A Family's Bittersweet Return to New Orleans

Reporter Joshua Levs has been following the Smiths, a New Orleans family displaced by Hurricane Katrina, as they struggle to rebuild their lives. The Smiths recently traveled to New Orleans for an aunt's funeral. Dozens of their extended family gathered there for a bittersweet reunion.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

A sad occasion for a reunion; a large New Orleans family scattered by Hurricane Katrina came together this past weekend for a funeral. It was the first time since Katrina that Chiquita and Selwyn Smith saw dozens of relatives who've relocated across the southeast.

Joshua Levs has followed the story of the Smiths and their three children ever since the storm struck. And here is his update now on the family's efforts to settle into a new life.

JOSHUA LEVS, reporting: Selwyn Smith's Aunt Melva Rollins was 69 years old. She had lived in New Orleans her whole life and fled just before Hurricane Katrina; she never made it back alive. A brain tumor claimed her life last week in McKinney, Texas where she and the Smiths and some of their other relatives had relocated.

Selwyn says more than a hundred family members gathered in New Orleans for the funeral.

Mr. SELWYN SMITH (Hurricane Katrina Evacuee): Most of the family came together; a lot of people got a chance to, you know, get new numbers --get new telephone numbers and find out. Pretty much, it was like a homecoming also, too. You know, bringing everybody together.

LEVS: He says people shared stories about Aunt Melva but also felt keenly aware of another loss -- the loss of the life that the big, extended family has always shared in New Orleans.

Mr. SMITH: Dealing when somebody's passing is hard already. And then, you know, even though we're at a funeral and stuff like that, there's a whole lot of stuff on everybody's minds other than what happened.

LEVS: Stuff like, how to get by and pay the bills where they live now.

Selwyn's relatives have scattered to Texas, Georgia, Florida and other parts of Louisiana. Selwyn's wife, Chiquita, says it was bittersweet.

Ms. CHIQUITA SMITH (Hurricane Katrina Evacuee): Even though it was under those circumstances, it was good to see people and to be around people. And it felt like, a little normal for a little while.

LEVS: The kids came, as well. It was their second trip back to New Orleans. They first saw the devastation over New Year's. Fourteen-year-old Kionte(ph) has missed her city terribly. She said she cried at the funeral and didn't want to go back to Texas.

Ms. KIONTE SMITH (Hurricane Katrina Evacuee): Hmm. That always be the hard part because I know I'm going to leave. But it wasn't so bad this time because like the first time when I actually went to New Orleans, when I left that time I really, you know, that was like really hard. But this time it wasn't that bad for me.

LEVS: That's because she's been trying to adjust to life in McKinney and little by little, she's getting there.

Ms. K. SMITH: I guess I just said I have to just get used to everything. Because I know I was going to be here for a while, so I just started having more fun and stuff.

LEVS: She says she's been spending more time with her friends from her new school. She also now has her bedroom to herself again. Kionte's cousin, Trinetta(ph), was living with the Smiths ever since the storm. The two girls were sharing a bedroom, but at New Year's, Trinetta moved back to New Orleans. Kionte misses her cousin.

Ms. K. SMITH: I've called her everyday, so it's not bad.

LEVS: Chiquita and Selwyn see Trinetta on their trips back to New Orleans. Their home was destroyed and a home they were just about to move into was damaged. They've only received one insurance check for some destroyed contents. So, Selwyn goes back often to tend to business and Chiquita sometimes goes, as well. She feels caught between two worlds.

Ms. C. SMITH: It's hard to settle and I still have unfinished business in New Orleans. It's just like a person commuting from place to place, like a job. You know?

LEVS: She says right now her life feels like work and she worries it may be this way for months to come. But she says she takes comfort in knowing that the whole extended family and tens of thousands of people like them are having similar experiences.

For NPR News, I'm Joshua Levs.

BRAND: And you can see our entire series of reports on the Smith family and pictures at our website npr.org.

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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