Returning to a beloved New Orleans cottage
By Sudip Bose | From Preservation | July/August 2009
Emelda Skidmore thought the worst was behind her. On the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, the New Orleans native was hunkered down at home when Hurricane Katrina made landfall and swirled toward the Mississippi border—without significantly damaging her 19th-century raised shotgun house in the historic Holy Cross district. Skidmore, very much relieved, began thinking of the evening meal. "I had intended to make stuffed peppers for dinner," Skidmore, 93, recalls. "And I said, 'I'm going to stuff those peppers now.'"
That's when a nearby levee failed, sending a horrific surge of water through the streets of the neighborhood. "The water came rushing into my kitchen," Skidmore says, "and before I knew it, my wheelchair was just about on top of the table."
Skidmore's daughter, L'tanya Jackson, hoisted her mother up to the safety of the stove and took refuge on the countertop. There the two waited for six long hours, singing hymns and telling stories, before being rescued by a patrol boat. Like so many Katrina evacuees, Skidmore ended up in Houston—the first time in her life she would live somewhere other than her beloved shotgun on Deslonde Street.
Two months later, Kevin Mercadel was walking through the desolate Lower Ninth Ward. As director of Home Again, a partnership between the National Trust and the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans that helps New Orleans residents restore their storm-damaged houses, Mercadel was identifying salvageable buildings the city had red-tagged for demolition. "We had a team of volunteers," Mercadel says, "taking pictures, noting structural integrities, leaving contact information for homeowners. Basically we wanted to let people know their houses did not have to be demolished."
Arriving at Skidmore's house, Mercadel noted a shocking detail. "The force of the water was so strong," he remembers, "that the facade had started to separate from the side of the house. But even so, there wasn't enough cause to demolish the house."
Mercadel left a note, and some 350 miles away in Houston, Skidmore got the message. She contacted Mercadel through a relative, accepting any help that Home Again could offer. Acting as Skidmore's representative and construction manager, Mercadel commissioned a survey of the house. The news was hardly encouraging: extensive structural damage, floor rot, termite damage, problems with the joists. But who could rebuild the house? "Contractors were difficult to find," Mercadel says. "Most of the locals had evacuated. Those who came back had lost their crews, their equipment. We had to take our time."
That patience led to Joe Michael, who had worked in the area for 20 years and was intimately familiar with the idiosyncrasies of New Orleans' architecture. Michael and his crew rebuilt the back of the house, fixed the rafters, replaced the shingles and gutters, repaired the windows, installed central air and heating, and shored up the baseboards, molding, and cabinetry. Funding came from numerous sources: a $40,000 grant from Home Again, federal funds in excess of $36,000, and $42,000 from the Preservation Resource Center's Jazz House program (Skidmore's stepfather, New Orleans jazzman George "Kid Sheik" Colar, had lived in the house for almost 50 years).
In April, Skidmore finally returned home, and to her, the house has never looked so beautiful. There's hope, too, she says, for the rest of New Orleans: "The city's coming back, slowly coming back. You know, you can hear the chorus passing by outside. The city—it's coming back with joy."
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