Two years after Hurricane Katrina, some former residents of New Orleans are still struggling to put their lives back together. One family, the Mattios, spent eight trying months after the storm in a single motel room in Baton Rouge, among prostitutes and drug dealers. They finally moved into a small, dark, but affordable, apartment nearby.
Carolyn and her two sons, 16-year-old Myran and 17-year-old Michael Jr., lived in the apartment more or less alone for months, while Michael Sr. stayed in New Orleans most of the week to protect their home from looters. This meant that Carolyn was responsible for disciplining her two sons, who she says have changed since the storm.
"When we first got here, the children were going haywire," she says. "It was like they were in a cage. My sons, I didn't really know them."
Before Hurricane Katrina, Michael Jr. and Myran were in the church choir, and Myran attended a magnet school. Michael Sr. and Carolyn spent their lives consciously fighting off every threat a young African American growing up in a poor city neighborhood might encounter.
But after the storm, the boys began using foul language and got involved in street fighting. Carolyn still remembers sitting down on the apartment couch with their report cards: all F's.
"They all used to make good grades, A's and B's," she explains. "I don't think they made but one or two C's."
Even after Carolyn started sitting with her sons at the library for four or five hours each night, Michael Jr.—who has had trouble sleeping since Katrina—still ended up failing the school year.
The Mattios have now returned to their old home on the edge of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans. Carolyn worked relentlessly over the last two years getting insurance payments and disaster funds to fix their house. But most people have not been as successful as her family at navigating the bureaucratic maze, and the street they lived on remains mostly abandoned.
Despite all their problems, the kids had no interest in returning to New Orleans.
"Where we are going they don't have that many teenagers there," Carolyn says. "They still got a lot of empty houses and empty areas still."
Carolyn says there's only one other teenage boy on the block, and she doesn't like him because she suspects he does drugs.
Carolyn also worries about her husband, Michael Sr., who has become withdrawn and short-tempered. When they are together, he sometimes excuses himself to sit in the bedroom alone and pray.
"Sometimes he looks like he's at his last straw," she says. "He had been trying to find jobs, but Mike will be 72 next month, and it's hard for people to want to hire him."
Carolyn is also concerned because Michael Sr. and Michael Jr. have been fighting lately. A couple of months ago, Michael Sr. confronted Michael Jr. when he came home past his bedtime.
"They had gotten into an argument and my husband hit him and my son shoved him and my other son jumped out of the bed and pushed him," she says. "And I was in the bed, and I jumped up and I grabbed them and I got between them two. It was the worst I had ever seen it."
Carolyn says this experience has profoundly affected the way she sees her husband.
"He said he would never do it again but I don't know," she says. "I've never shared it with my husband nor with my sons, but I don't trust them together no more, and that's bad."
Like Carolyn, Michael Sr. is worried about the children.
"Really I don't believe they are really doing well," he says. "Michael, I don't know what I'm going to do with Michael, tell you the truth. I don't know really what he would respond to."
The storm exposed the children to everything their parents had tried to protect them from.
"He told me one day, 'You know, Daddy, I'm more street wise than you,'" says Michael Sr. of his eldest son. "Before Katrina, he wasn't like that. And that's what got me so concerned about Michael."
Turning a Corner
In terms of his own well-being, Michael Sr. says he's doing better now that his family is returning to New Orleans.
"I'm doing OK now," he says. "I'm trying to see where I'm going rather than where I come from."
Michael Sr. admits that over the last year, he withdrew from the family, preferring to sleep on a sheet of plywood in the decimated living room of his New Orleans home while his family was in Baton Rouge. It was difficult for him to deal with the fact that the life he had worked for was now gone.
"Sometimes I was glad to be alone because I can just let myself go," he says. "I couldn't get out and cry in front of my family. But when I get here, I just let the tears go like they want to go. It wouldn't be every night. Maybe two to three nights out of the week, I'll come and sit up here and I'll cry and I'll pray."
Michael says Hurricane Katrina still lingers, but in a way, he thinks that might not be a bad thing.
"Instead of being a disastrous thought, I think it can a thought we can build on because of the simple reason I have seen the distress in it," he says. "I've experienced the hurry, so it will always be there for a teacher. Always."
Carolyn was happy to leave Baton Rouge. "My apartment, I stand there but I don't want to live there no more...The pressure is beginning to lift."
When she steps into her old home, the family embraces and the boys join their father in the kitchen to make sandwiches. Both parents are relieved to be back.
"Oh, thank God we're home," Carolyn says.
"Just think, if my boy James Brown was still living, I would let him sing this song: I feel good. Ooooh!" says Michael Sr. from the kitchen.