass at the Church of the Annunciation heard the Scripture read in Elizabethan English. Now, the traditional Anglican Church’s priest reads the ancient Scripture, still dotted with ‘Thees’ and ‘Thous,’ inside a doublewide trailer, parked in the flooded Broadmoor neighborhood. Because there is no air conditioning, the clergy shed their ornate wool cassocks.

Still, the Episcopal bishop came carrying a tall, hooked staff and wearing green-and-gold vestments to bless the trailer.

“We do the best we can. But there’s only so much pomp and circumstance you can have inside a doublewide,” said the Rev. Milton Gibson, the church’s deacon.

Even in the unharmed French Quarter, where jazz tumbles into the street from ornate, cast-iron balconies, residents speak of a lingering depression.

“I can’t even remember how many going-away parties I’ve been to in the last few weeks. Every night, I lay in bed, thinking, ‘Should I stay or should I go?’” says Maggie Beal, the manager of a store selling 19th-century French antiques.

Throughout the city, those who stayed are trying the best they can to make meaning out of the destruction.

When Miss Barnes first returned to her flooded bedroom, she hoped to find a crucifix studded with diamonds that for years she’d worn around her neck. She couldn’t find it.

Yet she was able to salvage one item: A present given to her years ago, still inside its gift box. It’s a porcelain angel, holding a battery-operated lantern.

Although the waters rose to the house’s cypress beams, the box must have bobbed on the surface and not gone under — when she unwrapped it and switched it on, the lantern lit up a soft, fuzzy yellow.

Holding the angel in her hands and straining to make out its inscription, Miss Barnes read aloud: “You are the Lord. Keep my light burning and turn the darkness into light.”

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