A Family Scattered by Katrina Comes Together

After evacuating from New Orleans to Atlanta, Selwyn and Chiquita Smith have recently found two members of their family who fled to Houston. Joshua Levs reports on their attempt to reunite with their relatives.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Getting out of New Orleans, leaving the water, fires and floating bodies behind, does not mean life's suddenly easy. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina are still trying to build new lives. We've been following the struggle of one family. Selwyn and Chiquita Smith(ph) lived in New Orleans. They fled to Atlanta with almost nothing and fearing the relatives they left behind may have died. Well, now some good news accompanied with a fresh set of challenges. Joshua Levs reports.

JOSHUA LEVS reporting:

When we met Selwyn and Chiquita Smith at a hotel in Atlanta last week, they were desperately waiting for a call from Chiquita's mother and grandmother. Chiquita says the two were trapped with her uncle in the attic of his single-story house as the storm arrived. Then the floor gave out.

Mrs. CHIQUITA SMITH (Hurricane Survivor): They fell from the attic into the house.

LEVS: That was the last she knew. Then last weekend, Chiquita got a call from a friend who spotted pictures on the Internet of Chiquita's relatives being saved. But the Smiths still worried because they knew evacuees were taken to the Superdome or the convention center where conditions were horrible and dangerous.

Mr. SELWYN SMITH (Hurricane Survivor): We didn't know exactly where they were and what situation they were in.

Mrs. SMITH: I didn't know how much supplies they had, you know, or their resources at the time.

Mr. SMITH: Yeah, 'cause it's scary when you see the news, you hear so many horror stories. And we was just hoping that they was getting the medical attention they needed.

LEVS: Chiquita's mother had fractured ribs in the attic. Her grandmother has a pacemaker. Finally, Chiquita got a call from her mother saying they had managed to get on a bus to the Astrodome in Houston.

Mrs. SMITH: Whoo, we were so excited. She just kept on saying, `I love you, I love you, I love you all, I love you all, I miss you all.'

LEVS: After that, Selwyn and Chiquita Smith left Atlanta for Texas to try to reunite the family. They said some roads to Houston were closed, so they got off in Dallas, where Selwyn has family. With their three children and a niece, the Smiths are staying in one hotel room. Chiquita says soon the little money they have will be gone.

Mrs. SMITH: The whole situation is, like, degrading, period. Everybody wasn't homeless or whatever. And now, you know, it's just, like, everybody's homeless. It put a strain on everything.

LEVS: Selwyn and Chiquita had saved up for years to buy a small shotgun house in New Orleans that they were just about to move into.

Mr. SMITH: We had sacrificed for years already...

Mrs. SMITH: Yeah, and...

Mr. SMITH: ...to get there.

Mrs. SMITH: ...and now, you know...

Mr. SMITH: Start all over.

Mrs. SMITH: Now we're just starting all over. We have nothing, you know?

LEVS: At some point, they'll get some insurance money for their lost home, but that could take months. In New Orleans, Selwyn is a loan officer. Now he'll look for any kind of work he can get in Dallas.

Mr. SMITH: I can't be picky right now. Like, that can't be a factor prior to anything like that, either. It's just a fact of, you know, getting money to survive right now.

LEVS: Selwyn and Chiquita say they're angry. Their whole lives they've heard talk of the big one, a devastating hurricane that could one day strike the city.

Mr. SMITH: Everybody's looking lost like they don't know what to do, you know.

Mrs. SMITH: And everybody's blaming everybody, you know what I'm saying? Just stop blaming everybody, just everybody help.

Mr. SMITH: Yeah, let's do it.

Mrs. SMITH: Pitch in and--that's right. Get these people some housing or whatever. You know? Help us.

LEVS: They're most worried for their children who have been through trauma and keep moving around with no home and no sense of normalcy. The kids are ages 14, 11 and 9. Kiante(ph) is the oldest.

KIANTE SMITH (Hurricane Survivor): I feel frustrated all the time and angry 'cause I had to leave home, and I just got settled into a new school and stuff.

LEVS: Selwyn and Chiquita say they try every day to comfort their children. This is what Selwyn tells them.

Mr. SMITH: We just got to stick together and deal with it, you know, for right now. Just tell them everything will be better later.

LEVS: He also tells them they fared better than some other people. The Smiths fear they may have friends among the dead. They say New Orleans always felt like a tight community, and it's impossible to fathom that that community may be in the past. The Smiths say all they can do now is try to move on. For NPR News, I'm Joshua Levs.

BRAND: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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