Page last updated at 21:47 GMT, Tuesday, 16 June 2009 22:47 UK

Living the blues in New Orleans

By James Coomarasamy
BBC News, New Orleans

JD Hill has plenty of experience playing the blues. Now, the respected harmonica player says that he is living them.

New Orleans resident JD Hill
JD Hill was visited by George W Bush when he moved into his new home

When I last met JD nearly three years ago, he was the proud owner of a new, bright blue house; the first to be built in New Orleans' newly-established Musicians' Village.

The community, for struggling artists who had lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina, grabbed plenty of attention.

President Bush even came to put the finishing touches to JD's house, earning himself - and his wife Laura - a free concert in the living room.

No work

Sitting on his porch under a blazing Cajun sun, JD showed me the photos of that impromptu presidential performance.

Smiling through a jaw that was broken in a street attack, he reflected on the reaction he had got to that unusual concert.

"Yeah, he was all 'buddy, buddy'. They said I was shaking hands with the devil... but he's alright"

But JD is not.

He may have been given a roof over his head, but he has been finding it hard to get work.

He tells me he is having trouble paying the mortgage and fears that he could be facing foreclosure.

New Orleans resident Anthony Amadeo
I have to laugh, to keep from crying... That's my way of warding it off
Anthony Amadeo
New Orleans resident

The city is hot, but his water has been cut off.

"I've been using my neighbour's water hose to take a bath," he laments. "It's embarrassing."

If JD is in danger of losing his home, a couple of miles away in St Bernard Parish, I met another man preparing to get his back.

For the past three years, 73-year-old widower Anthony Amadeo has been living in his front yard in a trailer he calls his "candeminium".

For the first six months after the storm, he slept on couches and armchairs in the nursing home where his late wife was being treated for cancer.

Now, thanks to the work of a non-profit organisation, the St Bernard Project, he is getting a new house - at no cost to himself - on the spot where his old one stood.

The Project relies on a stream of young volunteers from across the United States who continue to flock to New Orleans, especially during the summer months.

Mental rebuilding

When I met Anthony, he was watching a group of volunteers, their faces caked with plaster, as they put the finishing touches to his new home.

"How does it look?" I asked him.

"Terrible," he dead-panned, to a few chuckles. "That's why I'm getting it done up."

Later, as we talked in the garage at the back of the house, the man who was Irish-Italian king at this year's Mardi Gras parade admitted that his humour is something of a mask.

He had decided to return to New Orleans - the city where he had always lived - but most of his friends and family were no longer there.

It is estimated that almost half of those who left St Bernard Parish after Hurricane Katrina have simply not returned.

"I have to laugh, to keep from crying," he said, through watery eyes.

Volunteers from the St Bernard Project help to rebuild a house in New Orleans
Volunteers have flocked from around the country to help rebuild the city

"That's why I'm kinda goofy and silly. That's my way of warding it off."

He told me he had thought about committing suicide, but that the support of the St Bernard Project had kept him going.

Tears filled his eyes again as he was shown a black exercise book containing messages written by previous volunteers who had worked on his house.

Anthony's is a common story. Zack Rosenburg, a former Washington DC lawyer who founded the St Bernard Project with his partner Liz McCartney in 2006, told me that - in some ways - the mental rebuilding of New Orleans has proven to be harder than the physical reconstruction.

'Relentless stress'

Many people like Anthony have returned to very different neighbourhoods; devoid of their old friends, neighbours and points of reference.

After he realised that some people felt they could not return to the houses his volunteers had rebuilt for them, Zack decided to establish a mental health centre.

Located in a small room next to his office, it has had no shortage of visitors.

Zack thinks this is because local people have found it easier to talk to an outside organisation they have come to trust.

Dr Chuck Coleman of Louisiana State University is one of the doctors working at the centre.

"It's important to understand how relentless the stress is from the storm. It never stops," he told me as he waited for his next patient to arrive. "The length of the stress these people have had is unusual."

The local authorities are not sitting still, though.

St Bernard Council President Craig Taffaro showed me a raft of impressive building projects under way in the parish, from a new school complex to an impressive leisure centre.

A Walmart superstore is also due to open in the new year - an important sign of recovery, according to Craig.

At the same time, he acknowledged that - while the authorities may want to build bigger, better and smarter - the recovery is not entirely in their hands.

"Much of the recovery depends on some things we don't have control over. Whether the nation's economy gets better and allows people to move around a little bit more, whether the housing market improves. As long as the federal dollars continue to flow, our recovery projects will continue."

Those are big ifs. On the surface, St Bernard Parish is returning to normal, but underneath there is a sense that the recovery is still pretty fragile.

And as he sits playing the blues, under the sleepy gaze of his two sickly dogs, the fragility of recovery is a concept that musician JD Hill understands all too well.

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