NEW ORLEANS — The first time I met Justice, she was in the Louisiana Superdome, sitting sidesaddle on her mother's lap and swinging her legs as if she were on a shady porch, not trapped in a defeated city.
At the time, two days after Hurricane Katrina struck, she was 17 months old, the same age as my daughter. I wrote about her that night, how she was eating trail mix rescuers had handed out, how I had foolishly advised her mother -- when there was nothing else to eat -- that babies shouldn't eat raisins.
She became, to me, the face of the storm, the face I saw when I thought about everything the Gulf Coast had endured in those terrible months: the decimation of 93,000 square miles, the dead and the displaced, the unmasking of a forgotten American underclass. Did her family, like many who endured the hurricane, still live with a quiet sadness? Where had they ended up? Wherever it was, did it feel like home? As the first anniversary of the storm approached, I decided to find out.
There are suggestions of progress and recovery here. Billions of dollars in federal aid is headed toward the region. Some have suggested that New Orleans, long one of the poorest cities in America, could become a boomtown. But it's easy to be pessimistic about its future.
Block after block remains abandoned. Crime is up. Suicides have tripled. City Hall -- where the facade is still missing some of the letters in "City Hall" -- announced recently that the anniversary of Katrina would be marked with comedy and fireworks. But there is a pervasive sense that the party is over, and amid public outcry, a more somber memorial has been planned.
Maybe, I thought, finding Justice would provide some hope.
The operator at the Federal Emergency Management Agency was reading from a script: "What state did your disaster occur in?" I told her that it was wasn't exactly my disaster but that it had occurred in Louisiana, that I was trying to locate a family I had last seen in the Superdome.
She suggested calling the Louisiana Family Assistance Center and the National Next of Kin Registry.
The center said it would need an address, phone number and date of birth, which, I pointed out, if I'd had, I wouldn't have had to call in the first place.
The registry operator said: "I can't even tell you where to start."
Next was City Hall in New Orleans. The operator offered a number for the Red Cross; it was a fax line. I called back to City Hall.
"Have you tried FEMA?"
The only concrete leads were on a list of addresses -- compiled from voting and property records -- where Justice's family may have lived before the storm. The first stop was a house in the working-class Bywater district. One of Justice's relatives appeared to have lived in this "double," a fatter version of the city's narrow shotgun homes.
Azaleas had taken over, and weeds had erupted through the concrete steps leading to the door. There was no one home, hardly unusual in a city where fewer than half the residents have returned.
Across the bridge that spans the nearby Industrial Canal, a scrawny man was wrestling the radiator out of a green pickup on the roadside. The truck had been struck by a tidal surge that had ripped off its roof. But in New Orleans, where scavengers pick through the rubble every day, it was a find. His hands coated in rust, sweat dripping from his nose, Tyrone Smith said the radiator might fetch $15 or more at the scrap yard.
Smith put in 13 years at a shrimp plant before the storm -- a job that vanished amid a crumbling economy. Now he gets $10 an hour rewiring flooded houses. The 42-year-old lives in a gutted house in the 9th Ward, and sleeps in a bunk bed next to exposed studs pocked with rusty nails.
A pickup truck rumbled down the street. It was a noisy arrival; clamshells swept in from the Gulf of Mexico still covered many of the streets. "The bossman!" Smith said. He raced off to retrieve the kneepads his boss had given him for work. Then he ran toward the truck, pausing only when he spotted a twisted piece of aluminum lying in the weeds. It was enough, he said, to get a couple bucks at the scrap yard.
House after house was vacant. No one remembered Justice or her family.
Next to one of the houses in the Bywater, neighbor Dymous Henry said seven people were living on the block of 21 dwellings. Even those who have returned, he said, are not really home.
"People here can't take change," said Henry, 48. "There were people who lived in this part of town who had never been Uptown, never been across the river. This has done something to them. Everybody's changed."
In the Gentilly neighborhood, close to Lake Pontchartrain, was a house where Justice's mother, Tonisha, may have lived in 2002. Now, a meaty tree limb juts through the roof. The block is so quiet you can hear the warped houses wheeze as they settle.