Years of shock and grief followed the deaths of close family, friends and neighbors. Then, the stress of displacement, a sense of exile, and the loss of pride and property, made the last four years of recovery since Hurricane Katrina seem slow and painful for a lot of New Orleans residents.
So moving back home, beginning this December, for about 90 central-city New Orleans families displaced from the CJ Peete housing project (popularly called the Magnolia projects), is as much of a new start as it is a homecoming. Knowing that the city of New Orleans, along with private funders and the federal government, have joined efforts and pumped $189 million into brand new, high-quality and affordable housing for storm victims, amps up the anticipation most of them feel about returning to their old neighborhood.
The first phase is expected to be completed in the next couple of months and families should begin moving in December. A scheduled rollout of new units and move-in of residents will continue through 2010.
“I’m glad it’s over and I look forward to moving back,” says Tracy Ward, 40, who moved to Aurora, Colorado, with his wife and son after the storm. “It was nice to be away – to be safe - at first, but then we got home sick," says the former resident of CJ Peete, who lived in the housing complex for 21 years before Katrina.
Like Ward, many other former residents of CJ Peete devastated by Katrina say they’re hoping their newly renovated neighborhood, renamed Harmony Oaks, is truly revitalized: that crime is curbed, that the buildings are no longer moldy and dilapidated and that they are able to find jobs that will improve the overall quality of life in their community.
“That’s exactly what we are doing,” says Sandra Moore, President of Urban Strategies, the company hired to lead on the re-building of the residential community expected to offer 460 rental properties and 50 for-sale units.
“We have paid great attention to every detail,” she pointed out. “The physical design meets the highest market standards. It is beautiful housing with modern amenities. They’re self-contained, have state-of-the-art-fixtures and there will even be a learning campus, a high-quality charter school that provides health services.”
Rebuilding the community the violent waters from the broken levees destroyed in 2005 has required much more than the average renovation project does. “First we located the displaced families," says Moore. “Some were around the corner. Others were as far out as California.”
According to the City of New Orleans, about 350,000 formerly displaced residents have returned since the storm. Tens of thousands of others, though, have opted to stay in the cities they moved to after the storm hit.
Moore says the next step was to assign social workers to families to prepare them for their move back home. They worked with families to resolve mental and emotional problems, find gainful employment and straighten out their financial situations so that they will be eligible to buy or rent in their new mixed-income community.
Jocquelyn Marshall, another former resident of CJ Peete, is "excited" about the homecoming. She says even though she lost her business, a mobile concession stand, and everything else she owned, it's wonderful preparing to come back to her old neighborhood.
"Not knowing where family members were, not knowing which residents were left behind, who had died, was the most difficult thing," she remembers of her days in Tunica, Miss., after the storm.
Now, Marshall is pouring her energy into coordinating the effort to organize former CJ Peete residents and keep them informed about the progress of Harmony Oaks and their return to the community.
With all the excitement, navigating the bureaucratic red tape and enforcing local and federal restrictions have been challenging for some involved in the project. For example, Marshall says there are rules that prohibit full-time students in school from living in the Harmony Oaks community.
"It makes no sense," says Marshall, who is finishing up her degree while working as an adult. "Shelter over your head and you can't get an education? That contradicts everything. We need to help people get self-sufficient."
Harmony Oaks officials say they're all set for the residents' return, but they still need to raise $40 million in private funds to help fund and sustain the community and provide supportive services once the residents return.
"It can't just be about bricks and mortar," says Marshall. "It's about the families. You can't forget that social element."
To find out more about the Harmony Oaks project call 877-330-2979 or visit www.urbanstrategiesinc.org .