Rebuilding and looking for leadership

Sam Eaton May 19, 2006

Albert Jefferson
Albert Jefferson Jr. repairs his home.

Henry McCloskey
Henry McCloskey in his refinishing shop.

Photos by Sam Eaton, Marketplace


CHERYL GLASER: Tomorrow, people in New Orleans vote for a mayor. Someone to fix a broken city. Help it get back on its feet after the $200 billion hit inflicted by Hurricane Katrina. Many small business owners were wiped out by the storm. We heard from two of them. Metal worker Henry McCloskey. And Albert Jefferson Jr., a carpenter. Both have returned to rebuild their businesses and their lives. So which politician do they feel has the best shot at rebuilding New Orleans? Sam Eaton from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk went there to find out.

SAM EATON: Albert Jefferson Jr. is a master craftsman. It’s a skill that’s in high demand these days in New Orleans. In the last two months he’s turned down twenty five major construction jobs. That’s because the only thing Jefferson has time to work on is his own home. It was flooded with eight feet of water after Katrina.

ALBERT JEFFERSON: I often get up and make a list of at least 10 things to do. And if I can get through three of them by today, even though I get down just a bit, I say, well, I did my best.

Jefferson lost everything in the storm. His workshop, his tools, his employees. He’s now camping out in the nearly abandoned Gentilly neighborhood, slowly rebuilding.

We walk out to his backyard and sit on a porch swing. Jefferson lights up a smoke and listens.

JEFFERSON: When I came back here there was no sound here. No car engines, no jukebox in a car going down a street. There was no sounds of songbirds. None. Zero.

That’s starting to change. Purple Martins have come back to nest in the bird houses in his back yard. He says he hopes his neighbors will soon follow. Jefferson, who is black, worries the cultural heart of New Orleans may never recover. More than half of the city’s pre-Katrina population is still dispersed across the country. Most are African American.

JEFFERSON: When you take that out of a community, it will never be the same again. It will never be the same. So what changes that’s gonna bring is I guess yet to be determined. I guess we’ll just have to see.

In the meantime, Jefferson says he’s not holding his breath for tomorrow’s mayoral election to bring any big changes. He’s leaning toward Nagin, but says both candidates will face the same set of challenges.

JEFFERSON: I don’t know how either of the two could get the tax base here, the small business back here, the housing back here for these people to live. I don’t know how it’s done because it’s eight months, it still hasn’t been done. How long will it take before someone can figure this out? What is there to do? How can you do it? I do believe the people who are going to survive here are the rich and the strong. Anybody outside of that is not gonna make it here.

Metal worker Henry McCloskey is one of the strong Jefferson was talking about. His newly reopened refinishing shop already has enough work lined up to keep him busy for the rest of the year.

HENRY MCCLOSKEY: This is all people’s lamp bases, this is the bases for crystal lamps, the lamps on the top. And candlesticks, mailbox, the hardware.

McCloskey and his sole employee, Harry, are slowly working their way through the pile, restoring the shine to corroded brass curios. Months ago this was a very different scene. McCloskey’s shop sat in six feet of water for weeks after the storm. He didn’t have flood insurance so the $350,000 of destroyed equipment was a total loss.

MCCLOSKEY: We were one of the first ones that had a dumpster in front of out building and ah, we started gutting the building out. Ten years of my life I put in a dumpster and they hauled it off. From front to back.

Thanks to credit cards and long days McCloskey got his business back up and running. What he can’t figure out is why the city is taking so long to do its part.

MCCLOSKEY: They keep telling people to come back, what they gonna come back to. There ain’t nothing to come back to. If you ain’t doing it for yourself there ain’t nothing to come back to . . .

McCloskey, who’s white, lives just across the parish line in Metairie. Because of that he can’t vote in tomorrow’s mayoral race. But he says if he could, it wouldn’t be for incumbent Ray Nagin.

MCCLOSKEY: The mayor, he’s had his chance, he still has his chance but he’s not getting nothing done because we still in the same situation we were eight months ago. Look at the cars in the street. Abandoned cars still there. Eight months ago. And they still there.

McCloskey says it’s hard not to get angry every time he looks at the stacks of corroded chandeliers and door knobs lining his shop walls. For many of his customers, these were the only things they could salvage from their flooded homes.

MCCLOSKEY: I had one lady come in I remember it was a lady lamp and I think it was gold plated . . . and the lady kept telling I remember what it looked like. I remember this, I remember that and I looked at her and I said that’s only a memory now because it will never look like that again.

He says he can only hope the same won’t be true for New Orleans. And whether Ray Nagin wins tomorrow’s election or Mitch Landrieu gets in, the new mayor will have his work cut out for him trying to make that hope a reality.

In New Orleans, I’m Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

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