First Christmas in a New Home

Reporter Joshua Levs has been following the Smiths, a New Orleans family displaced by Hurricane Katrina, as they struggle to rebuild their lives. Now the Smiths are preparing for their first Christmas at their new home in Texas. Parents Selwyn and Chiquita plan to take their kids back to New Orleans after the holiday, in hopes that a first-hand look at the damage will ease the children's adjustment to their new home.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

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

More than three months after Hurricane Katrina, thousands of families remain far from home and they're working to rebuild new lives in unfamiliar cities. It's especially hard during the holiday season. Joshua Levs has followed the Smith family ever since they fled New Orleans just before the storm. This week, he visited them at their new home in McKinney, Texas.

JOSHUA LEVS reporting:

We're driving through the busy streets of McKinney, a city of about 100,000 people, a 45-minute ride north from Dallas. Chiquita and Selwyn Smith have gotten pretty good at navigating the area, though they say driving in McKinney is very different from driving in New Orleans.

Mrs. CHIQUITA SMITH: It does not compare.

LEVS: They say the pace of life feels different.

Mr. SELWYN SMITH: I don't know, like everybody's in a rush, trying to hurry to get home.

LEVS: They're getting used to Texas life and like some expressions they hear.

Mrs. SMITH: `Bless your heart.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMITH: I recognize that one.

Mrs. SMITH: `Bless you heart, darlin'.' I like that.

LEVS: They've also come to like the famous Texas pride.

Mrs. SMITH: Yeah, the pride here, that's what I like. And I wish people in New Orleans would have that, I really do.

LEVS: We pull up to their house on a quiet residential street of brick homes with small front lawns.

Mrs. SMITH: This is our entryway. This is our--like, a little office, and the kids can do their homework and...

LEVS: It's a spacious single-story house with a large living room and three bedrooms. They have some furniture that Selwyn brought back from New Orleans. He says it helps them all feel a little more comfortable.

Mr. SMITH: If your house--you know, if some of the things at your house are still from there, you got some of your furniture, you know, that helps out.

LEVS: There's a nice leather couch that was among furniture locals donated to Katrina evacuees, and against the wall, a Christmas tree, about six feet tall, donated by a nearby church.

Mrs. SMITH: And then they donated decorations and stuff like that, so, you know, decorate the tree as well.

LEVS: There are presents beneath the tree. The Smiths saved money for gifts for their three children and their niece who's living with them.

In the best of times, Christmas can be difficult for people in a new city. After all the Smiths have gone through, they want as normal a holiday as possible. They're not religious, and Christmas Day is also Selwyn's birthday. In New Orleans, they would celebrate with friends and relatives.

Mr. SMITH: I guess it's pretty much like anybody else. We'd go visit family, spend time and talk and pretty much relax and...

LEVS: Selwyn has cousins in McKinney. That's why he and Chiquita chose the city.

Mr. SMITH: And they're trying to like exchange gifts and stuff like that, you know, pulling numbers. So all that's going to help out, you know. And even the kids participating, so that's a good thing, too.

LEVS: But it's a poignant time. They're all missing their loved ones. That's why they're more excited about the day after Christmas. The kids have vacation, so the Smiths will take a 10-hour drive to New Orleans. Fourteen-year-old Kiante(ph) is the oldest child.

KIANTE SMITH: I really want to be in New Orleans for Christmas, be by my grandma and all them. But we doing the day after Christmas, so I guess I'll just deal with it for a day.

LEVS: Kiante has been around her cousins and friends in New Orleans her whole life. In McKinney, she's been pretty miserable. But she says things have gotten a little better.

K. SMITH: I have to open up to people more, rather than like trying to like be by myself all the time. I like having more friends.

LEVS: Still, McKinney feels like a strange city.

K. SMITH: I don't call it home, really.

LEVS: They all think of New Orleans as home, even though they have no plans to move back. Chiquita says it's disorienting.

Mrs. SMITH: I feel kind of lost, in a way. I like living out here because it's family oriented and I know my kids can get a good education and everything, but I miss being home and it's just so much just going wrong with, you know, New Orleans.

LEVS: She says it's painful to speak about it.

Mrs. SMITH: It is, because I don't know when it's going to come together.

LEVS: The Smiths also have a lot to deal with in New Orleans. Their modest home was largely destroyed in the storm, and a new house they were just about to move into was damaged. They've been making calls every day.

Mrs. SMITH: It's putting a strain on us because can't rent it out, the mortgage company want their--you know, the mortgage notes, and right now, you know, still waiting on insurance. So--and you can't really work, you know, at this present time and be committed to what you're doing.

LEVS: Back in New Orleans, Selwyn was a loan officer; Chiquita ran a hair shop. They have managed to get by without work largely because of the kindness of strangers. People who heard about them donated enough money to cover the monthly $1,200 rent on their McKinney house through March. Selwyn says he points out their good fortune to try to lift the family's spirits.

Mr. SMITH: I tried not to be negative, you know, and even think negative, you know. I try to look at the positive.

LEVS: And while his wife and daughter struggle to adjust, the two boys are doing well. Outside, 11-year-old Selwyn Jr. and 10-year-old Tremaine(ph) race their skateboards down the driveway.

TREMAINE SMITH: I beat you.

LEVS: Tremaine likes the fact that they live on a quiet street and rarely have to worry about cars, a big change from their urban area in New Orleans.

T. SMITH: It's good. Because not much cars come and we can just go to the park, like, right down there.

LEVS: He says he's having just as much fun here.

T. SMITH: They're about equal.

LEVS: Selwyn Jr. is making good grades, joined a football team and has fun playing video games like Galaxy Quest.

(Soundbite of video game sound effects)

LEVS: He knows what he wants for Christmas.

SELWYN SMITH Jr.: A cell phone. Everybody has one.

LEVS: Overall, he's pretty happy.

S. SMITH: I'm just missing my home a little bit. Other than that, it's great.

LEVS: So this one doesn't feel like your home?

S. SMITH: Yeah, it feels like my home. I've been adjusting a little bit, but it would be nice to visit.

LEVS: But he's also a little nervous about the trip back for the holiday. The kids haven't been to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. They've only seen the images on TV.

S. SMITH: I might not know my way around as much and stuff, like, I might not be used to some of the things that I'm seeing that I'll see.

LEVS: His cousin who's living with them once said she never wanted to go back. Ten-year-old Tranetta Lacue(ph) was living with Chiquita's mother, but she's been with the Smiths ever since they fled the city. Now she really wants to move back and is no longer frightened by what she's heard about New Orleans.

TRANETTA LACUE: I don't know. I'm just not worrying about that. I'm worrying about my family.

LEVS: Tranetta might stay in New Orleans. That will be decided once the family's there. Selwyn says the trip is aimed partly at letting the kids see with their own eyes that the city isn't the same one they left.

Mr. SMITH: I think it's something that they have to do, you know, because they won't feel at ease here until they actually see what's happened there. You know, most of their friends are out and about, so I think they're going to really--you know, once they get back here, you know, they'll start adapting more to here and looking at it a little bit more as home when they see that New Orleans is just to a state where, you know, it's not really a good environment for somebody to raise a kid right now.

LEVS: Selwyn says in his view, it could be years before New Orleans will be in good enough shape for the family to move back. But he hopes that someday they will, and that Christmas in New Orleans will be the family tradition that it always was. For NPR News, I'm Joshua Levs.

BRAND: And you can hear all Josh Levs' reports on the saga of the Smith family beginning with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on our Web site, npr.org.

NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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