NEW ORLEANS — Driving through the 9th Ward in New Orleans, I was immediately struck by a feeling of emptiness. Spray-painted information left by rescue workers announcing the date they searched, number of rescued people or casualties, and whether any pets were found, still remain on the outside of many houses. It’s a glaring and painful reminder that for many, life has not returned to normal. But there are also signs of hope and renewal. On one block, surrounded by debris and partially demolished homes, sits a beautiful, newly painted and repaired house with a meticulously maintained flower garden. It looks surreal, like a fantastic dream, lifting the spirits and announcing a steadfast determination to survive and flourish.I visited New Orleans and parts of Mississippi to meet with laundry owners to learn about the progress being made, the challenges they still face, and their hopes for the future.Part I of this story focuses on Eldridge and Arlene Stephens. Part II of the story features Casey Kasim, owner of the Wash Zone, also in New Orleans.BIRTH OF THE WASH DEPOTEldridge and Arlene Stephens own Wash Depot, located in New Orleans.Eldridge Stephens clearly remembers the day Katrina hit the 9th Ward in New Orleans. His laundry had been open for 10 months. Built from the ground up, the store was clean, air conditioned and equipped with shiny, brand new washers and dryers. Hours later, everything — his entire investment — was four feet under water. Stephens, an easy going and personable New Orleans fireman for 25 years, had purchased the land for his laundry in 1989. When a closed fast food restaurant became available across the street, he purchased that as well and opened a deli there in 1994. He dreamed of building something on his vacant lot, so he started talking to friends and business owners about his ideas. He next met a Wascomat coin laundry owner and picked his brain. The owner had a couple of laundries and let him look at his books. Eldridge did his research and learned as much as he could about equipment, location, costs and more. He was positive he already had the most important part of the equation — the right location. He was on a prime lot with 27,000 people within a 1-mile radius. Of that group, 50 percent were renters and there were two housing projects nearby. Two laundries had previously served the area, but went out of business when one owner died and the other did not maintain the store. He was confident the location could support a new laundry.Stephens then looked into equipment and was introduced to Wayne Finley, Wascomat regional sales manager, and dealer Steve Clark of The Washing Machine in Metairie, La. After a lot of research, visiting stores, talking with owners, and comparing products and service, he was ready for the laundry challenge. Wash Depot opened in October 2004. DETERMINED TO SUCCEEDWhen Katrina hit in August 2005, the building withstood the storm, but everything inside was under water. As a dedicated fireman, he had no time to worry about his businesses. For weeks, he worked tirelessly in search and rescue. People were stuck in attics, and on rooftops, and some were swimming for their lives. He and other firemen were determined to save as many people as they possibly could and wasted no time jumping in to aid the community. At first, the agony he witnessed after Katrina and the destruction of his businesses and home left him in a state of despair. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to stay or if he could muster the strength to rebuild. But after months of working on his house, his motivation returned and he was able to begin concentrating on business. When he had originally opened the laundry, the bank had not required flood insurance, so he applied for another loan through the SBA. Finally, after more than a year of sweat and determination, he and his wife were able to open their doors again. Wash Depot officially re-opened in November 2006. Today, the market is different, but business is growing. Wash Depot is like a sanctuary — air conditioned and spotless with bright colors, a cheerful and helpful attendant available at all times, lots of folding areas, new leather sofas, plenty of seating, drop-off service, TVs and great prices. He keeps his prices affordable and the store is constantly maintained. It feels very comfortable to be there. The store features 15 20-pound washers, six 40-pound washers, four 55-pound washers, four 50-pound dryers and 10 30-pound stack dryers.Customers also see the couple quite often — they both do shifts at the laundry and the deli. What’s different is the neighborhood — according to Federal and State estimates, there were more than 515,000 people living in New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish before Hurricane Katrina. Today, the population is estimated between 258,000 and 300,000.“Almost three years after Katrina, about 50 percent of homes still seem to be abandoned,” says Stephens. “I remember after Katrina when no one was here, it was desolate. But now, I see lots of folks moving back. The people in the community tell me how much they appreciate our laundry and deli staying in the neighborhood and opening back up, so we have a growing clientele of terrific, caring customers. Many people who have moved back into their homes are still rebuilding. They don’t have washers and dryers working in their houses, so they come here.”He also highly recommends the big machines to other owners. “People are so impressed with the larger machines,” he says. “The Wascomat 50-pound dryer looks like a 75-pound and the customers go crazy about it. I constantly hear customers on their phones telling their friends they have to come check it out.”With many volunteers and church groups helping to rebuild the city, their deli has also seen an increase in business. “It was extremely important for us to rebuild both our businesses. This is our home and we care about our neighborhood. We want to do our part to bring it back even better than it was before.”Eldridge and Arlene continue to rebuild and have made a new life for themselves and their family. They are grateful for what they have. After Katrina, they lost about 90 percent of their customers — but they’re steadily making the long journey back. Business continues to grow and the neighborhood is developing. Every day he meets old neighbors or customers returning to the area who say they’re finally “back home.”A WORK IN PROGRESSToday, almost three years after Hurricane Katrina, there is still devastation. Progress has been made, but this job truly does take a village. An enormous amount of time, money and hard work — with the support of the community and people across the nation — are helping to put the pieces of New Orleans, Gulfport and the other hardest hit areas back together again.In the airports, I met volunteers from church and youth groups and other charitable organizations who were coming and going. They were coming to build, feed, clothe and comfort. Homes, schools, police stations, hospitals, roads and bridges are still being repaired. Supermarkets, gas stations and other local businesses are gone. Entire neighborhoods remain in ruin with many homes abandoned and uninhabitable. But what touches my heart most of all and gives me hope is the compassion of people like Eldridge and Casey (who you will meet in an upcoming feature) who helped save others with little regard for their own personal safety. These everyday heroes continue to come from all over the country to help their fellow human beings who have suffered so — and they give us a clear view into the heart of humanity.