Katie Moore / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS -- Six years ago Monday, Hurricane Katrina changed the New Orleans metro area forever.
For six years, many have struggled to return, and for some, six years is the tipping point, while others are still working to get back into their homes.
“Wherever my mother is, we've always considered home,” said Jason Hurst.
Life in the Big Easy was never easy for him, even before Hurricane Katrina flooded his Pontchartrain Park home in 2005.
In 1993, a stray bullet that flew through a door during a drive-by struck Hurst in the neck while he was sitting on a friend’s sofa. It left the then-college student in a wheelchair.
Twelve years later, Katrina hit.
“It made evacuating that much more difficult. Having gone to Dallas, looking for a quote accessible shelter, being told by Red Cross that there was no such thing,” Hurst said about his experience evacuating before the storm.
He was forced to leave behind his dog, Candy, and his motorized wheelchair. Hurst rode out of town in his uncle’s van. Pure luck let him re-unite with his dog several months later after a good Samaritan saw her veterinary tags and called his former veterinarian.
For six years, Hurst and his mother lived in a Dallas suburb, trying to fix up their Pontchartrain Park home from a distance.
Just before they were finally able to return in 2010, copper thieves tore it up again.
“Initially, I missed New Orleans. I felt like I had a hole in my heart. I came back in, back to a city but it's not the same city. It's not the same as it was before. I don’t know if it ever will be,” Hurst said.
It also took contractor a fraud victim, Joyce Jackson, six years to get back into her home.
“Heaven. I don't know how to describe it because it's been six years,” she said, standing in her brand new living room.
Jackson and her disabled husband moved back into their New Orleans East home in July. The couple, in their '60s and ‘70s, has bounce around from apartment to apartment in south Louisiana since Katrina.
This time last year, her house was simply a misshapen foundation and a badly formed frame.
“Katrina was devastating enough. And for him to do that to me, but not just to me, to everyone he did that to, it was wrong.
Who did he think he was?” Jackson said about the shady contractor she initially hired to repair her home.
Christopher Neil Joseph and his wife took tens of thousands of dollars in insurance and Road Home proceeds from her, and then not only didn’t finish the work, but didn’t pay his subcontractors, leaving Jackson with a number of liens on her property.
Last year, a Criminal District Court Judge sentenced Joseph to 10 years in prison for stealing the rebuilding money from Jackson and six other homeowners.
She spent five years battling it, and finally, in 2011, a new contractor rebuilt her home in just a few months time.
“Guess we can finish growing old again,” Jackson said.
Jackson isn't alone. Contractor fraud has been one of the biggest obstacles in the city's recovery.
“We're trying to get the message out that there's still need here,” said Emilie Tenenbaum, development director for the St. Bernard Project.
The group formed in 2006 to help fill the gap between insurance money and the reality of rebuilding costs with volunteer labor. This year, they rebuilt two homes in 24 hours to commemorate the Katrina anniversary.
One of those homes is also owned by a victim of contractor fraud.
“Six years later, these are the ones who have tried to get it done themselves and have worked hard for the past six years. These are American families who have done everything right and are just struggling,” Tenenbaum said.
The St. Bernard Project alone still has a waiting list of 130 people who are looking for help rebuilding, six years after Hurricane Katrina.
The group is building its first home from the ground up in the Lower 9th Ward this year. They will soon have rebuilt 400 homes.
“I think the estimates are that 10,000 families, a little over that are still, own homes and can't afford to rebuild. So, it's a huge number,” Tenenbaum said.
The St. Bernard Project alone has brought 34,000 volunteers to New Orleans to help rebuild, and if it weren't for non-profits, many more would still be waiting to come back.
Hurst said Catholic Charities helped make his homecoming possible.
“You know you're home. You don't have to repeat yourself because your accent isn't getting in the way,” he said.
The struggle to return isn’t their only recovery hurdle. Both residents and the city are dealing with the neighbors who will never return. The St. Bernard Project’s new home in the 9th Ward, Jackson’s and Hurst’s all have properties around them with overgrown grass, properties that look abandoned.
“The grass is tall as me,” Jackson said.
It’s a constant reminder that their neighborhoods are not the same as they once were, and that they may never be, for that matter.
But either way, after a three-day evacuation turned into a six-year exile from their houses, both Hurst and Jackson said it’s good to be home.