By Tom Wooten
Georgia Johnson, the great-grandmother, expert wordsmith, and longtime Lower Ninth Ward resident about whom I wrote in We Shall Not Be Moved, has not followed an easy path to recovery. When I interviewed her for the book in October 2008, she sat happily in the living room of the small Creole cottage she good-humoredly called the “raggedy mansion,” newly returned from years of exile in Mississippi. We both thought then that she was nearing the end of her journey. In fact, it was just beginning.
Even before Hurricane Katrina, Georgia’s house was not in good shape. The ceiling leaked, the floor was uneven, the uninsulated bargeboard walls left Georgia cold in the winter, and the bathroom was too small to accommodate her wheelchair. Ironically, although the flood deposited a thick layer of oily mud in Georgia’s living room, destroyed her possessions, and ruined her electrical system, it also should have been her chance to fix the house. She applied for rebuilding money from the federally funded Road Home Program, and after pushing her way through the red tape that frustrated most of the program’s applicants and waiting patiently for more than a year, she received enough to properly renovate the house. But like thousands of other Gulf Coast residents, she fell victim to contractor fraud. Unable to live in a FEMA trailer because of her wheelchair and debilitating asthma, she tried to oversee the renovation from Mississippi. Twice, builders took her money and ran. With her limited remaining funds, and with help from several of the resident-led neighborhood organizations I featured in the book, she managed a bare-bones renovation.
Termite control was one of many recovery needs for which Georgia no longer had money. In a full rebuild, contractors would have repaired any existing termite damage and thoroughly sprayed to prevent new infestations. Georgia’s house was easy prey without this treatment. By 2012, termites had eaten through walls in her bathroom and her bedroom closet. We passed a hat at the book launch event in New Orleans in August of that year to pay for an exterminator, and I hoped that the problem would get no worse. I breathed a sigh of relief when a local nonprofit called Project Homecoming began work on the house. They would do what Georgia’s fraudulent post-Katrina contractors had not: fix the floors, insulate the walls, expand the bathroom, and repair the termite damage—all at no cost to Georgia. When they started the work last year, it seemed Georgia would finally be made whole.
Then the entire house collapsed. The termite damage was far more extensive than anyone realized, and as builders began opening up the walls, the flimsy shards that barely held up the roof gave way. Two workers in the house escaped with injuries, and Georgia was back at square one.
For every Katrina story that follows a tidy, upbeat trajectory—fear and loss in the flood’s aftermath, courage and strength during a long recovery, redemption and joy through homecoming—there are many more stories like Georgia’s that are messy, infuriating, or sad. Tens of thousands of New Orleanians whose homes flooded, including most of Georgia’s neighbors in the Lower Ninth Ward, were never able to come home. Tens of thousands more whose homes stayed dry were displaced as rents tripled and centrally located public housing developments were demolished. Many of the people I profile in We Shall Not Be Moved, neighborhood leaders who returned after the storm and worked steadfastly to help their neighbors do the same, have not experienced simple “happily ever after” stories. They have burned out, moved, and in some cases, died.
Georgia’s story, at least, is looking up. Project Homecoming has built her a new house from scratch, and it will be ready for her to move in by August 29th, Katrina’s ten-year anniversary. Because of the timing, and because of Georgia’s charisma, she has become a press darling. “I was talking to a reporter from Germany last week, and she told me I’m a celebrity in Europe,” Georgia chuckled when I visited her yesterday. The new house is beautiful. It is a Creole cottage, just like her old one, with a broad front porch and a crisp mint green coat of paint with white trim and blue accents. Georgia and her great-granddaughter Syanya picked out the color scheme. “I. Can. Not. Wait to sit on that porch again,” she said. “I’m just trying to stay calm and keep my mind off of it. I don’t want to have a heart attack the day before I finally come home.”
About the Author
Tom Wooten is coauthor of No One Had a Tongue to Speak and author of We Shall Not Be Moved. Since graduating from Harvard in 2008 and moving to New Orleans, he has worked as a researcher at Harvard's Kennedy School, as a neighborhood volunteer coordinator, and as a fifth- and sixth-grade writing teacher. Visit his website: tomwooten.com.