A Holiday Visit to a Hurricane-Ravaged Home
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Farai Chideya.
For the first time since Hurricane Katrina struck, Selwyn and Chiquita Smith's family has returned to see their devastated hometown. We followed the Smiths from the time they fled New Orleans just before the storm, through their adjustment to their new home in McKinney, Texas. As Joshua Levs reports, Selwyn and Chiquita hoped this trip might help their children feel better about leaving home.
JOSHUA LEVS reporting:
The Smith family took the eight-and-a-half-hour drive in a rented SUV on Monday, and 14-year-old Kiante(ph), the oldest child, couldn't believe what she saw when they arrived.
KIANTE SMITH: I was really shocked.
LEVS: Of the Smiths' three children, Kiante has had the toughest time adjusting to a new city. She's missed New Orleans and being surrounded by friends and family. Despite hearing about the destruction, she wasn't prepared for what the city would look like.
K. SMITH: It looked bad. All of the houses are messed up. They got stuff all over the roads. The lights are not working in the streets. All the damage caused--like, under the bridge.
LEVS: Her little brother, 10-year-old Tremaine(ph), was also surprised.
TREMAINE SMITH: It's bad. There's, like, trash everywhere and, like, windows broken and glass everywhere.
LEVS: He says it feels like a different place.
T. SMITH: But it really doesn't matter because, like, we're all together. We're a good family.
LEVS: When we reached them, the Smiths were staying on the second floor of their old house in Esplanade Ridge. The first floor was largely destroyed by the storm. The rooms are empty now, but the first floor still has mold so the Smiths aren't letting the kids go downstairs. The water is on, but they're not drinking it. The house has no phone service so they spoke with us at night on a cell phone. The father, Selwyn, isn't taking the family anywhere at night.
Mr. SELWYN SMITH: It is dark. You know, nobody really feels safe 'cause, you know, you can't see for blocks, and there's no streetlights, there's no really lights--I mean, there's no lights at all. And nobody's really in there, so it's basically abandoned.
LEVS: It's a stark change from the bustling, active atmosphere they're used to in the midcity neighborhood. Kiante says seeing this is helping her accept her new life in McKinney, Texas.
K. SMITH: Yeah, I think I can live in Texas. I don't think I could live in Texas permanently, but I can live there temporarily.
LEVS: The middle child, 11-year-old Selwyn Jr., had a different reaction to how New Orleans looks.
SELWYN SMITH Jr.: Better than I thought. I didn't think it was going to look like this. I thought it was gonna look worse than this.
LEVS: He says he imagined even more destruction to all the houses. Still, he's glad his family no longer lives in New Orleans.
S. SMITH: And if we ever do go back, I would like to wait, like, until everything gets back to normal and stuff, when there's more people and stuff, because there's nobody here.
LEVS: The Smiths are trying to fix their home so they can sell it, and they've gotten their first insurance check, $15,000 for the destroyed contents. But they have no plans to move back. The mother, Chiquita, was in New Orleans once since the storm, in early October. Now grappling with a cold on her second return to the city, she sees no signs of improvement.
Mrs. CHIQUITA SMITH: It hasn't changed at all. It's--they still have cars and boats around and debris and trees and, I mean, everywhere. It's basically the same. It has not changed.
LEVS: While the Smiths feel the city is unlivable, their niece, who's been living with them, will be staying in New Orleans. Ten-year-old Tranetta LeCue(ph) was raised by Chiquita's mother, but fled with the Smiths. She has missed her relatives and her hometown. Now that she's back, she doesn't like what she's seeing.
TRANETTA LeCUE: They have--people have been littering, like, they have trash on the ground. And the trees are falling on the houses.
LEVS: But she wants to move back. And though Texas life, with a nice house and a nice neighborhood, may look better, Tranetta says she won't really miss it.
LECUE: Not that much.
LEVS: The rest of the family is getting used to Texas. Christmas with relatives there worked out OK, they say. They'll spend New Year's in New Orleans before driving back, but they've made no special plans. With life so day by day, they haven't made new year's resolutions. Chiquita says there's one citywide ritual the family participates in each year.
Mrs. SMITH: We'll light off firecrackers and fireworks and pop them outside, you know, in front of the door.
LEVS: But this year, she says, they may not be in the mood for celebrating.
Mrs. SMITH: Hmm, I don't know.
LEVS: If the family does set off firecrackers, they could prove to be a very lonely sound. For NPR News, I'm Joshua Levs.
CHIDEYA: You can hear all of Joshua Levs' stories about the Smith family at our Web site, npr.org.