The Times Picayune: ‘I consider you family’: In tornado’s wake, New Orleans East neighbors band together

June 15, 2017 – Beau Evans

Roger Davis planned on leaving for good after the tornado destroyed his home in New Orleans East earlier this year. It was the house’s third bout with disaster, after being scorched by a fire and flooded by Hurricane Katrina.

He figured it was about time to cut his losses.

But months later, with his home razed to the bare earth, Davis has had a change of heart. It took some convincing, but he and his wife, Vergie, have set their minds on staying put.

“I was pretty determined on doing that,” Davis said Tuesday (June 13). “But everything’s in place, so we’re going to rebuild.”

Davis admits his about-face had much to do with the tough prospect of selling an empty plot of land in an area prone to disaster. But there was also another factor at play in his decision, one that depended more so on the human ties that have strengthened in the neighborhood. The community where he’s long lived has rallied behind him and hundreds of others whose worlds have been upended yet again.

That strength surfaced Tuesday evening, after a group of 40 or so neighbors had gathered around the ghost of Davis’ house on Marque Drive.

“You are the ones I love the most,” Davis told them. “You are the ones I want to live and die with. I consider you family.”

Davis’ property was one of several stops along the group’s “prayer walk” Tuesday through the pocket of New Orleans East where the powerful EF-3 tornado roared through on Feb. 7, battering hundreds of homes and leaving 33 people injured. It was the strongest tornado on record to ever strike New Orleans, and came far too soon for a community still rebounding from Katrina.

Now, more than four months later, piles of rubble tossed by the tornado into the streets are gone. The scars show in the homes with torn-off roofs covered by blue tarps, the walls where the brickwork still lies crumbled, and the strained faces of the people who took stock of it all Tuesday.

Most of them are members of the congregation at Resurrection of Our Lord Catholic Church, which sits in the heart of that neighborhood and was where Tuesday’s walk began. They brought a large wooden cross on wheels, a loudspeaker piping out gospel music, and signs with scriptures like Deuteronomy 3:16:

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified, for the Lord your God goes with you, and he will never leave or forsake you.

From the church to Davis’ home on Marque and down to Grant Street, the group filed past Schaumberg Elementary and the Winn Dixie on Chef Menteur, still shuttered from the storm. They veered up Donna Drive and paused outside the home of Lynda Mullen, who recounted the fear she felt knowing her daughter was at home when the tornado came and her relief to learn she was safe.

Amid a message of hope, she posed a sobering truth.

“The challenges we and our neighbors faced as a result of the tornado were overwhelming,” Mullen said. “And they’re far from over for many of us.”

That’s certainly the case for Davis and his wife, who spent the better part of March and April at a Holiday Inn Express before moving into a furnished apartment in the Pontchartrain Oaks complex off Hayne Boulevard on May 1. After his house and its foundation were demolished in April, Davis has been in a holding pattern waiting for the city to approve a permit for new construction.

That permit was approved Wednesday, paving the way for a new home that Davis’ contractor estimates will be done on Nov.1.

“I’m hoping it takes four months,” Davis said Tuesday. “Barring a hurricane or anything like that.”

Like Davis, hundreds on people in New Orleans East are at the mercy of insurance companies and federal relief funds spread between residents in Orleans and Livingston parishes, which were two out of the four parishes where a total five tornadoes touched down on Feb. 7. While the gears of recovery are in motion, the full financial picture of the tornado’s impact is not yet clear.

So far, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved over $2.8 million among 585 applicants seeking individual assistance, which goes toward repair costs and everyday living expenses that insurance won’t cover. Those funds will not help the city recoup costs to rebuild public infrastructure in the East, and one study has found that nearly a third of homeowners whose houses were damaged may be under- or uninsured. The burned of bridging the gap will likely fall to local nonprofits, many observers believe.

In the meantime, Resurrection Catholic Church has been a hub of the recovery. Situated roughly at the geographical center of the damage zone, the church became the reservoir for waves of donated food, clothing and other household goods. It’s been called “ground zero” by people in the neighborhood, according to longtime parishioner Alton Crowden.

“We were lined up everyday, lots of people coming through,” Crowden said after the walk Tuesday. “Constant, constant, constant.”

More recently, the church has played host to outreach workers from Catholic Charities, the boots-on-the-ground branch of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Tuesday’s walk was the latest in a series of “prayer walks” the archdiocese holds each month in different spots throughout the city.

Since February, Catholic Charities has run case management services out of Resurrection, and, to date, shoulders a caseload of 70 tornado-struck clients divided between two case managers. Tom Costanza, the director of disaster services for Catholic Charities, says they’re aiming to up that count to 290 total clients to be served at Resurrection over the 18 months.

On Tuesday after the walk, Costanza encouraged the group to keep bolstering the community.

“Y’all are the beacon of hope in this area,” he said. “This steeple outside and the people in this parish are a beacon of hope for everyone in this community.”

For their part, the church members appear to have embraced their “beacon” mantle with relish. Many in Tuesday’s group said they’ve begun to see a silver lining.

“Many times, we do everything except see that something good has happened,” sad Father Jeff Muga, the pastor at Resurrection. “We were able to open ourselves, open our doors and see something good that was happening.”

“I think that is something the tornado brought to us.”

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