A Place to Live, Now a Job: Displaced by Katrina

Day to Day continues its profile of a family forced to leave their New Orleans home by Hurricane Katrina. Reporter Joshua Levs catches up with the Smith family outside Dallas, Texas, where they have found a new apartment. The kids are in school — now parents Selwyn and Chiquita must find work.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Ever since Hurricane Katrina, we've been following the story of one family that escaped New Orleans and is trying to build a new life. The Smiths first went to Atlanta, then Dallas. That's where they are now, living with practically nothing. But their kids are in school and beginning this week they'll be in an apartment. Joshua Levs reports.

JOSHUA LEVS reporting:

As Selwyn and Chiquita Smith get settled in an apartment this week, it will mark the first time since the storm that they're not crowding themselves, their three children, and a niece into one small hotel room with two beds. We reached them at what they hope will be their last hotel for a while, a Best Western in McKinney, Texas, just north of Dallas.

Mrs. CHIQUITA SMITH (Evacuee): I'll be glad to get out of here. This is miserable, just living in one room, you know, not really eating properly.

LEVS: Chiquita said the family would move into a new three-bedroom apartment in McKinney sight unseen. Selwyn's relatives in nearby Arlington helped them find out about the place. The building's owner is working with relief agencies to make at least the first month free. Chiquita said the family was looking forward to it, even though the place has no beds.

Mrs. SMITH: You know, we still don't have furniture and, you know, a television. So, I mean, you know, we're still struggling to get there and we're still looking for odd jobs so we can get those things that we need, so they can feel, you know, normal again.

LEVS: They're hoping to spring for a couple of air mattresses, and some of the family members might sleep on the floor. The little money they had is quickly dwindling. Selwyn says they've pretty much been getting by on turkey sandwiches.

Mr. SELWYN SMITH (Evacuee): You know, we got to, you know, basically try to hold on to everything we could hold on to, you know. So it's still not, like, living like you're used to living, but you got to adapt for right now. You just got to live.

LEVS: He found out the family will get nothing for a restored '69 Buick they had in New Orleans, and it could be months before they get anything for the destroyed shotgun home they were just about to move into. Selwyn is starting to look for jobs, but all he has are two pairs of shorts. He's torn about whether to buy slacks, shirts and ties.

Mr. SMITH: I have to try to save as much as I can save. So, you know, I mean, I do have it, but I could use it for other things, but I have to do that right now.

LEVS: At home, he was a loan officer at a lending company. Now he's looking for work in sales or pretty much anything he can get. And with six mouths to feed, he's hoping for a salary that will at least put enough food on the table.

Mr. SMITH: Hopefully, at least 30 a year. You know, the cost of living is a little bit more than New Orleans here. So we need at least that.

LEVS: He says it's far less than he was making at home.

Amid the struggles, the family has had a big success this week. All four children were enrolled in public schools in McKinney. Eleven-year-old Selwyn Smith Jr. is in sixth grade. He says he already made a couple of friends.

SELWYN SMITH Jr. (Son): Everybody, like, was real friendly I guess because I'm from New Orleans. Everybody wanted to help me out and stuff.

LEVS: Fourteen-year-old Kiante(ph) Smith is in ninth grade. She says her first morning at school on Monday was tough.

KIANTE SMITH (Daughter): I felt a little bit nervous, a little, because I didn't really know nobody. I was just quiet because I didn't know nobody, had nobody really to talk to.

LEVS: She says that changed by the second day.

K. SMITH: Yeah, I got a lot of friends now.

LEVS: She says some of those friends are other new students from New Orleans. Kiante wants to move back someday, but her mother, Chiquita, doesn't see that happening.

Mrs. SMITH: I think it's going to change so much, it just won't even feel the same anymore. It's not going to ever be what it was.

LEVS: Chiquita's mother and grandmother fled to Texas as well. They're in Houston, and she hopes that soon they'll all settle near each other. But Chiquita says while they look ahead, the family struggles every day with how much they all miss home. For NPR News, I'm Joshua Levs.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick, and NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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