A Shared Uncertainty

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 28, 2005

NEW ORLEANS Joseph and Kesa Williams have come home once since Hurricane Katrina chased them off to Atlanta. Once was all they could bear.

Inside their ruined house on Delery Street in the Lower Ninth Ward, they found ceilings collapsed, possessions rotted and mold triumphant. They had expected as much from watching TV news. Much more disturbing was the abandoned-graveyard feel of the entire neighborhood, where working-class black families have owned houses for generations.

"From what I could see, nothing was happening," said Joseph Williams, 32, who has a new job as a probation officer in suburban Atlanta. "The only thing I found in my house that was worth taking was my high school class ring. I threw it back on the floor and we left."

Across town, Gary and Bea Quaintance, together with their son, Steven, 16, have moved back into their house on Memphis Street in Lakeview, a white middle-class neighborhood that was also wrecked by Katrina. Theirs, though, is an isolated, post-apocalyptic style of housekeeping. Lakeview is a neighborhood in name only, especially at night. The Quaintances are the only family on their block.

Armed with a portable propane heater and a gasoline generator, they sleep on the unflooded second floor. The house beneath them has been stripped of its stinking contents and gutted to the studs. There's no kitchen, no washing machine, no nearby stores and no neighbors to see the Christmas lights Gary Quaintance has strung around the house. Still, it is home.

"If you can't get back home, then you are living your life in limbo," said Bea Quaintance, 47, who raised her two college-age daughters on Memphis Street and is determined to finish raising her son there.

This is a wrenching holiday season for exiles from Memphis and Delery streets. Local politicians plead with them to come home, even as a panel of urban experts warns that both streets lie in neighborhoods too ruined and too flood-prone for immediate reconstruction.

The future of New Orleans teeters on choices made by families such as the Williamses and Quaintances. The sum of their private deliberations will determine the size of the reconstituted city, reset its racial balance and dictate its politics.

While white families from Memphis Street are more likely to return than are black families of Delery Street -- primarily because houses in Lakeview sustained less damage -- the storm has united evacuees on both sides of the city's formidable divide of race and class. What they share is uncertainty, which, like the mold in vacant houses, has mushroomed in the nearly four months since the hurricane. Decisions about coming home are vexed by fear of another storm, worry about money and doubt about government help. The passage of time and the power of distance also make it more difficult to leave new addresses where, despite loneliness and unfamiliarity, there is no risk of drowning in your attic.

So far, only the Quaintance family has returned to Memphis Street. Most others from their block are waiting. At least four are trying to sell. On Delery Street, where bulldozers will soon raze the many houses now marked with red "UNSAFE" stickers, no one is back and former residents say returning is all but impossible.

"I ain't coming back," said Judith Jordan, 53, a grocery store cashier who lived for 20 years on Delery with her brother and mother before the storm sent them away to Shreveport, La. "None of us is coming back."

Jordan has returned home once, with her brother John in early December. They found their wooden one-story house tilted off its foundation. It had that red sticker of doom on it: "Partial Collapse Possible. Do Not Enter." They took some pictures and drove back to Shreveport.

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