Homesick for New Orleans, but Thankful in Texas

Joshua Levs has the latest dispatch in his series or reports on the Smith family, who fled New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit. Selwyn and Chiquita Smith are homesick for New Orleans, but thankful for having survived the storm and for the kindness of strangers. The Smiths will celebrate Thanksgiving with relatives at their new home in McKinney, Texas.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

For the tens of thousands of people who lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina, Thanksgiving could be a poignant holiday. Many are living in new cities far from their loved ones. We checked in with a family we've been following since the storm struck, the Smith family from New Orleans. Joshua Levs reports.

JOSHUA LEVS reporting:

We reached Chiquita and Selwyn Smith at their home in McKinney, Texas, just outside Dallas. Their three kids and a niece are sharing two bedrooms, and they've got a telephone line, couch and TV. But Chiquita said she still doesn't have a sense of normalcy.

Mrs. CHIQUITA SMITH: I just thought that it would feel a little more like home, but just as the months are rolling by, you know, I'm getting homesick and things are not going back, you know, to normal quite as fast as I would hope in New Orleans.

LEVS: The Smiths are not moving back in the foreseeable future. We were with them last month when they witnessed their destroyed home and said New Orleans felt like a strange city. But they still worry about their city and have a lot to deal with there, like paperwork and insurance adjustments.

Mrs. SMITH: I just want to get that over with and then we can get back to normal, you know.

LEVS: Selwyn says they've been able to put food on the table using the little savings they had, a $2,000 debit card from FEMA and contributions from strangers who have heard about their plight.

Mr. SELWYN SMITH: You know, in a time like this, you find resources and you find a way to stretch your resources. But the hardest part with us is, you know, all our friends and family are in need also.

LEVS: Some of their relatives are nearby and will join them for Thanksgiving, but they're not planning anything big. Chiquita says after the emotional roller coaster of the last three months, her family just wants some time to relax.

Mrs. SMITH: Fix some food and just sit around, you know, play ball with the kids and watch some movies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LEVS: Three of the kids are adjusting well, but not the oldest.

KIANTE SMITH(ph): Yeah, I'm kind of having a tough time.

LEVS: Fourteen-year-old Kiante is in the ninth grade.

SMITH: Like, it's hard getting settled into the school. It's just different and I miss my family and my friends, and everybody's so far from me.

LEVS: She's been thinking about what Thanksgiving was like at home.

SMITH: Usually, like, our family, we have, like, one person have, like, a big party at their house and everybody gets together in one house and we eat and stuff and, like, cook outside and, you know--and there'd be all the kids outside playing together.

LEVS: Kiante thinks this year it'll be a difficult holiday.

SMITH: It'll kind of be, but I'll get over it.

LEVS: The Smiths are hoping a family tradition will help instill some optimism. Each year, they all list things they're thankful for. Chiquita says despite all they've lost, she feels especially grateful this year.

Mrs. SMITH: I'm thankful that we got out of there. I'm thankful for so much. I mean, a lot of things, really. I'm thankful for everybody who extended, you know, help, and I'm thankful that my mother and my grandmother got out of there.

LEVS: Her mother and grandmother were rescued by boat when the house they were stuck in flooded. Selwyn says this year has shown him the extent to which perfect strangers will go to help each other.

Mr. SMITH: When you see somebody, they see you in a store paying for something and they see a Louisiana ID, they talking to you and you're holding 30-minute conversations with perfect strangers because they really want to know how they can help and--you know, so I'm just thankful that, you know, they just got people that really have hearts, that are really concerned and really ready to do something to help people in a time of need.

LEVS: He says that knowledge helps the family face its uncertain future. Soon, Selwyn and Chiquita will start looking for work. At home, he was a mortgage officer; she ran a small beauty salon. Selwyn says everything they've been through and the help they've received make him feel more confident that it will all work out. For NPR News, I'm Joshua Levs.

BRAND: Our program returns in a moment. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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