• U.S.

The Displaced: Which Way Is Home?

17 minute read
Unmesh Kher, Daniel Eisenberg, Amanda Ripley, Mike Billips, Wendy Grossman/Houston, Maggie Sieger/New Orleans, Kathie Klarreich/Pass Christian and Jeff Chu/New Orleans

•THE WILLIAMSES

STRAINS IN A STRANGE LAND

Before they knew the full extent of all they had lost to Katrina–their home, their family silver, their wedding and baby pictures–childhood sweethearts Carmelita, 43, and Nathaniel Williams, 49, their daughter Jennifer, 9, and Nathaniel’s daughter from a previous relationship, Natrena Lewis, 24, briefly feared they had lost the most precious thing of all: one of their own. Five days after New Orleans’ levees collapsed, flooding the city, Natrena, a home health aide who had stayed behind to help a patient get into a shelter, was stranded on the rooftop of a motel along with her two young boys. When Ty’iyr, 22 months, had an asthma attack, he was airlifted to a hospital, but there was no room in the helicopter for his mom or brother Telly, 5. A few days later, Natrena and Telly were rescued and eventually reunited with the rest of the family in Houston, but they still had no idea where Ty’iyr was. Only after a relative in the Air Force put out an informal bulletin to the military with the toddler’s birthmark and nickname, Tottie, was he located at an Atlanta hospital.

At times, that near tragedy makes it a little easier for the family to accept the mundane, daily struggles of restarting their life. Natrena can still laugh about how often she gets lost trying to find her way around her new hometown, and Nathaniel likes to gripe about how no one in Houston seems to play dominoes or go fishing. It helps that Carmelita, Nathaniel and Jennifer have moved into a fully furnished and–thanks to a city housing voucher–temporarily rent-free apartment and have qualified for emergency food stamps; Natrena and her two boys have done the same. Nathaniel, a food loader for Southwest Airlines, has continued to be paid as his family gets settled. The catch is that after Thanksgiving, when he starts work again, it will be in Chicago.

But that doesn’t mean they all don’t have what Nathaniel calls “dark days,” when he admits he has drunk too much Courvoisier “as a crutch” or not talked to his wife at all. Carmelita, a big-hearted, churchgoing woman with an ordinarily sunny disposition, admits ruefully, “I still feel like a stranger in a strange place.” Most of the Williamses have a bit of a weight problem, and the anxiety of being in unfamiliar surroundings has only worsened their appetites for sweets and fried food.

Telly has had the toughest time adjusting. Once a model preschooler, he has been acting up in kindergarten. One day he used scissors to carve a hole in his desk; another time he crumpled his homework into a ball and covered it with glue. “I don’t know if he’s being rebellious toward me because ‘You let me be on the roof for five days,'” says Natrena, a single mom.

For Carmelita, who used to be president of her PTA and coached softball and cheerleading squads, the hard part is the lack of a structured, busy life. To rebuild one, she spends a lot of time helping out at the PTA president’s office at Jennifer’s new elementary school, where the ambitious young girl has already been named the fourth-grade student of the month. “She feels more challenged here,” Carmelita says.

Now that she has received her last paycheck from her former job as an administrative assistant at New Orleans’ Dillard University, Carmelita is looking for new work. So far, openings for a hot-dog vendor or truck driver have not been too appealing. Carmelita and Nathaniel like to imagine that in three to five years, they may be able to return to New Orleans. Their neighborhood of Pontchartrain Park, the first African-American subdivision in the city, was so wrecked that whatever is left is slated to be reduced to rubble. Carmelita is sad that it will be lost to history, but Nathaniel is not one to dwell on the past. After all, for everything that the family lost to Katrina, the thing that mattered most ended up being found.

VINCENT J. MUSI / AURORA FOR TIMENO WAY HOME: The Betzes poke through debris 300 yards from their house

•THE BETZES

THE SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS

As a teacher and a mother of two, Anne Betz knows how important a good school is to the life of a small town. Still, it wasn’t until Katrina had practically destroyed her hometown of Pass Christian, Miss., and reduced her brand-new house to a mere concrete slab that Betz, 37, realized what a lifesaver a good school could be.

