Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Even Katrina couldn't wash away the pull of home

With no gas service at her eastern New Orleans home, Patricia Noel boils water in four crock pots to take a bath and sleeps under a pile of blankets to ward off the December chill.

She erected an 8-foot-high chain-link fence to keep people from cutting through her yard on nearly deserted Corinne Street, where debris piles and weeds are more prevalent than Christmas lights and decorations.

But despite the hardships, the single mother of two adult children insists it has never felt better to be home.

After spending the past two holiday seasons in apartments in Memphis, Tenn., and Baton Rouge, Noel is overjoyed to be celebrating her first post-Hurricane Katrina Christmas in her rebuilt home.

She has even embraced the idea of cooking Christmas dinner for her children and grandchildren on an electric hot plate; her brand new gas stove is out of commission.

"I'm cold, I'm tired and the idea of taking a hot shower is a cruel joke," said Noel, 47. "But I thank God that I'm back in my house with my family in time for Christmas. It feels so good to be back together in a place where we shared memories that even Katrina couldn't wash away."

It's a sentiment shared by all too many New Orleans area families whose post-Katrina journey home for the holidays was much longer and had more twists and turns than expected.

Santa suit survives

Milton and Jamie Shultz said their contractor promised that renovations at their home in St. Bernard Parish would be completed by the summer of 2006. But after a series of delays, the house still wasn't ready by last Christmas, which they spent in a rented house in Baton Rouge.

"We had a small celebration, but it just didn't feel like Christmas because we were in limbo," Jamie Shultz said. "We didn't even have a tree."

A year later, the Shultzes still have a FEMA trailer in their front yard, but they have moved into their house in Meraux and are planning a big Christmas celebration that will double as a homecoming party.

Jamie Shultz, 57, is eager to break out the velvet Santa suit she sewed nearly 30 years ago. She said it was like a Christmas miracle in the middle of the summer when she found the suit virtually unscathed months after Katrina swamped their home with 12 feet of water.

After she tossed the suit in a washing machine with a little detergent and pine oil, it looked nearly as good as when Milton Shultz wore it to celebrate their oldest child's first Christmas in 1979.

Every year thereafter, a different relative or family friend wore the outfit and played Santa on Christmas Eve until Katrina interrupted the tradition.

"Everybody usually says they don't want to be Santa at first. But once they put that suit on, they always have a good time. I guess the Christmas spirit takes over," said Jamie Shultz, who used a British accent to disguise her voice when it was her turn to be Santa several years ago.

This year, the couple's son-in-law, Christopher Miller, will play Santa to mark the first Christmas for his 6-month-old daughter, Gretchen, who is the Shultzes' first grandchild.

Like many other families preparing for their first post-Katrina Christmas at home, the Shultzes said there was a silver lining in the storm's devastation: Because they had been stored in attics in relatively water-proof plastic containers, most of their Christmas ornaments and decorations could be salvaged.

Jamie Shultz was so thrilled that she hung every ornament on the tree, leaving nary a branch unadorned.

"I had to kind of cram them in to get them all on there," she said "We lost so much in the hurricane that it means a lot to me to still have my children's first Christmas ornaments."

But not everything was saved. A cherished mechanical Santa that had been in the family for nearly 50 years was lost to the storm.

"It was a big deal every year to put the batteries in and see if he still worked," Shultz said. "The last Christmas before Katrina, he had quit walking, but his eyes still lit up and he rang his bell."

The toy Santa has been replaced by a singing and dancing snowman that sends little Gretchen into joyful gyrations every time it's turned on.

"I'm hoping it will become one of our new traditions," Shultz said. "If there's one thing Katrina has taught us, it's to be able to adapt and accept change."

Love for Lakeview

Katherine Chepolis, a lifelong Lakeview resident, said Katrina showed her that the meaning of home is not necessarily tied to a particular structure but can be attached to a whole neighborhood.

Before Katrina, her extended family owned a dozen Lakeview homes, all of which flooded.

"We thought it was so great that we all lived within two miles of one another, but then the hurricane wiped us all out and we had no one to lean on," she said.

She and her husband, John, tore down their house on Louis XIV Street with the intention of rebuilding, but they eventually sold the lot and bought a renovated house on Memphis Street a few months ago.

"We may not live in the same house, but we're back home in Lakeview," she said. "I feel settled and content for the first time in more than two years."

Chepolis said it was mentally and emotionally exhausting to always be thinking about the next step in the family's recovery. With that weight lifted, she finds herself as excited for Christmas as the couple's two daughters, ages 4 and 2.

"When people ask me what I want for Christmas, I tell them I already have what I want because I'm finally home," she said.

'This is my everything'

Noel's journey home included weekly trips from a Baton Rouge apartment for a year to oversee renovations to her house while serving as her own general contractor.

She said she fired a plumber after he demanded more money for work for which she had already paid him. As a result, the gas couldn't be turned on because an inspection application the plumber submitted at City Hall was voided because he is no longer on the job.

Noel said she needs to find a new master plumber to vouch for the other plumber's work and submit a new inspection application. Meanwhile, the lack of gas for heating and cooking has prevented her from taking in three foster children.

"I'll deal with all of this after the holidays," said Noel, who was named 2005 Foster Parent of the Year in New Orleans by the state Office of Community Services. "Right now, I just want to enjoy being back for Christmas. I can't tell you how good it feels."

That's not to say that being away from home the past two holiday seasons was all bad for Noel's family.

One of the highlights was when her young grandchildren got to experience a white Christmas in Memphis in 2005.

But Noel's daughter, Rickelle Noel, said she never felt so homesick as when she asked a Memphis grocery clerk where she could find some file powder for the Christmas gumbo.

"She had no idea what I was talking about. She told me, 'Ma'am, I don't know. Maybe you better go check in the pharmacy,'¤" she said.

Patricia Noel said there will be no gumbo this Christmas because she has had to plan a more modest meal without a working stove. Instead of turkey or ham, she said she'll serve Cornish game hens.

"We'll season them and run an extension cord outside to deep fry them," she said. "They'll be delicious. Trust me."

Noel said friends often question why she moved back to the still-devastated neighborhood where she has lived for 18 years.

"People say I should just walk away, but I can't because this is my home. This is my everything," she said.

Besides, she joked that with a name like Noel she feels a responsibility to try to spread a little Christmas cheer in her struggling neighborhood.

"Lord knows we can use it," she said, standing outside her home, where her twinkling Christmas tree was the lone bright spot on a block of mostly abandoned houses.