"This Is Home: A Year after the Hurricane Devastated Their Community, Many Gays and Lesbians Are Still Struggling to Rebuild. Others Are Deciding Whether to Come Back at All

Article excerpt

By the time Tommy Misener and Bobby Blatchley returned from their annual trip with friends to the Alabama Gulf Coast last summer, the lush landscaping around their charming two-bedroom home in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans had gotten away from them. Misener often lamented having planted ginger along the north side of the house. Even though it produced a pretty flower, he says, "it would take over," especially in the summer.

So the couple spent an entire day trimming and cutting--maintaining their garden's reputation as the pride of Polk Street. "My neighbor would come over and say, 'It looks so good,'" Misener recalls. "I loved doing it. One of the things I miss so much is that gardening."

That was Saturday, August 27, 2005. The next day Misener, 42, and Blatchley, 41, reluctantly packed up some things and fled with their neighbors to a friend's house in Ville Platt, a town north of the city. Hurricane Katrina had failed to veer toward Florida as expected and the mayor had just issued an official evacuation order.

Sitting in a trailer parked on the spot where his garden once grew, Misener looks out on a patch of tall weeds growing in the back of his property. His house, having sat under eight feet of water for two weeks, was demolished and hauled off earlier this year. "I want to come home, but I don't want to come home to this," Misener says. "I hate to say that. I love this city, but it's never going to be the same."

Misener not only lost his house, he lost the community he loved. And he lost his partner--at least for now. After the storm the couple of nearly 11 years, who work for the same media company, took separate job transfers: Misener to Minneapolis and Blatchley to Phoenix. "I don't feel like I can plan for my future right now," Misener says, finding it difficult to speak. "I don't know where I am going to be in three years."

While the French Quarter escaped with little damage from Katrina, the surrounding areas--middle-class neighborhoods like Lakeview, where many gays and lesbians owned homes and built communities--still sit in ruins a year after the storm. Huge piles of debris crowd the streets in front of thousands of hollowed-out homes. Many have simply been torn down, and hardly any have been rebuilt or restored.

The hardest-hit areas, such as the lower Ninth Ward, where several breaks in the levees around an industrial canal unleashed a torrent of water that tossed homes about like toys in a bathtub, show no signs of life. Elsewhere, trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency are popping up in front yards, but the neighborhoods are a long way from rebuilding.

When asked why so little has been done a year later, residents cite a lack of services and temporary housing. But most also blame the government. FEMA has become "a dirty f word," they say, and Mayor Ray Nagin has hardly been seen since he was reelected in May. "We're pretty disgusted with the lack of progress from the government," says Debbie Guidry, 54, who owned a home with her partner, Shannon Powers, 55, across the street from Misener.

Guidry also blames the Army Corps of Engineers for the loss of her home. "Nothing would have happened if the Corps had done their job [building the levees]," she says. "Now they're starting with all these studies. You don't need to study. Get in here and fix it for us. That's why people aren't coming back."

Indeed, with a new hurricane season under way, many homes sit untouched because people are afraid to rebuild next to levees that haven't been improved. And they're afraid to come back to a city that is struggling to exist. Margaret Coble, 38, lived in an apartment in Mid City, an area affectionately known as the "lesbian zip code," she says. Before the storm she fled with her 79-year-old father to her girlfriend's place in Louisville, Ky., and has been there ever since. Mid City, right next door to Lakeview, was hard-hit by flooding, but the shotgun-style apartment Coble still rents there--and visits--is habitable. …


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