Very little is still standing or open in and around Pass Christian–once a vibrant, diverse Gulf Coast community of 7,000 or so, where golf balls and oysters now dot debris fields filled with waterlogged furniture, bathroom fixtures and broken china–not the Catholic church, not the local Wal-Mart, not the gas stations. But what is up and running–and what has given the Betz family enough hope to go back and rebuild their lives–is Coast Episcopal School in nearby Long Beach, which both of Betz’s children attend and where she is a teacher. In an otherwise chaotic environment where electricity and phone services are still not fully functioning, the 130-student elementary and middle school is providing a sense of normality. “The school is what’s bringing people back,” says Betz, who fled Pass Christian for Sandestin, Fla., around 200 miles away, the day before Katrina hit, with her husband Albert, 39, son Owen, 7, daughter Jane Todd, 10, and mother Anita Orfila, 76.

When the Betz family first settled into a condo in Sandestin–with Albert, a commercial insurance broker, staying in Gulfport, Miss., to keep working–school caused immediate problems. A few days after the kids were enrolled in the suddenly overcrowded local school, they learned they would be bused to a different one 25 miles away, arriving late to that school and leaving early every day. Packed like crayfish on the road for an hour, they were loath to do homework.

So when Betz heard that Coast Episcopal was going to reopen in October, she made up her mind to head back. For now, the Betzes are living with her mother in Pass Christian. Ten days before Katrina hit, Orfila had moved into a small house at the back of the Betzes’ property. The house was all but destroyed in the storm. But the unfurnished house she had moved out of and still owned needed only a month or two of repairs. Betz spent her final weeks in Sandestin shopping for furnishings the family would need in Pass Christian. “If we don’t buy it here, we’re not going to find it there,” she says.

Although both children are happier to be back at their old school, they have had difficulties adjusting. Owen has asked his mom, “Will anything ever be the same?” Jane Todd alternately picks fights with her brother and withdraws to her room. Betz, who before Katrina was the school’s gym teacher and admissions director but has now also taken on the first-grade class (replacing a teacher who quit), has had trouble sleeping. And Orfila says, “I find myself going to get something and then realizing it’s no longer there.”

The Betzes are still waiting to hear about their application for a government loan that they could use to rebuild or to pay off their mortgage. They have not yet decided where or even whether they will eventually build a new home in Pass Christian. Albert is partial to staying right by the Gulf, where the old house was. Anne would prefer to be on higher ground and, in any case, wonders whether the couple could afford the new insurance rates for waterfront property. They could simply buy and stay in Orfila’s house. One thing is certain: wherever they end up, it won’t be too far from Coast Episcopal.

ASIA KEPKA FOR TIME

•THE MEEHAN-HOOS

WHEN TWO CLANS COLLIDE

For a bright, fleeting moment, it worked, this fairy tale of American bigheartedness. In September Forrest King, a self-described “dyed-in-the-wool conservative,” and his wife Marie Hancock-King opened up their home in Attleboro, Mass., to a lesbian couple with three small children and a grandmother, all of whom had fled Slidell, La., and Hurricane Katrina. The Meehan-Hoos placed their kids in school and heaped gratitude on their hosts. And King said they could stay indefinitely. TIME ran a story about the arrangement (Sept. 26, 2005), calling it a friendship “across the red-blue divide.”

We spoke too soon. In October King evicted the Meehan-Hoos, and they threatened to sue him for defamation. The police got involved. Charges flew back and forth, almost as if this were a real extended family.

Just two weeks prior, the scene was hectic but warm at the King house. The children played video games. Jan and Yolanda Meehan-Hoo held hands in the kitchen and talked about how much the town had done for them. Forrest hovered nearby, chiming in occasionally, as Marie made dinner. “Forrest is like the dad of the whole family,” said Jan, smiling. “Anytime I have gone to this man with a problem, he’s solved it. Even things I didn’t want solved.”

