Sense of Duty Lures `Expats' Back Home to New Orleans

August 09, 2006|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — When Mark Folse told his mother-in-law he had decided to move his family here shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit, she handed him a magazine article about New Orleans' gang problem.

"The understated text was, 'This is where you're taking my grandchildren?' " said Folse, 49, a New Orleans native then living in Fargo, N.D.

"I took the magazine, smiled and read it," Folse recalled. He tried to point out the positives to his mother-in-law: Many criminals had not returned to the city since the storm. Crime-fighting efforts were intensifying. The criminal justice system was being overhauled.

But most important, he told her, was that his children -- ages 11 and 14 -- would be living in "one of the most unique places in the United States" at a time of unprecedented challenges.

Folse is among a number of "expatriates," as they call themselves, drifting back to New Orleans after a long absence -- drawn by a sense of duty to help rebuild, by opportunities, or by nostalgia.

There are no hard statistics on expatriates, but online homecoming tales, real estate sales records, hiring data and anecdotes suggest their presence is growing.

"What I'm seeing are people who ... want to be here," said Greg Rigamer, president of GCR & Associates, a data management and strategic planning firm in New Orleans that has hired at least two young expatriates who left careers in other cities because they "wanted to come back and participate."

They aren't the only recent arrivals. Migrant workers have flooded the job market, and scores of government and private workers involved in rebuilding also have settled in the city since Katrina. And of course there are speculators scouting for opportunities.

"Many people will look at New Orleans and say, 'You couldn't pay me to move there,' " said demographer Audrey Singer of the centrist Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, who monitors migration trends including the so-called Katrina diaspora. "Then you have these people who think, 'This is a place I care about and I need to be here,' for various reasons; or those who say, 'There's a lot of work here.' "

Many expatriates say they worry that developers and speculators might mar the city's unique appearance, such as its hodgepodge of French colonial and Caribbean-style architecture; they don't want bland, prefabricated tract homes or McMansions. They also fear an erosion of the city's cultural eclecticism.

Folse is leading an online charge to encourage expatriates to return to New Orleans.

"The more people who come back, who value the city for what it was and what it is, the more difficult it will be for them to wrest it from us," Folse said.

Watching the catastrophe of Katrina unfold last August, "I felt an overwhelming need to come here and plant my flag and buy a house, and try and save New Orleans," said Folse, who tests computer software for a national bank that lets him telecommute. "Admittedly it sounds grandiose and self-serving. But I felt I had to come here and be part of it."

He arrived in the city on Memorial Day and moved to the Mid-City neighborhood, much of which flooded after Katrina. The family found a home that was spared water damage.

Folse immediately joined his neighborhood association and was named chairman of the group's volunteer housing committee. The group is working to set up a community development corporation that would give residents a say in the fate of the neighborhood's blighted properties and historical buildings, and would work to attract businesses to the area.

Ashley Morris, 42, returned to New Orleans in November after an eight-year absence. He said his urge to participate in the city's recovery had made him "kind of an activist." He helped campaign for three mayoral candidates this year.

And Morris' computer science class at Chicago's DePaul University, where he still teaches two days a week, has designed a database to help coordinate the distribution of resources and donations during an emergency. He plans to offer the software to the city for free.

"Katrina strengthened our resolve to come here, because this is the only city in America I feel is worth fighting for," said Morris, the father of three. His youngest, born in New Orleans in December, is named Rey d'Orleans Morris.

Such fervor also pulled software engineer Ray Shea back to New Orleans from Austin, Texas, where he had lived for 14 years. He and his wife, architect Gina Andre, had been considering a move but hadn't decided where.

Neither could forget the images of flooded New Orleans and its residents.

"Having to watch from afar was just really frustrating and really painful to be helpless throughout the whole thing," recalled Shea, 42, who has family in the city and visited four times after the storm.

So when his wife got a job offer from a New Orleans firm, the couple started packing. They settled here in July.

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