Rebuilding in Houston, Evacuees Grapple with Past

William C. Robinson Sr. i i

hide captionWilliam C. Robinson Sr. is seen in his home near Houston. Robinson once had an active life in New Orleans, but doesn't have much of a social network in his new life in Houston. He spends a great deal of time alone in his apartment.

Joe Vela for NPR
William C. Robinson Sr.

William C. Robinson Sr. is seen in his home near Houston. Robinson once had an active life in New Orleans, but doesn't have much of a social network in his new life in Houston. He spends a great deal of time alone in his apartment.

Joe Vela for NPR
Groundbreaking ceremony i i

hide captionParishioners of the New Home Family Worship Center, devastated by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, hold a groundbreaking ceremony for a new building in Houston.

Photo courtesy of the New Home Family Worship Center
Groundbreaking ceremony

Parishioners of the New Home Family Worship Center, devastated by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, hold a groundbreaking ceremony for a new building in Houston.

Photo courtesy of the New Home Family Worship Center

Two years after Hurricane Katrina, about 90,000 people evacuated from New Orleans still live in Houston. For them, there's no going back.

But living in Houston can be like moving out from your mother's warm embrace and moving in with your successful older brother, who doesn't necessarily approve of your life choices.

In New Orleans, many people grew up surrounded by family. The city was smaller and commutes were short. In Houston, there are more jobs, but it can be hard to get around, even if you have a car.

Hiding a New Orleans Past

Action CDC is a privately funded agency whose 12 case managers have helped more than 1,500 evacuees find cars, housing and jobs. Perhaps most importantly, they help negotiate the bureaucratic mazes of government aid.

But Ruqayya Gibson, the group's Katrina aid director, says two years after the hurricane, there are still major obstacles to helping the evacuees living in Houston. For one, single black women from Louisiana are having a hard time getting hired.

"We find that people who were working at Wal-Mart can't find a job at Wal-Mart here," Gibson says. "People who were managers can't get a job as a stock person."

Gibson says Katrina evacuees are seen as tainted. She advises them to trade in their New Orleans cell phones and get a Texas driver's license. But that still doesn't completely erase their old identity. Adds Gibson, "You have to give a resume and their work history all points back to Louisiana. "

Transplanted Church Is a Source of Strength

Denying their previous life in New Orleans is tough. But a congregation made up of Katrina evacuees is embracing the past as the foundation for a new life in Houston. Pastor R.C. Blakes, Jr. is ministering to 400 parishioners transplanted from the New Home Family Church in New Orleans. They recently broke ground on a new church building in Houston. There will now be buildings in both cities, but their pastor hopes they will be just one congregation.

While these worshipers have found one another in Houston, there are thousands of evacuees, especially older ones, who are lonely and isolated.

Alone in Houston

William C. Robinson Sr., 74, is a former shipyard worker who spent his life at the Avondale yards. He's retired and he has enough money to get by, so he's not looking for work. But he doesn't know anyone in Houston.

"I'm in here most of the time," Robinson says, sitting in his apartment. "I go to the movies. I don't know any other place to go."

In New Orleans, Robinson owned his own home. He knew everyone in his neighborhood. Now, he's trying to make the best of a bad situation.

"My whole life has been taken from me," he says.

Action CDC says it is working on getting Robinson into a home for senior citizens, where there will be other people and things to do. But the maze of federal Katrina funding makes every change a challenge.

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