NEW ORLEANS — Every morning, Shirley Livers — wife, mother, cancer survivor and retired security guard — goes to her front porch to watch the comings and goings of all the cars, birds and people in her Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood.
And every time she steps out the door of her yellow-brick home with the finely manicured lawn, she sees the three rotting and battered houses across the street from where we're sitting, with X's spray-painted on their fronts. Livers, 72, points to each and recounts where their owners relocated: Texas, Baton Rouge ... she forgets the third.
"Sometimes I think about them and cry," Livers says of her former neighbors. "But none of them are dead, and for that, I am grateful."
Five years after Hurricane Katrina, recovery across the Lower Ninth Ward — one of the areas hardest hit by the storm — is still measured house by house, in a wild clash of fresh paint and boarded windows, of vibrancy and decay. Like the nearby coastal communities impacted by the oil spill in the Gulf, the "Lower Nine" has suffered a trauma from which it may never fully recover.
But like many who fish and whose way of life has been jeopardized — possibly destroyed — by the oil spill in the Gulf, Livers is doing the best she can with the things she knows she cannot change.
"Honey, I am just so grateful to be alive, and so I sit out here every day because I don't want to miss anything," she tells me. "I don't want to miss a single car that passes by."
It's Sunday afternoon, and as she sits on her porch in a pair of white slippers, she has a crossword puzzle and a fly-swatter at the ready. Almost everyone who drives by waves at her, and she waves back. She sips a cola and speaks at a deliberate pace, though her voice sometimes sounds strained when she talks of what she has lost. But as with many who have come close to death, as she did when she fought and beat colon cancer, the little things in life fill her with an uncomplicated joy; a blade of grass could make her happy.
"All in all, honey, it's been a good life," she says.
But it's been tough going, too. Hurricane Katrina chased Livers, along with her husband and three sons, out of the Lower Ninth Ward in 2005. She says $20,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, allowed her to buy a house in Garyville, a small community a few miles west of New Orleans.
She wanted to go back home to the Lower Ninth, where she'd lived since 1968. But word of the devastation and her health kept her in Garyville.
In the meantime, her son, nicknamed Dupie, had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — or Lou Gehrig's disease — in 2005. She was set to have surgery for the cancer when Dupie died on Jan. 31, 2008, at the age of 50.
"I told the doctors I didn't want them to touch me until I got to bury my son," she says. "That child was my right hand, and I miss him. Lord, do I miss him. He did everything for all of us."
Livers was successfully treated after her son's death and still wanted to come back to where home was, on Tennessee Street in the Lower Ninth Ward. In November 2009, she got her wish.
"When I came back, I had to re-learn this city," she says. "Nothing was familiar."
And her home needed work, of course — as it still does.
There is little furniture inside. The living room has tables but no chairs. A bookshelf has neither shelves nor books. She says she can't afford to furnish her house because she spent her life savings on repairs after Katrina. The first contractor she hired ran off with her money. The others did such shoddy work that she often had to hire others still to fix their mistakes.
"We paid for this house twice," she says, her voice hollow. Her husband, who is 71, is still working. She says he can't afford to retire.
There are no children in the neighborhood. The families with kids moved away after the storm, she says. And if a storm ever comes back, she's leaving too.
"We still have the house out (in Garyville) in case something happens," she says. But her other neighbors still have their houses elsewhere too, and they haven't chosen to come back. She says she wishes someone would buy the properties across the street and knock them down. She pauses, and then adds, "But I probably won't be here when they do."
Nevertheless, she sits on her porch, watching the traffic, watching the people, and keeping an eye on the squirrel that lives in the tree one yard over. There used to be many more of them before the storm — squirrels and trees — but when she came back, only two squirrels remained. A wild dog killed one, she says, which was sad.
Yet the other one is sticking around. Every time it goes springing up the power lines by the tree, she calls a neighbor to report the sighting.
"That little bugger just keeps making it, on his own," she says, in disbelief. She smiles. A moment later, someone drives by and waves at her.
She raises her hand and waves right back.