Cover Story
Chuck Cook / Genesis Photos

New faces of New Orleans

As newcomers take their places four years after Katrina, will a faith-filled future bury a stagnant past?

Issue: "New faces of New Orleans," Aug. 15, 2009

NEW ORLEANS-One of America's finest writers, New Orleans native Michael Lewis, stated in 2005 that his birthplace had long ago crossed the "fine line between stability and stagnation. . . . No one of importance ever seemed to move in, just as no one of importance ever moved away."

Four years later-four years since the worst natural disaster ever to hit a U.S. city-lots of people with a pioneering spirit are moving in and coming alongside long-term residents. Together, new and old are trying to speed up the pace of enterprise without losing the conviviality that has long turned 365 acres of swampland into the place-second only to New York-that Americans love to visit.

The experience of Guy Williams, president and CEO of Gulf Coast Bank, and a leader in New Orleans' First Baptist Church, embodies both timelessness and forward thrust. He was 16 when Hurricane Betsy flattened the city in 1965: "My dad and I got in our boat. We went out and rescued people. Ever since then I was mentally expecting to do that someday."

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Williams had 40 years to prepare-and when Katrina hit at the end of August, 2005, he went out with his son, then 22, in a pirogue, a light, flat-bottomed Cajun canoe. For four days from dawn to dusk they found people who needed rescuing and gave their locations to volunteers with bigger boats who then picked up the stranded. But when he encountered an elderly "Mrs. Liberty, jaundiced as she could be, with pancreatic cancer, and really afraid-she told us, 'I'm dying, but I don't want to die alone in this flood'"-he had to find a way to take her immediately.

The pirogue was small and unstable, but Mrs. Liberty told Williams that she had a canoe behind the house. "I looked at it. It's full of water, hundreds of pounds. Couldn't budge it. . . . I stood on an air compressor unit and prayed, 'Lord, you've got to help me.' Somehow, I was able to lift it-and I'm not that strong. . . . Divine intervention? Miracle? You tell me." So they transported Mrs. Liberty in her canoe to safety. She clutched a silver urn filled with . . . not her husband's ashes, but frozen strawberries.

Happy story? Not necessarily. The next day federal officials bizarrely asserted their control by ordering all the volunteer rescuers to leave. Williams does not know what happened to one young man who pleaded for help while he was saving Mrs. Liberty, who died soon afterwards: "It haunts me. I specifically turned him down to take her. I don't know how many I should have saved and didn't save."

Melancholy as he said that, Williams brightened as we drove around the city and saw some of his bank's 14 branches. Four of the nine branches existing in 2005 were flooded then, but Williams quickly reopened them in some form, with tellers in trailers without electricity issuing handwritten transaction receipts and relying on cell phones to call customers. Gulf Coast was quick to make rebuilding loans.

Some big enterprises have not bounced back. The downtown Hyatt is still closed, and we drove past a deserted Six Flags with a forlorn roller coaster: The water rose to 12 feet there. But small businesses are sprouting, and last year Gulf Coast received official recognition as the top Small Business Administration lender in Louisiana, which now has one of the lowest foreclosure rates in the country.

We passed a bar that never closed during Katrina (water going up to mid-calf of people sitting on bar stools) and, with a standing offer of 25-cent beers for National Guard members, received a supply of Guard-obtained fresh ice every morning. An extension of such entrepreneurial problem-solving led the magazine Fast Company to name formerly stagnant New Orleans one of the "12 fast cities of 2009"-and the city's population, which had declined from about 455,000 in July, 2005, to about 223,000 a year later, is now above 300,000 once again.

Last month I interviewed a cross-section of the thousands of people who have moved to New Orleans since Katrina with the goal of making it a community of constructive change. For example, J.B. Watkins, 29, lived all over America as the son of a soldier, but he moved to New Orleans two years ago with the goal of preaching Christ as the alternative to lives of misery and crime. Watkins, now pastor of St. Roch Community Church in the impoverished 8th ward, recalls that "most people were very discouraged. Lots of promises had been made at the federal, state, and local levels."


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