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Their pioneer spirit

It’s hard to imagine any place in America where hope might seem more audacious than here on Tennessee Street in the Lower 9th Ward -- the hard-luck neighborhood where in 2005 Hurricane Katrina delivered its fiercest blow.

Battered by a storm-tossed barge, a levee failed and water from the wide Inner Harbor Navigation Canal blasted through with the force of cannon fire, ripping houses from foundations, tossing cars into trees. In one bad night, the Lower 9th Ward was turned into a job for the scrapers.

And yet, three years later, there she was, Gertrude LeBlanc -- “Miss Gertie” to her friends, a 73-year-old living monument to New Orleans pluck -- beaming on the porch of her newly built home on Tennessee Street.

“I like to say this house is like a beacon,” the retired postal worker said. “It’s telling the people to come back home.”

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This was a few days before Christmas, and LeBlanc had the yellow wood-framed home fully trimmed, with artificial candy canes lining the walkway and red ribbons and garlands strung over the porch.

“I always said that if I ever got to come back, I wanted to put up ribbons and garlands for Christmas in my new house,” she said. “That is what I wanted. And that is what I did.”

The house was constructed by a stranger. A Baptist minister from another part of town showed up one day at the government trailer where LeBlanc was living and announced that he and a crew of volunteers had come to help her rebuild -- “a blessing from heaven,” she called him. She moved in last spring, the first on Tennessee Street to make it back.

From her porch, LeBlanc can see a scattering of houses that have gone up since. They tend to sit far apart, surrounded by abandoned lots that are covered with weeds and broken foundations and marked by driveways leading nowhere. Snakes have moved into the grasses, hunting rodents.

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It might seem a daunting landscape, but not to Miss Gertie: “To me those houses are like flowers popping up in a garden. There’s just a few of us now. But there will soon be a beautiful garden. Oh, yes.”

This wasn’t supposed to happen. The Lower 9th Ward had been written off by most of the politicians and urban policy experts who after Katrina set out to engineer a new New Orleans. An inability to protect the low neighborhood in future storms was one reason cited. There also was talk about turning it into an industrial park or a high-end golf resort.

The displaced residents suspected the balkiness about rebuilding might have more to do with the fact that most of them were poor and black -- a perceived drag on a city trying to restore itself with tourist dollars.

The Lower 9th Ward was one of the first neighborhoods in New Orleans where African Americans were allowed to own property.

Many homes had been passed along by families across three or four generations, often without any documentation. After Katrina, these word-of-mouth inheritances tangled up the permit process.

The handful of new homes built so far tended to be the handiwork of charity organizations -- including the Salvation Army, church volunteers and a foundation formed by actor Brad Pitt -- with construction financed through a mix of donations and whatever money the residents could scrape together.

Linda Jackson, president of the Lower 9th Ward Homeowners Assn., said the city, state and federal governments had pretty much dealt themselves out: “There have been a lot of promises, but at the end of the day only promises.”

Still, she and others in the Lower 9th Ward expressed hope that things might change with a new president.

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“He talks like he has a plan,” she said of Barack Obama. “And we are hoping here that we are a part of it.”

Half a block up Tennessee from Gertrude LeBlanc’s place, a makeshift monument had been erected at the curbside -- a lighted wooden cross, a granite headstone, an American flag, flowers set on plastic chairs, porcelain angels and a little girl’s tiny black shoes, mud-stained and torn.

Robert Green, a 53-year-old tax accountant who has been living on the lot in a trailer for two years, said he maintained the memorial as a tribute to his 73-year-old mother and 3-year-old granddaughter, both lost in the hurricane. He wants to remind whoever passes by what happened that night.

There had been seven family members in the house, he said. They tried to make it to the Louisiana Superdome but were turned away. Joining the slow-moving freeway evacuation was not an option because his mother was in failing health.

So they stayed and heard the levee burst.

“We had five minutes,” Green recalled.

They clambered into the attic, but the water kept pouring in. They climbed to the roof, but the house broke from its moorings, collided with other floating residences and crumbled beneath them.

“We had to scurry to someone else’s roof,” Green said. It was then, he said softly, that his granddaughter, Shanai, “just slipped away.” His mother, Joyce, succumbed while they waited on the roof for rescuers, an ordeal that lasted days.

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“She just couldn’t make it,” he said.

Though harrowing and tragic, Green’s was the sort of survivor tale one heard often after Katrina.

What made it uncommon was where he told it: back in the Lower 9th Ward, waiting for construction to begin soon on a new home.

“Back in the 1920s,” he said, “when they first starting building here, it was sparsely populated too. We are just restarting history.”

Across the street, Charles Duplessis expressed the same pioneer spirit as he added finishing touches to the home he hopes will be finished in a month.

“If there had been no pioneers,” the 57-year-old preacher said, “there would be no California. It can happen again, here. . . . It looks hopeless now. But it is not hopeless.”

For his part, Robert Green said he had grown accustomed to roughing it in his neighborhood of ruins.

He knows on a first-name basis the bus drivers who shuttle tourists through the stricken neighborhood. Strangers stop by to snap pictures of his monument, and he always takes time to tell the story behind it.

And, he said, with all the open space between them, his neighbors now were only a wave and a shout away.

“Huuuullllohhhh, Miss Gertie! Miss Gertie!” he called out, by way of demonstration. She rose on her porch, looked up the street and waved back.

“You see,” Green said, “it’s never lonely here. We have everything we had before -- just not as many people.”

Still, there were dark circles under Green’s eyes, and at certain times in his narrative a shadow of pain or sorrow would pulse across his face, so worn and weathered in the last three years, the face of a man who has everything he had before -- just not as many people.

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peter.king@latimes.com


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