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The Big Easy?

Nicole DeCosta checks out New Orleans' not-so-easy recovery
by: SUBMITTED PHOTO While much of the trip was spent helping conference staff and documenting green rebuilding efforts, I also took some time to just walk the streets in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Let me say, it’s never been easier to join a band – live music is everywhere, and while bands love an audience, it’s more fun to jump in and sing along.

Spray-painted crosses on the front of houses remain a tattoo from Hurricane Katrina. Traveling through the city's St. Charles Historic District, these symbols are as common as address numbers.

Each quadrant of the cross stood for something to speed recovery efforts - at the top of the cross, a '9-5,' for example, meant the house was searched on Sept. 5, 2005. To the left lists the team that searched the house. To the right, any dangers inside - like gas and waste. The bottom - '4,' meaning four people dead.

Houses - still abandoned since the 2005 storm - left a bittersweet taste in my mouth after visiting Louisiana last month. On one street, you'll see kids jumping rope as a brass band practices outside. Turn the corner, and it looks like something from a zombie movie - not a soul, boarded up houses, a chair still stuck in a tree - maybe a wandering dog.

It's like the lyrics to Katy Perry's 'Firework' song - 'after a hurricane, comes a rainbow.' Here's a town with live music on every corner, impromptu street bands, Po-boy sandwiches bigger than your head, Mardi Gras and Burboun Street - which looks like a quaint French village morphed into Vegas at night. It's awesome, but New Orleans is still recovering. And its residents like talking about the recovery. In fact, they talk about it so much I wonder what they talked about on their carriage-led tours before 2005.

Investing time responsibly

My husband and I were invited to New Orleans with the SRI in the Rockies conference - an annual gathering of financial pros who invest capital using socially responsible practices, such as promoting human rights and environmental stewardship. SRI stands for socially responsible investing, so attendees were interested in the green rebuild projects in NOLA.

The SRI group of about 600 visits a new city each year to talk shop. And we've been fortunate enough to be hired three years in a row with our freelance media company to help the events run smoothly. Each year - Tuscan, San Antonio and now New Orleans - is like a big family reunion with some of the nicest, most intelligent people I've ever seen packed into one banquet room.

This time around, Travis and I were in charge of organizing, emceeing and performing at a House of Blues concert - with other musicians from the conference - and film speakers and events around town to produce a Travel Channel-esque video as a keepsake for the conference.

We were expecting to learn few things and eat too many sugary beignets from Café Du Monde, but I no idea my cheap sunglasses would prove such a good investment to hide my tears when talking with one man who nearly lost it all.

Mr. Green and making things right

Perhaps my most lasting impression is from walking down Tennessee Street in the Lower Ninth Ward - an area directly in the industrial canal breach during the storm.

This is where Robert Green, Sr. - a friendly, family man - walked out his front door's front steps to drum up a conversation about Katrina and his new home, built through Brad Pitt's 'Make It Right' neighborhood rebuild project.

'It's OK. We have people coming here all the time. We like telling the story,' he said, his three girls running, jumping and playing in the front yard. 'We're very grateful.'

He talked about Katrina - which not only swept away his home, but his mother, Joyce H. Green, and his 3-year-old granddaughter, Shanai Green, as well. He clung for his life on the roof of his house.

'We ended up a few blocks away from here,' he said pointing. 'It's still very real. We have a wreath on that tree now.'

Pitt's Make It Right foundation started in 2007 - www.makeitrightnola.org - and is committed to building 150 affordable, green, storm-resistant homes for families living in the Lower Ninth Ward; It has already built half of them. In this area, just minutes from downtown, more than 4,000 homes, like Green's, were destroyed in Katrina. Green's new home, built on the land he's lived on for 44 years, marks a new beginning for his family.

Three cement steps remain from the previous structure next to a memorial for his lost family members, yet, jazz music can be heard from his porch.

The same rebirth holds true for New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanities' (NOAHFH) Musicians Village.

Tune of rebuilding

New Orleans natives Harry Connick, Jr., and Branford Marsalis drummed up a concept to preserve musical culture. This post-Katrina housing development in the Upper Ninth Ward -www.nolamusiciansvillage.org - is five square blocks just for artists and musicians displaced from Katrina. Jim Pate, the executive director for NOAHFM, told us that buying the homes is not only affordable, but cost less than renting elsewhere; The average rent for a three-bedroom apartment nearby is $1,241, but the mortgage on these is $600.

And families get zero-interest financing.

'This is not a giveaway or a rental program. They are buying their own houses with the help of volunteers,' Pate said, who gave our group a tour of the 72-house neighborhood backed up financially by celeb donors, including Dave Matthews Band and Phil Mickelson.

A center for music has classrooms and performance space with a 150-person seat professional stage for children and adult musicians in the community. A park across the street features musical play equipment that makes all sorts of noise.

While touring was fun, working on the home of Donna Craft and her family - husband, Alonzo; son, Jeromy; and daughter, Gabreyal - through the St. Bernard Project (www.stbernardproject.org) was inspiring. A group of us put in a 7-hour day 'mudding' the interior walls in the Upper Ninth Ward neighborhood. Fittingly, the home was located on a street named Desire.

The Crafts evacuated to Mississippi two days before Katrina hit and hired contractors to fix their home after the storm. Hurting the recovery efforts of homeowners across New Orleans are unscrupulous contractors committing contractor fraud by coming in to fix a home but make it much worse.

That's where St. Bernard stepped in for Donna. With the help of volunteers, she and her family will relocate to their new/old home soon.

While it may be dubbed 'The Big Easy,' New Orleans and its residents haven't had it easy, but I'm convinced that, if any place is going to make it after such a nightmare of a natural disaster, it's New Orleans.

'We wouldn't live here unless we loved it,' said a guy called Bucket Man - a YouTube sensation - who sings on Bourbon Street to passersby into a hollow paint bucket for tips. 'I love New Orleans. Where else can I do this for a living?'

I pulled out some cash and threw it in his bucket.

And the beat goes on.

Check out our video clips and more photos from New Orleans at www.nicoledecosta.com.