Dornicia's challenge: Reopening New Orleans

Normally a Charlottesville-based home inspector, Peter Drenan is on special assignment as a FEMA leader and a Hook stringer. This is the second in a series of dispatches from the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast.

Dornicia is a beautiful black woman who works in my office. Her blond hair is cropped close to her head, outlining a strong profile. Her smile is big and infectious.

Dornicia lives in New Orleans where jobs are scarce– there are only 1,000 businesses functioning in the entire city. It's tough for those businesses because only about 30 percent of the people have come home. It's a vicious cycle: the businesses can't be profitable if the people don't return, and the people can't return if there are no jobs to sustain them.

Every day, we hear stories of restaurants and retail stores that simply can't afford to wait long enough for their customers to return. Just when the City wants businesses to flourish, it seems more and more are saying, "I just can't take it anymore," and are quitting and leaving town. I can't blame them, but still...

Dornicia is a godsend. She's pleasant and easy-going. Her quick smile lights the room. She's smart and curious and eager to learn new skills.

You'd never know that her family has been ripped apart by the ravages of Katrina. Most of Dornicia's family lived in New Orleans' lower Ninth Ward. Three months after the hurricane, there's still no life in that area of the City. None.

The only people are Army soldiers who guard the access points and the occasional busload of displaced residents being bused through under the Mayor's "Look and Leave" program. There are no smiles on the faces in the buses as they slowly and reverently wheel their way through the single-lane pathways.

Dornicia will be in the midst of a conversation, and she'll let slip that her aunties are too heartbroken to take the bus tours. They cry every day because their houses, their families, and their neighborhoods don't exist anymore.

Dornicia tells me of her favorite cousin who stayed in his house before the levee broke. He scanned the top of the levee from his front porch and could see water seeping over. The levee looms 35 feet above the houses in this area, so water overflowing like the top of the bathtub is never a good sign. He turned and went inside.

The house was moving like a freight train before he got to the kitchen. The wall of water had hurled the house through the back yard– water was blasting through the doors and windows. Her uncle rode his house like a surfboard until it piled among others in a tangled mass. Then he scrambled into the attic, kicked through the ventilation louvers, and hop scotched from rooftop to rooftop until he could find firm ground. He's lucky to be alive.

Dornicia's daughter is in the Army Reserves. She's about to be shipped out to Iraq. It's making her very unhappy to think of being away from her family in the midst of all the agitation and sadness. She wants to be like her mother and help care for her family. She's also still her mother's little girl– just a little bit fragile. She and Dornicia talk every hour "at five minutes till" just to make sure the other is there and doing okay. Every hour, like clockwork.

Dornicia is the model worker: vigilant, helpful, and eager to learn. I teach her everything I can. She's a joy to work with. More importantly, she's a wonderful human being filled with compassion, caring, and a loving spirit. She carries so many people in her heart that it seems to make her bigger and stronger. I learn so much from her.

If there's any saving grace for the city of New Orleans, it rests on the shoulders of people like Dornicia. The City wants to rebuild and recreate itself. The City would do well to use Dornicia as a model. It could do no better.

Doilies in the springtime