There years ago, there were no streets in the Lower Ninth Ward and few signs of life. Battered by Hurricane Katrina, there was just water -- and destruction.
Back then, 80 percent of New Orleans was underwater and the Lower Ninth Ward was Ground Zero after two major breaches in the nearby Industrial Canal sent water sweeping through streets and into homes.
One local hurricane victim summed it up then: "A lot of people died, bro."
But things are changing. Three years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, the prodigal sons and daughters have started to move back, finally trying to put the past behind them.
"I want to come back home to the Ninth Ward," homeowner Bernice Duplessis said. "This is where I'm from. It was where I was raised."
Some 20,000 people called the Lower Ninth home before Katrina. So far, only about 1,000 have come back. Empty buildings and homes long frozen in time are now slowly being reclaimed.
"When I came back, I was the only one living in my area, and now there's 20 to 30 new houses in that area," resident Robert Green said.
But there's something a little different about the neighborhood now. A grassroots movement has started, a green revolution perhaps, to turn the once-devastated community into a sustainable one.
"I believe that it's gonna be better than it was before," Green said, "because, basically, where we lived, we had 3,000 missing houses, so those houses that are gonna come back are gonna be more modern, more energy efficient, more green."
Green said he lost his young granddaughter and mother in the floods, and now, through the grief, he's trying to move on by helping his community move forward.
Going Green to Save Green
Rev. Gilbert Scie said he never though he'd be talking about solar energy in his neighborhood, "especially before the flood, the concept of sustainability just didn't enter the minds of people here, especially in the Lower Ninth Ward."
For a community that lost everything and didn't have much to begin with, going green is more about saving cash than saving the planet.
Warrenetta Banks' house was badly damaged by the floods. When she rebuilt last year, she decided to be energy efficient, and it's already paying off.
"I see a significant difference, maybe about 20 percent, 25 percent in my light bill," she said.
And there are even more financial incentives for eco-friendly renovations, thanks to a 50 percent Louisiana state tax credit on solar and other kinds of renewable energy purchases of up to $25,000. And there's another $2,000 federal credit available on top of that.
Banks says residents are purchasing energy efficient materials, both to save the planet and their cash.
In a city like New Orleans, the only thing more important than sustainability is durability. Even as the area rebuilds, the threat of hurricanes even stronger than Katrina is very real. The city is already making evacuation preparations should Tropical Storm Gustav hit the Louisiana coast.
Matt Peterson is the CEO of Global Green, a nonprofit organization working with residents in the Holy Cross historic section of the Lower Ninth Ward to build sustainable homes. He said the new houses are built to meet or exceed current hurricane standards, in addition to being green. Standing in the first of what will be five new homes, Peterson remarked that the building is "73 percent more energy efficient than your average American home."
And the Hollywood factor hasn't hurt, either. Celebrities, like Brad Pitt and other supporters from around the world have helped by building low-income, eco-friendly houses, like the one Peterson was standing in.
"There's a tremendous interest in doing something different as the community rebuilds," Peterson said.
And the confidence of the community residents is also on an upswing.
"We are a resilient people," Banks said. "And it's like with any natural disaster -- you don't just run from it. But these are our homes, and the home doesn't just make up houses -- it's the people in the community and the unity within the people that we have here."