Herbert Gettridge was 82 years old when he began rebuilding his home after Hurricane Katrina.
In her new documentary “The Old Man and the Storm,” producer June Cross follows an 82 year old man’s struggle to rebuild his family home in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Cross tells host Steve Curwood about the family’s efforts amidst a myriad of federal, state, city and social obstacles.
CURWOOD: On January sixth PBS will premier a documentary about the Gettridge family of the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans and how they struggled to rebuild their lives and their homes after Hurricane Katrina.
The family patriarch, 82-year old Herbert Gettridge, made it his mission to recreate the home he’d originally crafted more than 50 years earlier. Officials said the area was uninhabitable but Mr. Gettridge didn’t care.
GETTRIDGE (FROM DOCUMENTARY): I don’t need no electricity. My grandfather was a Choctaw Indian, man. I can make it with a flashlight. We got water - I got water. That’s all I need. And if I didn’t have water, guess what, when it’d rain, I’d catch what I can. And what I couldn’t catch, I’d do without. But I’m making it. I ain’t going no place, man. I’m going to stay right here. This is it, this is my home and this is where I’ll be.
CURWOOD: June Cross is an associate professor of journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She spent 18 months with the Gettridge family and produced the new film, “The Old Man and the Storm.”
She joins me from New York to talk about what made Mr. Gettridge so determined to rebuild. Welcome June.
CROSS: Thank you for having me, Steve.
CURWOOD: So in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there were what a half a million families displaced? When you first went to the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood six months after the storm, you say the only person you found there was Mr. Gettridge. What made him different? Why do you think he was so determined to rebuild?
CROSS: In the first place it was the only house that still had four walls that were standing in that neighborhood. So it really could be rescued. I mean he literally just needed to gut it. All the rest of the homes had either pancaked or been washed away. You know, I think his attitude was, well, the house withstood the water. I’ll be damned if I’m gonna just walk away from it. I worked too hard to get this. He has worked since the time he was seven years old, dropped out of school during the Depression. And had learned to work with his hands. He was a master plasterer.
CURWOOD: Now how long had he lived there with his wife?
CROSS: Better part of 60 years. They bought the land in 1952. And he began – he had built the house originally from scratch himself, as he says with pennies from my pocket. You know, he had a couple of dollars this week, he’d, you know, buy the frame for the window. He has a couple of pennies the next week, he’d buy the screws so he could attach the doors. He had recycled parts from other buildings that had fallen down in New Orleans or that he was working on, because he worked on construction sites. You know, this was literally his creation. So there was nothing in his body that was going to allow him to walk away from that house.
CURWOOD: He’s from New Orleans. How far back did his family go?
CROSS: Five generations. They have stories about how the first ancestor came over from Ethiopia, some time in the early 1800s. And they had literally worked the land ever since. There was an old plantation called the McCarty Plantation - was actually the largest plantation in New Orleans at the time. It grew cotton and rice. And parts of that plantation were actually in the Lower Ninth Ward. So it’s possible that Mr. Gettridge owned the house on land that his ancestors had once worked as slaves.
CURWOOD: Let’s listen to another piece of tape, June. Here Mr. Gettridge is talking about life since the storm and how it’s changed his life and his family.
GETTRIDGE (IN DOCUMENTARY): It’s altogether a different life from before the storm. I’m here by myself almost day and night. I miss the kids; I miss the grandchildren. I miss a lot of stuff. Every day actions in this household we used to have. Kids playing in the yard, kids sitting on looking at the television, shooting video games and stuff like that. I miss all that. I have 36 grandchildren and of them 36 grandchildren, I bet you 26 of them be here in a week’s time. Ain’t a month passed that they all don’t pass by. Hi Grandma. Hi Grandpa.
CROSS: New Orleans more than any other city in the United States has families that go back at least four generations who are native to that place. It’s not a city that people leave. Families that have 200 or 300 people, who all live within a fifteen-minute drive from each other and still all get together for holidays and celebrate things. It’s a sense of community and belonging that I don’t think those of us who live anywhere else can really imagine.
CURWOOD: A large part of the struggle that you portray here is trying to get the federal and state money that’s been promised to help Mr. Gettridge and the others rebuild. Can you tell me about that?
CROSS: Oh boy. A year after Katrina none of the money that had been promised to individual homeowners had yet reached anybody. And it was just a very complicated sort of set up. You know, you wake up on Monday, and, you know, there’s no money. On Tuesday they say the money is coming. On Wednesday, they hand you sixty pages of paperwork to fill out. On Thursday, they say, “Oh, remember the papers we gave you yesterday, never mind, we made them up again, so we’re gonna give you thirty more pages.” And on Friday there’s something else. I mean it was –it’s just been like this. It’s so difficult to convey in a film.
CURWOOD: And all along, Mr. Gettridge is doing what?
CROSS: Mr. Gettridge was basically trying to get the house together so that he could bring his wife home. Lydia Gettridge, he’d married her when he was fifteen and she was fourteen. And she was up in Madison because she has congestive heart failure and diabetes and just wasn’t – nobody felt comfortable bringing her back to a city where there really was no hospital, no ambulance service or anything. And so she finally came home just before July fourth of 2007. A year and a half after the flood – yeah.
CURWOOD: And the house was done?
CROSS: The house was done. And she’s been there – actually, you know, she was beginning to go down hill in Madison. And every time I call down there now, she sounds just as chipper as she once used to be. She’d never really spent any time anywhere else but New Orleans. So it was really important for her to come back. And so, therefore, really important to him being a good husband (laughs) to make sure that she was able to get back.
CURWOOD: By the end of your film, Mr. Gettridge has rebuilt his home. His wife Lydia comes to join him in New Orleans, and you have a scene where some of his children and grandchildren are there at the return, but this is a bittersweet scene to me. And in the film you ask him if he had to do it all over again, would he? And this is how he responds…
GETTRIDGE (IN DOCUMENTARY): I’m kinda skeptical about that now. Once upon a time I could answer that question in a split second for you. I can’t do that now.
CROSS: He’s a man of incredible determination and incredibly stubborn. He’s been worn down. You know, there’s just so much you can do at 82 to start over again.
CURWOOD: June Cross’s latest film “The Old Man and the Storm” will be shown on the Frontline series beginning January sixth. Thank you so much, June.
CROSS: Thank you, Steve.
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