But the unsolicited problem solving caused tension, says Kim Allard, a city councilor who helped the Meehan-Hoos settle in. Each day King would present his guests with a schedule of tasks. “He was controlling everything that was happening. And they were fully able to do for themselves,” says Allard.

King claims the conflict grew out of deception. He says he discovered that the Meehan-Hoos had substantial savings, for example. “Their story kept changing,” he says. “I wanted to help people who were, let’s say, needy.” Yolanda denies misleading anyone. “I told him, ‘I am an open book.'” She says that while staying at King’s house, she got a letter from her lawyer telling her she may be getting a $13,000 settlement for a lawsuit involving her mother, who had been injured on a bus years earlier. She says King learned that by opening her mail, which he denies. In any case, she says, she had pledged to help pay the bills and had given King $100.

Compounding the stress, the TIME story led to a cascade of media inquiries. When a CBS Early Show producer called, the situation imploded. King claims he did not want any more interviews in the house. “I think [Jan and Yolanda] were looking for glory,” he says. The Meehan-Hoos say just the opposite. “You know how some people need attention all the time? He was one of those people,” says Jan.

Everyone agrees that King ordered the Meehan-Hoos out. On Sept. 29, they moved into a hotel nearby. “We’re just so disappointed and really heartbroken,” Jan said. King filed a report with the police, claiming they had stolen a bed. The Meehan-Hoos say the bed had been donated. King says they have since resolved the matter.

Serena Howard runs openyourhome.com which placed the Meehan-Hoos and 4,000 other Katrina families. She says 90% have done fine. When disputes arise, though, they are often about money. “We’ve had hosts who don’t understand why the victims are still [living] there or why they are buying $4 coffees.”

The Meehan-Hoos recently moved into a three-bedroom duplex. The other day, a fire fighter dropped off some toys. A secondhand store furnished the house. “Attleboro has been wonderful to us,” says Jan. The couple has decided to stay. Jan and Yolanda campaigned for Allard’s re-election. Both women say they plan to find jobs after the holidays. King, meanwhile, says he would be happy to try hosting again. “I would not let this hurt my family’s goodwill.”

NINA BERMAN / REDUX FOR TIME

•THE COMARDAS

TO GOTHAM AND BACK AGAIN

Julie Comarda had always wanted to go to college in New York City, but she was distressed when her move north came a year early. At 18, she should have been starting her senior year at New Orleans’ Academy of the Sacred Heart, a school she had attended since age 3. “I had looked forward to this year my whole life,” she says. Instead, she was the new kid at Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattan, which, post-Katrina, offered to take students from its sister school tuition free and house them with host families. “I’ve never been the new girl,” she says.

That’s tough at the best of times, but with her mom Anne staying with family in Arkansas and her dad Chris in Baton Rouge, La.–her parents are divorced–Julie had to face her situation alone. “I feel such a huge responsibility that I’m representing my family, my school and my city,” she said after arriving in New York. She struggled to maintain her Southern manners when she heard people say that those who had lived below sea level got what they deserved. She feared seeming ungrateful. “We’re really lucky,” she says. “We got out alive.” She stopped singing in the shower “because you can’t be completely yourself when you’re sharing a bathroom” in someone else’s home.

Her hosts, she says, treated her very well. But she missed things like CC’s, her favorite coffee place, and her mom’s grillades, a beef stew. Most of all, she missed her family. While she was away, her grandmother, also living in Arkansas, had a minor stroke. Days later, her dad had a heart attack. He’s recovering, but her dreams of college in New York died, she says: “I want to be where I’m able to get home if I want or need to.”

On Nov. 5, Julie went home at last. Her mother had moved back into the elegant family home in the suburb of Metairie, having had the flood-damaged ground floor gutted. She and Julie live on the second floor, which thus far is free of the mold that has made so many other homes uninhabitable. Three older siblings are away at college. Plastic sheets seal off the second floor, and shoes are left outside a zippered entryway to avoid corrupting the new living area. But mold has invaded the garage, which is packed to the rafters with belongings the family hopes to salvage. Three new refrigerators in the garage are stuffed with books and family papers sealed in plastic bags. That, an antiquities expert told Anne’s sister, was the best way to kill mold and mildew.

