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Wendell's New Orleans

New Orleans has had three punches -- the recession, the Gulf oil spill and Hurricane Katrina," says Wendell Pierce, as we pick our way around a house ripped apart -- like his New Orleans childhood home -- by the hurricane.

Five years on, New Orleans is still defined by Katrina. Tomorrow, on the fifth anniversary of the hurricane, President Obama is coming to town. And the big showbusiness news this week is the premiere of Spike Lee's new Katrina documentary If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise. Lee's first hurricane documentary, When the Levees Broke, included an interview with Pierce, who also appeared in Lee's 1996 film Get on the Bus.

Pierce (47) is best known as Bunk Moreland in The Wire -- the grumpy, sleepy voiced detective partner to Jimmy McNulty, the Baltimore cop played by Dominic West, who went to Trinity College.

The Wire was Pierce's big break after 15 years of solid acting, including the TV series Law & Order and parts in the films Malcolm X and Hackers. His latest project is the Emmy-nominated Treme, a TV series set in post- Katrina New Orleans, in Treme, the rough neighbourhood where jazz was born a century ago. Written, like The Wire, by David Simon, it stars Pierce as Antoine Batiste, a trombonist struggling to get his life together in the aftermath of the hurricane.

"It's a show about ordinary people going back to New Orleans and trying to reconstitute their lives," says Simon, "but, more than that, it's whether the city will endure.

"Wendell would have hunted us down and done us untold damage if we hadn't cast him." Simon's right. The project suited Pierce for several reasons: "The fact I wanted to work with David again," says Pierce, "the fact I worked with him on The Wire, the fact it was about New Orleans and I'm from New Orleans.

cathartic

"I've shed many tears working on this show. Nothing could be as cathartic as this. It's art imitating life and life imitating art in a way that I thought was never possible."

While filming Treme, Pierce has also been helping to rebuild his childhood neighbourhood, Pontchartrain Park, two miles east of Treme. Built in north-east New Orleans in 1952, it was the first private development in the city where black people could buy homes. It was one of the areas worst hit by Katrina.

"The water came down the street like rapids," says Pierce. "You know that chalky taste you've got in your mouth? That's the mold. Imagine how bad it was when we first got back two months after the storm," says Pierce, whose 85-year-old father and 80-year-old mother were forcibly evacuated before Katrina struck.

"What was most amazing was how grey it was. There was a cake of mud on the streets, no grass, no leaves on the trees. Salt water had destroyed the greenery; it was like Chernobyl. There were fallen trees across the street; you could see the waterline under the eaves of the house.

"My father broke down the door and started crying; so many people died when they got inside their houses. Some had heart attacks on the spot on seeing the wreck."

He realised that too much of his family's past was invested in Pontchartrain Park to wave it goodbye. So he told the builders to rebuild the house. Meanwhile, Pierce dreamt up a scheme to rebuild not just his parents' home but the whole of Pontchartrain Park. He set up a development company, obtained funding, won the tender and put in a bid to buy 200 building plots from the Government, which had bought the blighted properties after Katrina. The homes will be sold to those returning to New Orleans.

Yet even though the levees have been rebuilt, the fear persists that a disaster like Katrina will happen again.

"It was only by the grace of God that the levees hadn't broken before," says Pierce, "They were poorly designed and poorly maintained -- but things haven't changed much." Even so, Pierce is sure that the city will survive.

"No one asked after the LA earthquake 'why do you want to come back?' And New Orleans is still very important. No natural disaster should stop it surviving.

"And now it's a certainty that the neighbourhood is coming back."