'Old Man' is a tale of storm and struggle

Rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, 83-year-old Herbert Gettridge rests in the backyard of the New Orleans house he built in 1943. Rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, 83-year-old Herbert Gettridge rests in the backyard of the New Orleans house he built in 1943. (Jennifer Zdon for The Times-Picayune)
By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / January 6, 2009
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'The Old Man and the Storm" is a moving story of someone struggling to rebuild his home in the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, the area of the city worst hit by Hurricane Katrina when the levees broke on Aug. 29, 2005. It is an earnest effort told with skill and compassion.

It also sparks serious deja vu. The shocking scenes of urban wreckage resembling a war zone have long since been etched in our minds. The horrors of the government's failure at all levels to help people rebuild their lives in the aftermath of Katrina and Rita, a month later, have been well documented.

The sadness and rage were most notably captured in Spike Lee's superb 2006 HBO film, "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts." CNN, among other broadcast media, has been all over this post-disaster disaster from the start.

It is initially hard, then, to find freshness in the tale of 83-year-old Herbert Gettridge as he works to restore the modest house he built in 1943, the one in which he and his wife, Lydia, raised nine children. But like any small story well told, "The Old Man and the Storm" will have its audience, in this case largely those whose interest in post-Katrina New Orleans remains high.

Producer/writer June Cross followed Gettridge and his extended family for 18 months, beginning at Mardi Gras of 2006. He is a proud man and a skilled artisan who, like many people in New Orleans, was under-insured when the disaster hit. He lives and works alone without electricity in his shell of a house and waits in vain, month after month, for word from the state about financial help.

The house is only part of his tragedy. Three generations of his family, including 36 grandchildren, scatter across the country in the wake of the event. He sends Lydia, who is in poor health, to be with his daughter in Wisconsin until he completes work on the house. At 83, Herbert Gettridge is a lonely, gritty figure on the land he bought 66 years ago.

"I ain't going no place, man," he says, "I'm still here."

We are reminded in this program of the cascade of bureaucratic nightmares, particularly at the federal level, that shattered any claim of competence by the Bush administration. We know most of this. What we don't know, though, can be breathtaking. We learn, for example, that at one point the US Department of Housing and Urban Development decided that each homeowner's application for aid required an environmental review.

Against huge odds, Gettridge finishes his house, and Lydia is brought home by one of her daughters. But Cross and her crew don't find a happy ending. Lydia is disoriented when she arrives. She doesn't recognize the house she left and says she wants to leave.

Herbert Gettridge is spent by months of hard physical work and emotional stress. Asked if he'd rebuild his house again, he replies, "I'm kind of skeptical of that now. Once upon a time, I could answer that question in a split second for you. I can't do that now."

Sam Allis can be reached at

FRONTLINE: The Old Man and the Storm On: WGBH Channel 2

Time: Tonight, 9-10

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