At her grandparents’ ravaged home, just blocks from the breach in the 17th Street Canal, Julie found her grandfather’s World War II Navy helmet. “I’m taking this,” she said. “We can save it.” Then she ran to a heap of sopping fabric–which reeked of sewage, dead fish and rotting trash–and picked it up. “Julie! Don’t touch it!” her mom hollered. The silk-and-tulle Mardi Gras gown had been worn by Julie’s Aunt Wendy. It used to be white. Julie had hoped to wear it someday. Flushed, she dropped the dress, her hands shaking.

On Nov. 7, Julie returned to her newly reopened school, the alma mater of her mother and grandmother. When her friends spotted her, they rushed her, besieging her with kisses, hugs and questions. Was New York cold? (“Supercold!” said the girl who wears sweaters even in the swelter of a Louisiana summer.) Did you see anyone famous? (Does Nicky Hilton count?) Were the boys cute?

It was a bittersweet day because she heard for the first time the Katrina stories of many friends. Some classmates evacuated to the same places as their teachers and kept studying together, so she is behind them in the curriculum. But Julie is not worried. “Everything is falling back into place,” she says. “It feels right being here with everyone again.”

CALLIE SHELL / AURORA FOR TIME

•THE BROWNS

HAPPILY OUT OF THE NINTH WARD

MABLE BROWN’S NEW JOB isn’t what you would call spectacular. She works at a red stucco, French Quarter–themed Doubletree Inn in the suburbs of Atlanta, cleaning rooms for $7.15 an hour. But Brown, 27, isn’t complaining. She doesn’t get health insurance, but her employers are supportive. And she makes enough to afford the $595 rent for the ground floor of a duplex she found to share with her daughters Vivian, 13, and Angeline, 9, on a cul-de-sac off a quiet, wooded street in Marietta, Ga. “It’s just us,” Brown contentedly told TIME two weeks ago. “We’re like the three bears here.”

That was then. The Brown household has since doubled in size: mamma bear welcomed into her den three of her older sister Latasha Davis’ four rambunctious kids–Rodkeen, 8, Angel, 7, and Dasia, 5. Davis has lately found it difficult to cope with their needs. “She has her days, just like I do,” Brown gently explains. “Sometimes people don’t feel like getting up in the morning.” But Brown seems to handle the pressure. If she has an expertise, it is surviving the surprises of fate.

Brown and her five siblings grew up in the gritty Ninth Ward of New Orleans. When Brown was 11, her eldest brother John, who she believes was a drug dealer, was murdered. Police fished his savagely beaten body, bound to the bumper and rims from his dismantled Oldsmobile 98, out of Lake Pontchartrain. In her teenage years, Brown was raised largely by her sisters. By 14, she was pregnant with Vivian; Angeline followed barely five years later. Brown lived for a while with Angeline’s father in Cobb County, near Atlanta, but he drifted back to his old gangster life in New Orleans and was gunned down in 1999. Brown reluctantly moved back to New Orleans in April to get Vivian away from kids at their apartment complex who were harassing her.

So Brown found herself in New Orleans when the levees broke, leading her mother, her sisters and their 13 children through the reeking water to the Superdome. There, the family took the help offered by Atlanta writer Lisa McLeod, who got the family to Georgia. Brown first moved in with a Marietta couple. By the end of September she found her den. It’s pretty crowded these days. Vivian and two cousins share bunk beds, while Angeline and Dasia sleep on a pallet of quilts and pads. But things are looking up. Angeline loves elementary school and wants to play the flute. Vivian is happy with her middle school, where she sings in the choir and hopes to join the track team.

Brown runs a tight ship. The kids can’t snack until they have done their homework and Brown has reviewed it. They never leave the house in unironed clothes. Her daughters share the responsibilities: Vivian gets her cousins ready for school, and Angeline helps look after them in the afternoon. Of course, the kids often test Angeline’s authority, but Brown will be happy if that’s the only way her daughter’s toughness is tried. In any case, she says she is never taking her babies back to cruel New Orleans.

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