"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.
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.
"My long-range plan has always included going back to New Orleans," she says via telephone from Kentucky. "It's the only place I've ever really considered my home."
The rent on Coble's apartment--like rents all over the city--has been steadily going up, and now she's not sure she can keep it, especially since launching her own arts and crafts business. "Every time I put money into a rent increase I think, That's money I could be putting into my business," she says. "Also, there's a part of me that says my mental health will be better in the long run not having to deal with what life is like there right now. Folks are really struggling there. It's really difficult."
Sherby Guillory also plans to move home to New Orleans, but it may be a few years. "There are a lot of reasons not to go back," the gay social worker says. "There's always the threat of a hurricane. But where else in the U.S. can you go out and listen to jazz at 2 in the morning?"
Guillory, who turns 31 the first week of September, was in his last semester of study for a master's degree in social work at Tulane University when the storm hit. He found out the University of Houston was accepting refugee transfers, so he went there to finish his degree. Now he's got a hill-time job at Legacy Community Health Services in Houston, where he has been assisting other gay and lesbian victims of Katrina. "I will sit down and talk with people," he says. "They still want to reminisce about the good times in New Orleans. It's like a narrative therapy."
A lot of gay people from New Orleans are living in Houston, he says. Some have found jobs and are learning to adjust to a permanent life there, as they are unable or unwilling to go back home.
Despite the challenges, Guidry and Powers have come back and are living in the FEMA trailer on Misener's lot with their two dogs, two cats, and parrot. "When we drive in here we get excited about coming back because this is home," Powers says. The couple were paid off by their insurance and are planning to get some federal aid to help them rebuild across the street, where a damaged swimming pool frill of murky brown water is all that's left of their demolished house.
Inside the trailer's cramped quarters a mattress barely big enough for two sits on a bunk next to a tiny bathroom separated by a flimsy wooden door. Outside, a big white plastic pipe snakes its way from the back of the trailer to a sewer hookup on Misener's property. There are weeds and debris everywhere. The streets and sidewalks are cracked, and the surrounding homes are vacant and falling apart.
"People just don't know. I think that's really sad," Misener says, noting that he has met people in Minneapolis who said they thought New Orleans was "all back to normal." "People just have no idea that there's still this much devastation."
Even though it means living apart for an indefinite period, Misener and Blatchley are going to focus on their careers and wait and see how things develop in New Orleans over the next couple of years. "It can be a little lonely and hard, but I look at the future," Blatchley says. "It's just temporary. Military families do it all the time."
Back on Polk Street, it's going to be a tough life, Guidry admits, and there may never again be that sense of community that made it such a great place. "We loved the neighborhood. It was very gay-friendly," she says. "There were three [homes owned by] gay people on this block. We asked ourselves, Do we want to rebuild if Tom and Bobby don't come back?"
"It was great having them as neighbors," says Blatchley, who used to jump in Guidry's swimming pool on hot days and would call upon her to feed their cats when he and Misener went on vacation. "There is a really strong sense of family and community down there. People were friendly. I miss that. Phoenix is more cliquish."
That loss of community is mourned even by those who have returned to areas where there was little storm damage. "I've lost so many of my friends," says Bill Coble (no relation to Margaret), 47, sitting in the courtyard of his shuttered walking tour and gift shop business in the French Quarter, which closed after the storm for lack of customers. "That has been so hard. It's one thing to lose your business; it's another thing to lose your community because they had to go elsewhere for work."
The entire city's infrastructure was destroyed, Bill Coble says. Of around 20,000 businesses that existed in Orleans Parish, only about 2,000 remain. Living in the predominantly gay neighborhood of Faubourg Marigny on the edge of the Quarter, Coble was at first making ends meet by helping people gut their homes, hoping that he could reopen his business in the spring. "That didn't happen," he says. "By the end of May I realized I had to find a hill-time job." So he started bartending at Lafitte in Exile, one of several gay bars on Bourbon Street's famous "fruit loop."
One block away, Lawrence Shepherd, 35, has been bartending at the Bourbon Pub and Parade since moving to the French Quarter from Indianapolis six years ago. "About three months after the storm I had people come up to me in the bar and say, 'I'm so glad you're here,'" he recalls. "I was a symbol of normalcy."
