A native of New Orleans, Tony had been living in his Gentilly home for 13 years when Hurricane Katrina hit. His parents lived 10 blocks away and his brother was 30 minutes away, across Lake Pontchartrain. Tony was working as a limo driver in what he remembers as “the best job I’ve ever had.”
It was a tough decision, but Tony and his family evacuated to Atlanta the day before the storm to stay with his sister. Once Katrina hit, it became clear to Tony that he would not be returning to New Orleans in the near future. He started “drifting” from coast to coast after that, stopping in Jackson, Houston, Dallas and Las Vegas, where he attempted to find good work. When he was unable to find employment in Las Vegas, Tony returned to New Orleans in 2008 to rebuild his home and pick up his old life.
Tony was one of many to suffer from the post-Katrina rebuilding atrocities. His contractor swindled him out of $25,000, and then the city fined him more than $12,000 for property upkeep. He quickly found himself without money and in a spiraling situation where he did not know what to do or where to turn.
Tony describes New Orleanians as “unique, warm and genuine.” He could not imagine living anywhere else. Tony is back in New Orleans, but things are still, “a little unstable,” he admits.
Tony says he is very grateful for St. Bernard Project’s willingness to help people in his situation. Reflecting on the effects of the storm five years later, he says, “I don’t think people realize the depths people sank to.”
The stress and despair that Tony describes lead to the dissolution of his six-year relationship. For some people, the emotional struggle made returning to the city too difficult. For those who did return to rebuild it was, “one headache after another.” Tony does not blame his family for remaining in Atlanta, but he admits the separation is difficult.
While he is happy to be back in his hometown, he says he still feels like a “man without a country. It’s a little hard because I’m not living on my own the way I did before the storm.”
Very different from the days when he was close to his family, working a job he loved and living under his own roof, Tony is now renting an apartment from his church. He cannot have people over and has a strict midnight curfew. Unable to resume his old job, he is now working as a room service waiter at the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street.
He is happy to have a roof over his head and a job in which he can “make some moves in my life again,” but he is still waiting to get home. For someone who calls New Orleans “the best place in the entire world,” and likes being a part of something unique, the return has been slow. He says things are coming back slowly and that it will be some time before the transformation of the city and neighborhood are complete.
In the meantime, Tony looks forward to sleeping in his own bed, reclaiming the money taken from him by the contractor, and returning to the pulse of the vibrant city he loves.