- It's been three months since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city, submerging Persons' house under 6 feet of water and forcing her to evacuate.
- Saltwater lines are apparent on streetlights, cars and building facades. Inside, mold is everywhere.
- "I just remember when the levies broke," Persons said, her voice falling to a whisper, "I was like, no, no, we were OK. We were hit, but we were OK."
When Natalie Persons flew to Minnesota on Monday and drove to St. Cloud to spend Thanksgiving with her family, she was struck by how clean the streets were.
No refrigerators or broken appliances line the curbs and no spray-paint marks were on buildings — all sights she's become accustomed to in New Orleans, where she lives.
It's been three months since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city, submerging Persons' house under 6 feet of water and forcing her to evacuate. But life is not even close to being back to normal.
National Guardsmen still patrol the streets to curb looting of abandoned buildings and stores, and a city-imposed curfew is still in effect.
And while the water has receded, it has left its mark. Saltwater lines are apparent on streetlights, cars and building facades. Inside, mold is everywhere. People regularly use mouth covers to avoid the toxic fumes that have led many, including Persons, to catch the "Katrina cough."
"It smells like death," she said.
The 26-year-old school teacher is in St. Cloud visiting her parents, Zena and Ken Persons, for the holiday. The Minnesota native moved to New Orleans four years ago as part of the Teach for America program, which places college graduates in low-income schools nationwide.
She now teaches fourth grade at Lake Pontchartrain Elementary in LaPlace, La.
The school re-opened about two weeks after the hurricane hit. And while the building received little damage — it's about 20 miles west of New Orleans — it swelled with the number of displaced children enrolling there. It went from about 650 students in the pre-kindergarten class through eighth grade to more than 1,100 students, she said. At one time she had 36 students in her class, and she quickly ran out of space and supplies.
Children sat in beanbag chairs, at computer stations and at her desk — wherever there was space, she said — and donations from across the country helped meet the need for notebooks and other supplies.
About seven of her students are from the New Orleans school district; their schools were flooded, damaged by the wind and remain unusable.
Many received counseling through the school, but Persons also incorporated their experiences into lessons.
They wrote and shared stories of escaping the flood, evacuating the city or losing loved ones, so the children know they are not alone, she said.
The school's staff was hit just as hard. Some teachers, forced from their homes, slept at the school.
Persons, homeless herself, lived with a woman who offered a room to hurricane victims on craigslist.com, she said.
"It was really hard for me to focus on teaching after finding out I had lost most of my belongings," Persons said, "but the kids needed the structure, more than anything ... to have some sense of normalcy."
All she had with her was what she packed: mostly T-shirts, flip-flops and tank tops. She bought work clothes that she wore several times a week those first few weeks.
Persons packed her house the Saturday before the hurricane. She moved furniture to walls to protect it from wind and stored important documents upstairs.
At the time, it was only a precaution — she thought Hurricane Katrina would follow the path of Hurricane Ivan, that it would take the turn and head to Florida.
But her parents called, prompting her to leave town.
"We were worried about it," her mother, Zena Persons, said. "My husband called her up to tell her to get (out of town)."
She made a reservation at hotels in Macomb, Ga., and Tupelo, Miss., before cramming the trunk of her '87 Nissan Maxima and leaving town with her boyfriend and her two dogs.
"It was very, very strange leaving. All the gas stations were running out of gas, there was long lines to get gas at the stations that still had it," she said.
But the most striking sight, Persons said, was the red glow of taillights.
"It's bizarre when you see the contraflow of traffic, where all the traffic was out of the city. ... That's when I really started getting worried," she said.
Once they reached the hotel, they were glued to CNN, she said.
"I just remember when the levies broke," Persons said, her voice falling to a whisper, "I was like, no, no, we were OK. We were hit, but we were OK."
On the Internet she found a flood map of New Orleans that showed water levels in different neighborhoods — she rents a house in Mid City, in the heart of New Orleans — and realized the extent of the damage, mostly caused when the 17th Street Canal levy broke.
"I was shocked," she said. "That's when I knew we weren't going to be able to live there for quite some time."
Persons returned to her house about five weeks after the hurricane struck. The house sits about 4 feet off the ground, but the water rose at least 6 feet — "just enough to get in," she said.
She wore a mask, rubber gloves and boots before going inside. She prepared for the worst.
"We had to kick the door open," she said, because the water warped the wood.
Mold grew up the walls so thick that the walls were dark green. Maggots grew out of her fridge. The smell was almost unbearable.
She lost most of her furniture, her books and other possessions. But her photographs, which she kept in a large plastic container, made it through.
Her three goldfish also survived — five weeks without food, but they were alive, she said.
Her neighbor hooked up the fish tank to his generator — a small but thoughtful type of gesture that was repeated by many neighbors in the city.
"Everybody's reaching out and helping everybody else," she said.
Neighborhoods are banding together to clean up debris, one street at a time. And there are small victories — people decorating their damaged homes for Christmas, or writing "free lunch" on an abandoned fridge — that have helped keep spirits lifted.
"I see progress every day. It's really exciting when you see power restored to parts of the city," she said.
It will be another three months before she can move back into her home, as contractors are ripping out most of the main floor and are replacing the pipes in the century-old house.
But despite the damage — she sublets a three-room cottage now in New Orleans — she said she plans to stay in the city.
"I want to be there to help rebuild and help clean up, to show people it's safe," Persons said. "The city will rebuild and it will be better than it was before."