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Signs of Life Return to St. Bernard Parish

As a skilled electrician, Derek Johnson could move almost anywhere. But he is sticking with his nearly deserted Arabi neighborhood.
Bruce Auster, NPR
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As a skilled electrician, Derek Johnson could move almost anywhere. But he is sticking with his nearly deserted Arabi neighborhood.

The people of Arabi haven't lost their sense of humor -- even when confronted by a house sitting in the middle of a public road.
Bruce Auster, NPR /
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The people of Arabi haven't lost their sense of humor -- even when confronted by a house sitting in the middle of a public road.
Rodney Heffron (left) and Joe Messina stand in the Messina family's garage. They are among a small group of people repopulating their Arabi neighborhood.
Bruce Auster, NPR /
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Rodney Heffron (left) and Joe Messina stand in the Messina family's garage. They are among a small group of people repopulating their Arabi neighborhood.

Pockets of post-Katrina pioneers are sprouting up all around New Orleans. In the community of Arabi, just to the east of downtown New Orleans, a few pioneers are rebuilding. They hope their presence will draw others back home.

Derek Johnson's Arabi home cannot be salvaged. He now lives in a trailer. But Johnson, an electrician, doesn't have plans to leave the place where he was born and raised, even though few of his friends are around anymore.

"Maybe it'll be like the country again," he said of his now-vacant community. "Maybe it'll be better."

Peggy and Joe Messina and Paula and Rodney Heffron aren't giving up on Arabi and the surrounding St. Bernard Parish either. The two couples were among the first to start living in trailers on their devastated properties.

"As we start showing improvements here, other displaced residents will drive around and see this street and say, 'Well, man, maybe if they have a house for sale, we might want to buy on this street,'" Rodney Heffron said.

Still, the four neighbors are not willing to stick it out if another hurricane hits.

"If it happens again, St. Bernard Parish is over," Peggy Messina said. "It's history. It's gone."

Aggie Sanchez has already decided that she is leaving St. Bernard Parish before another hurricane takes a shot at the vulnerable area. Sanchez built her house in Arabi 43 years ago with her now-deceased husband.

"My heart is still here," she said of the community where she raised her kids. But she is putting her home up for sale and following her sister to a new life in a town across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans.

Sanchez is building in Covington, about an hour away from New Orleans. She's building on a lot next to where her sister's family is starting over, too. Few of her neighbors plan to return.

"If somebody wants it the way it is, they can rebuild," she said, standing inside her flooded home. "This is a nice house. I love this place. They can have it for whatever I can get."

NPR's Jim Wildman produced this story.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.