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Ruins, deaths don't stop family's return

  • Story Highlights
  • The Green family decided to return to New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Robert Green lost the most and received the least amount of aid
  • Hurricane Katrina created job and education opportunities for Quentin Askew
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By Christy Oglesby
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NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- Every day, twice a day, the tourists come. They smile -- striking poses on the severed porch just yards from where Robert Green says Ditty died with his two kids strapped to his chest.

Tourists pay more than $40 for a tour that includes seeing this house in the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans.

Seems that man thought he could save his babies from the 20-foot current that surged onto Tennessee Street in New Orleans, Louisiana, after a levee broke during Hurricane Katrina. But he couldn't.

Cleanup crews found the three mummified bodies months later. The folks whipping out cameras likely don't know about Ditty. But Robert Green does. It's his street. Ditty was his neighbor. It's part of his story.

Green stands on the curb in front of his FEMA trailer and watches the gawkers. They've paid $47 a pop to ride down the street where Green's mother and granddaughter died in the hurricane. Along with getting charged for a street light on his block, the tourists' antics are just one more thing to rub in just how far from normal his life is.

"They have video cameras, and the children get up there and play," Green said about his neighbor's porch with the mangled, wrought iron railing. "It's disrespectful to the person whose property this is, and it's disrespectful to the situation of what happened to us," said Green.

Two years ago, Robert Green and several of his family members told how Katrina killed their matriarch, drowned a toddler, created a camp in a cemetery and launched a mother on a mission to save her son.

Their lives in 2007 are as varied as what Katrina took from each of them. DNA and a determination to live in New Orleans are the only things these survivors share.

Green lost everything that August night. He rode out the storm on the roof of a transport truck after the wind and flood jerked him out of his shoes. He and a younger brother, Jonathan, wound up there with their Parkinson's afflicted mother, two small children and an adult cousin who has developmental delays.

That's where they scampered after the flood yanked their house from its foundation and shredded it within minutes as they floated down the street.

Green and his cousin live in two narrow trailers on the lot where his house used to be. He wants to rebuild, but it looks more than iffy. There's an unresolved homeowner's insurance dispute, and the $700 he got in federal grant money wouldn't buy enough cement to pour a slab.

But he's back, and he won't leave. "I'm worse off than the day they died. If I didn't have such a good outlook on life, the only thing I could do with that $700 is dig a hole and shoot myself in the head," Green said. "But this is home. By hook or by crook, I will stay on Tennessee Street."

Waist-high water rushed into the front door of the house of Green's aunt, Nellie Green Francis, and pushed much of her life out the back door. The then 77-year-old grandmother camped out in a cemetery for five days before a helicopter rescued her.

Francis lives in a trailer she describes as "gross," but she expects to move out soon. Despite the flood, and ceiling-high mold, her pink bungalow on Pauger Street in Gentilly was standing after the storm. Her federal grant was large enough to rebuild, she said. Relocation was never an option, she said.

"I wanted to come back to where I lived," Francis said. "Now that I'm 79 years old, I have to make a beacon for my family to come home to.

She's proud of the updates her son Walter designed for her house -- larger bedroom, a garden tub, wider kitchen, fancy beveled door and a generator to power at least five of the rooms during a storm.

"When he found me in the graveyard, he didn't abandon me," Francis warbles as tears make her throat croaky. "He's walked every step of the way for me. I couldn't ask for nothing no better."

Walter Francis searched for his mom for two days before finding her in a nearby cemetery. Treading through the flood and fearing she'd died was his only angst. Katrina damaged the roof and windows of his home. Water never crossed his threshold. He's never had to spend a day in a trailer. He won't live anywhere else.

"I always felt that I would come home because this is home -- especially with mom here," Walter Francis said. "She doesn't want to leave New Orleans. You would have to be from here to understand this."

His biggest challenge has been as the newly elected president of the local postal workers' union. He wants to protect the rights of workers who've returned home and help other residents whose addresses the U.S. Postal Service erased.

Similarly, Walter Francis' first cousin, Joycelyn Green Askew, emerged almost unscathed. She has significant soft tissue injuries to her legs from walking nearly 10 miles to save her youngest son, Quentin, from the starvation, death and crime of the Convention Center where people flocked after the storm.

"My house was the same way I left it," Askew said. "It was an eerie feeling. I came back three weeks later and everything was exactly the way I left it. The coffee cup was in the same spot where I left it. My clothes were exactly where I left them."

Askew moved to Algiers on the city's West Bank two months before Katrina hit. That portion of the city never flooded during Katrina. Her backyard abuts a levee, and you can see tall cargo ships moving through a canal from her patio. She'd never lived on the West Bank before, but that decision created a base for family members to start their recovery.

"There have been numerous family members who've come through my front door for a home-cooked meal, a hot shower, a place to stay," Joycelyn Askew said. "My sister Carolyn said it best when she said my home reminded her of the underground railroad where people came to sojourn."

Being home made Quentin's life better, too. He's not a security officer anymore. He's a certified police officer. Tulane University hired him and sent him to the police academy. He protects the students and property of the university, and he's working on getting his bachelor's degree.


He watched unattended corpses at the Convention Center. He and his mom dodged random gunfire after she rescued him. But he was eager to leave Maryland and get back to the city where he'd lived a nightmare. His mother understood.

"New Orleans is in my heart, it's in my head, it's my whole life," Joycelyn Askew said. "I don't think I would want to live anywhere else. As Dorothy said in 'The Wiz,' there's no place like home." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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