Business has been good, Shepherd says, and everyone has been looking forward to the Southern Decadence festival, New Orleans's big gay party. But there is a noticeable difference among the locals. "A lot of people didn't come back," he says. "There's a whole shift of who's here and who's not here, of alliances and friendships."
Brian Peterson was part of that shift. But he decided to come back after almost a year of building a new life in Atlanta with his partner, Todd Shaffer. "I was afraid to go back," he says via telephone from his Atlanta apartment the night before driving back to New Orleans. "I tried to look optimistically at Atlanta. But I realized where I truly wanted to be. In New Orleans there's a sense of community wherever you are. Everybody knows everyone else."
Peterson, 35, an actor and performer who lived in New Orleans for 10 years, is part of a close circle of friends who live in the Bywater, a neighborhood just the other side of Faubourg Marigny with a high concentration of gays. The area saw very little flooding, but it has been plagued by power outages and an increase in crime. And lately people have been coming from other areas in the middle of the night to dump storm debris in the streets of the Bywater. "The biggest thing that I've noticed since I've been home is that people I know who have been here trying to rebuild are really getting beyond frustrated and showing signs of wanting to give up," Peterson says, a few days after his return in August. "I feel that I have an opportunity to be a cheerleader at this point."
Giving up was never an option for Sal Mulle and his partner of 19 years, Johnny Cutrer, who have struggled to keep their restaurant, Two Jokers Grill, and its accompanying bar, the Masquerade, open in Metairie, north of downtown New Orleans. The bar wasn't flooded, but it was destroyed. "All the windows were busted out," Mulle says with a thick accent and a look of exhaustion. "There were bottles and food all over the place. They busted all the commodes. They just smashed everything. [Outside] the stench was horrible. No one ever mentions the stench. Everything was rotting in the street."
Mulle, 47, and Cutrer, 49, had to refinance their home and fight with the insurance company, which eventually paid them off but doubled the bar and grill's premiums. For the first couple of weeks post-Katrina they lived in the restaurant, and they have been working 80-hour weeks ever since. But the couple, who have both lived in the Big Easy their entire lives, are only too happy to be there. "The best feeling in the world is when you see someone you haven't seen since the hurricane come walking in and say they're moving back," Mulle says. "I say, 'Have a cheesecake on me, baby.'"
Two Jokers was one of the first restaurants to reopen in the area, and it has played an important role during a time when the local community has been so threatened. Every day a colorful mix of gays and straights, police officers and businessmen find comfort together behind its glass doors inside a small strip mall.
A few miles to the south on Carrollton Avenue, west of the Garden District, gays and their allies have been finding comfort inside St. Matthew United Church of Christ. Every Sunday evening about 15 congregants of the Metropolitan Community Church of Greater New Orleans gather in a small wood-paneled sanctuary--about half the number that typically worshiped there before the storm. "People have started to make a decision about whether or not they want to come back," says the Reverend Dexter Brecht. "Some people came back and were active in the church and then decided they just weren't willing to deal with the recovery."
Since the storm the congregation has been coordinating donations, helping with reconstruction, and providing services to victims. And Brecht, who has served there since 1994, has become decidedly political, calling for a "spiritual response" from his followers to the government's lack of help.
To mark the one-year anniversary of Katrina the congregation teamed with four other MCC churches along the Gulf Coast to host a "Rainbow Revival" celebration at the end of August. "I do not get why people are not grasping this as an incredible opportunity to rethink a major city in America," Brecht says. "Yes, the losses have been awful. But this can be the fresh start that New Orleans has needed." And people need to see that parts of the city have come back, Brecht adds. "They have re-created a life for themselves. People should come and see that. That's an incredible thing too."
It's Saturday night at New Orleans Food and Spirits, a restaurant on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain in Metairie, one block west of where the 17th Street Canal broke open, destroying Lakeview to the east. Misener and some friends dine on fried shrimp and beer around a big table. They talk about all the problems that still persist: increased insurance rates, construction needs, a lack of workers, and a worthless government. And they laugh and talk about the past, including all the places they used to eat together in the city.
Out back after dinner, they hug and say goodbye, and plan their next trip to the Alabama Gulf Coast--the "redneck Riviera," Misener says with a chuckle. "This is what I miss. This is what makes me want to come back," he says. "If I could turn this all back, I wouldn't worry so much. I would just take what I had, and it would be great. I would even take the ginger back."