Washington Knows About Rebuilding

By Gil LeBreton
Updated: January 21, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — More than two years after the storm, the manager’s neighborhood is a patch quilt of contrasting wills.

The old woman who lived across the street lost everything. Her brick home is now a weed-strewn empty lot.

In a front lawn down the block sits a white FEMA-issued trailer, propped on cinder blocks. Are they rebuilding, the neighbors wonder, or just marking time?

A few doors away, an abandoned house’s threshold still bears the ominous, painted “X” from those first days after Hurricane Katrina. The sprayed symbol alerted rescuers whether there was a dead body inside.

And at the corner of Dorcester and Perth, there is Ron Washington, Rangers manager, determined homeowner, lifelong New Orleanian. He’s wearing his work gloves.

Washington knows that he has another work-in-progress waiting for him back in Texas.

But before he heads for spring training, one miraculous restoration has his daily attention. Ron Washington wants to move back into his suburban New Orleans home.

On Aug. 29, 2005, a Katrina-induced storm surge sent a wall of water toward the communities east of the city’s Industrial Canal. Washington’s entire Kenilworth Estates neighborhood was inundated in a matter of minutes.

Weeks passed before a relative was able to gain entry into the neighborhood and take pictures. Washington, who was third base coach of the Oakland Athletics at the time, saw the grim truth.

“The water was almost up to my gutters,” he said.

Two years after the storm, New Orleans remains a prisoner of contrasts. For every longtime restaurant that has reopened its freshly painted — and mold-remediated — doors, there seem to be two houses down the block that haven’t been touched.

Residents of the proud Lakeview neighborhood are moving back in weekly, with flowers on their doorsteps and a flag of the city’s rebirth symbol, the fleur de lis, hanging from the porch. Meanwhile, in the same block, you’ll often find another FEMA trailer.

Ron and Gerri Washington met in 10th grade, and as with so many who grow up in New Orleans, the city hasn’t loosened its visceral grip.

“I’m a native of New Orleans,” manager Washington said, temporarily removing his work gloves. “I like my home. I like the area. I’ve looked forward to coming back to New Orleans.”

The wisest thing he ever did outside of baseball, Washington said, was purchase homeowner’s insurance and faithfully pay the premiums. He was able to use the prompt insurance funds to secure contractors to begin fixing his home.

“It was important to my wife but important to me, too,” said Washington, who found temporary rental housing in suburban Metairie. “I’m used to having space. It’s hard to relax in a two-bedroom apartment.”

To appreciate the job that the Washingtons have done, you have to survey the neighborhood patch quilt. At the far end of the Washingtons’ block, retired Dillard University professor Jude Soraparu has restored his home to its pre-Katrina charm, and then some. A bricked sidewalk leads to a wrought iron gate. Potted plants surround the doorway.

“There will be some good things to come out of this, I feel,” Soraparu said. “And one of them is that the housing stock is going to be better. People are rebuilding, and in a lot of cases, they’re upgrading.”

But at other addresses around the Kenilworth neighborhood, no one knows. Down Dorcester Street, one house appears not to have been touched since Katrina. The yard is overgrown with weeds — sitting for two weeks in brackish floodwater killed all of the grass — and the roof next door still bears the blue plastic tarp that FEMA issued.

Washington’s home shows the hard work that he, wife Gerri and the workers have put into it.

“Got my kitchen together,” the manager said, showing off new granite countertops. “And all we’re waiting for in the living room here is the chandelier.”

Where a swimming pool once sat in the back yard, Washington plans to put in new fencing and a new patio. The yard’s main showpiece for the present is the new air conditioning unit, which seems to be about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

Washington points to two faded, upholstered car seats standing in the corner. They were removed from the family Escalade before the storm, and Washington thought he had safely stored them. Instead, he found that they had floated around the inside of his flooded home for two weeks, along with the sofa and refrigerator.

His prized possession, Washington said, was a 1985 Cadillac El Dorado Biarritz.

“Even ‘immaculate’ wasn’t the right word,” he said.

The car was in the garage when the storm hit.

“The aluminum spoke wheels had turned orange,” he said. “When the guy came and dragged the car out, the wheels wouldn’t even spin.”

Cars, the Washingtons learned, are replaceable. The desire to return home hasn’t quelled.

“We’ve got the police back here, patrolling again,” Ron Washington said. “We’ve got fire and personal security. The neighborhood — it’s coming back. It’s coming to life.”

All of Washington’s important baseball memorabilia was ruined by the storm. One memento that he hopes to salvage, though, is a painting that was given to him by a fan in Oakland. The modest gift, now streaked with mold and water stains, shows Washington in his green Athletics uniform with his hands on his hips.

It will hang again soon, he hopes, on the walls of his New Orleans home.