Displaced By Hurricane Katrina, Many Storm Victims Left Home For Good
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast 10 years ago, hundreds of thousands of people fled somewhat north to places like Birmingham, Ala. and Jackson, Miss. Others fled west to Texas and even Utah. Most have long since returned, but a few stayed behind in their newly adopted cities. We're going to visit people in three of those places. We begin near Baton Rouge, where reporter Amy Jeffries speaks with a woman who ended up living there while keeping her job in New Orleans.
AMY JEFFRIES, BYLINE: Milisa York is a true road warrior.
MILISA YORK: All right, I'll see you Monday. Hey, Amy (ph).
JEFFRIES: Five days a week, she rides a Greyhound bus for the 60-mile trip to New Orleans and back. On a recent evening, she stepped off the bus and headed for the Dodge pickup she left here nearly 12 hours ago.
YORK: And here I head home to get ready for another day (laughter).
JEFFRIES: Home now is St. Gabriel, La., population - 7,000.
YORK: It's the typical country life. You sit out on the front porch, you hear cows mooing.
JEFFRIES: The cows hanging out in the shade down the road from York's house aren't mooing much. Milisa and her husband, Dennis, cared for his disabled brother and his mother in this house and took it over when she died a few months after Katrina. York did try to find a job closer by, but the last time she looked, it would've meant a $10,000 pay cut.
YORK: I actually went on a couple of interviews, but the money they were offering, I was just like, I can't - I can't do that.
JEFFRIES: Legal assistants in the Baton Rouge area now make more on average than in New Orleans, but York is staying put. The law firm she works for has stepped in with food, clothing, generator fuel and all kinds of support through one disaster after another - first Katrina, then Hurricane Gustav in 2008 and a bad car accident in 2012.
YORK: Just the heart that they have is what keeps me with that firm, that keeps me motivated to keep the traveling, you know?
JEFFRIES: At first, she was driving back and forth daily. A year or so in, that started to take its toll. When traffic is bad, it can be two hours each way. And then she heard there was a bus, which was federally subsidized as part of Katrina recovery until 2013. Greyhound has taken over the route. The 10-day passes York buys costs $65.
YORK: I can rest and relax while I ride until I can retire and get out the game.
JEFFRIES: York says that'll be in another four years, and she's told her husband she'll be retiring to St. Gabriel. For NPR News, I'm Amy Jeffries in Baton Rouge, La.
SYEDA HASAN, BYLINE: I'm Syeda Hasan in Houston. Just before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Terrence Veal left New Orleans with his wife, six kids and all the belongings they could squeeze in their car. He says he'd lived through plenty of hurricane scares. All of a sudden, Veal found himself leaving his childhood home for a two-bedroom apartment in Houston.
TERRENCE VEAL: I have six kids. My brother-in-law, he has six kids, and it's cousins and my mother-in-law.
HASAN: Twenty-three people were living in that tiny apartment.
VEAL: And when we came here, we didn't have any money. And we didn't want to put all our children in a shelter because it was just too much moving that we had to do. And so we came together as a family and rented an apartment.
HASAN: Veal says sharing that cramped space drove everyone crazy, but six months after arriving in Houston, he came across a unique opportunity. A friend asked him to take part in a project called Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston. Organizers hired 70 survivors to record the stories of hundreds of other evacuees. Veal was interviewed for almost an hour. When we met, I asked him to listen to a clip of that conversation from April 2006.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
VEAL: We figured out a way to make it work. You know, keep your air mattress. It's your corner. All right, this your spot next to that corner. And as long as everybody stayed to those boundaries, you know, we survived it. We was in that apartment like that for about a month and a half (laughter).
HASAN: What is it like listening to that now so many years later?
VEAL: It's surreal. You know, when this all came up - the interview - it made me think and realize I've been in Houston for 10 years.
HASAN: Although he didn't plan for it, Veal says coming to Houston created opportunities for him. He went back to school and earned his master's degree in education, and he's studying for his teacher's certification exam. Veal and his family are settled into a cozy, suburban home. He says Katrina allowed him to start fresh in a new place.
VEAL: It was an adjustment. It was a reality check. But I thank God for it, and I'm extremely appreciative, you know, for Houston, Texas. I really am.
HASAN: As much as he misses New Orleans, Veal says he finally feels at home here. For NPR News, I'm Syeda Hasan in Houston.
JULIE ROSE, BYLINE: And I'm Julie Rose in Utah. Of the 600 or so people evacuated here from New Orleans, only a few dozen remain in the Salt Lake City area, including Ernest Timmons.
ERNEST TIMMONS: They can accumulate to this type of environment. This is very different from New Orleans.
ROSE: It would be hard to find a place more different from New Orleans than the arid mountains of Salt Lake City. And Timmons, who's 66 and divorced, isn't exactly a bon vivant, but he misses the New Orleans nightlife, the conviviality, the food.
TIMMONS: The food's rather bland. New Orleans' is pretty spicy. You know, the food is part of the culture of New Orleans because people like to eat. They like to get together.
ROSE: Which brings us to maybe the biggest difference - here, blacks make up less than 2 percent of the population.
So how often do you see another African-American during the week?
TIMMONS: Well, when I come to church. That's about it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good morning, again.
TIMMONS: Good morning, Gretchen (ph). How you doing, sugar? Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good to see you.
TIMMONS: Thank you.
ROSE: Timmons found the congregation that's become his family soon after arriving. Pastor France Davis of Calvary Baptist Church visited the National Guard training camp where the evacuees were being housed and held services. Timmons joined the church choir. Pastor Davis was impressed with Timmons' drive and offered him a job helping other evacuees settle in. That position lasted a couple of years and inspired Timmons to get his master's degree in social work. He's now employed full-time at a mental health agency. One reason Timmons has outlasted most of the others is his adaptability. He lived a lot of places during 10 years in the Air Force as a young man, saw a lot of storms.
TIMMONS: Storms come. Storms go. But that's life.
ROSE: Pastor France Davis is convinced Timmons is better off for sticking around.
FRANCE DAVIS: In terms of his lifestyle and housing and those sorts of things that is available here is much more decent and much more affordable than it was for them in New Orleans.
ROSE: Sure, Timmons says he misses his hometown, but he's never really considered going back, except for an occasional visit. His parents have passed away and his siblings are scattered around the South, so there's really not much for him to go home to.
TIMMONS: And I feel like I was brought here by God, so I'm OK.
ROSE: OK enough to consider staying here another 10 years even. For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose in Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.