Oscar Escobar drives a taxi in New Orleans. And despite everything he has gone through since Katrina hit nearly two years ago, he continues to believe in, and live, the American Dream.

“People want to live for free. They like the FEMA trailers,” he told me as he navigated the narrow streets of the French Quarter on our way to the Garden District. “I don’t understand it. I just wanted to be back in my house with my family.”

Although Escobar lives near the airport, on relatively high ground, his one-story house took in 3 feet of water.

“We lost everything inside the house,” he said. “We had some insurance and we had flood insurance. But we only had $10,000 of contents coverage, which really wasn’t nearly enough to buy what we needed for the house.”

Escobar shrugged his shoulders. “But you make do, and little by little, you get there.”

The day after he was able to get back to his house, Escobar said he began cleaning up.

“I told my wife, ‘I’m not going to wait to see if anyone offers us any kind of help’,” he recalled.

Escobar threw out all of the waterlogged carpet, and furniture. He cut out the moldy sheetrock, and removed insulation, floors and cabinets.

He dried out the inside of the house and then began finding materials to rebuild.

“I have some skills other than driving a cab,” he says modestly.

With the settlement from his flood and homeowners insurance — “They paid me fairly. It was enough to fix up my house,” he said — Escobar bought new materials and began rebuilding. He did all of the work himself. It took four months and he was back in his house before Christmas.

He was the first person to move back into his neighborhood.

“There are some of my neighbors who haven’t come back. They haven’t rebuilt. They’re living in a FEMA trailer or they haven’t come back at all,” he said. “I don’t understand it, especially if you have a family and children.”

I asked Escobar if anyone from FEMA ever contacted him. He said that in December, nearly four months after Katrina hit and the levees broke, someone finally knocked at his door.

“It took a long time,” Escobar recalled. “By the time he came to my front door, and offered me a FEMA trailer, I was just putting the finishing touches on my house. I told him I don’t need the trailer and he should give it to someone else who needed it more than I did.”

“A week later, I moved back into my house,” he said.

Today, Escobar says, many of his neighbors have come back. He has helped some of them rebuild and is happy that he has been able to go back to making a living driving his cab.

“I’m doing okay, and my family is doing okay,” he added.

But there are empty houses in his neighborhood, as there are in many other neighborhoods throughout New Orleans. Nearly two years later, destroyed homes, piles of garbage, broken windows and the X-marks on front doors seem like scars that will never heal.

Next week: According to Women of the Storm, a non-profit group dedicated to raising awareness of the ongoing problems in New Orleans since Katrina, more members of Congress have gone to Iraq than have visited the city to see the damage wrought by the hurricane and levee failures. But while political problems haven’t helped, other individuals have risen to the challenge to help the rebuilding efforts throughout the Gulf Coast.

Published: Jun 28, 2007