Families Struggle to Rebuild Sense of Home
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block in Washington, D.C.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris in New Orleans. Today, six months after Hurricane Katrina, we're talking about the issue of shelter. Finding housing, any housing, and turning a house or a trailer into a home is a persistent struggle for many who were displaced by the flooding of New Orleans. Sometimes, the places where families did find shelter only added to their woes.
We've been following one family, the Mattios. Their Ninth Ward home was ruined when the levy broke. NPR's Alix Spiegel caught up with the Mattios in Baton Rouge.
ALIX SPIEGEL reporting:
In the long months since Katrina hit, Michael Mattio has often thought of the white living room set which sat in the front room of his home.
Mr. MICHAEL MATTIO (Father of Mattio family and survivor of Hurricane Katrina): You hardly hear a man talk about being crazy over furnitures, but I was crazy about that living room set. I was crazy about it. That was my, sort of my thinking place.
SPIEGEL: It was to the white couch that Mattio would go to pray and, occasionally, to write poetry. Though Mattio is a dishwasher by profession, before Katrina, he filled dozens of notebooks with poems, most rhyming couplets celebrating the goodness of God. Michael and his wife, Carolyn, are both devout Christians who go to church several times a week. But after the storm, in the wake of losing the home they had struggled so hard to buy, Michael's poetry turned dark.
I'm unaware that I even exist, one poem read. I drift off into the night, being aware that I'm unaware causes me to fright.
Michael says he wrote the poem three weeks after the storm.
Mr. MATTIO: I was just in the state of mind of loneliness, where I just didn't feel I exist, and I've had somewhat of a hard time. I try to keep it from the family sometimes. I try not let them see my cry many times, but a lot of times, I can't help it, to see your house destroyed.
SPIEGEL: The house was important, Mattio says, because paying the mortgage made him feel like he was doing right by his family.
Mr. MATTIO: See, I never, I've never had a high-paying job. And many times the kind of work I was doing, washing dishes and things, just, I just felt like I couldn't take care of my family sufficiently. But I was kind of satisfied that I was taking care of them, maybe not at best, but I was taking care of them.
SPIEGEL: But then the house was washed away, and their flood insurance didn't leave them with enough to buy again. The car was lost, Michael's job was gone, and the Mattios found themselves using FEMA checks to pay for a single room at the Reiger Road Motel 6 off Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge. It was a desolate location, and because Michael and Carolyn had to share their room with their two teenaged sons, the family was constantly on top of each other.
One day, three weeks ago, Michael explained that the room had become a kind of prison to him, a place so devoid of hope that it had turned his mind in dangerous directions.
Mr. MATTIO: I've left here, I mean, I went over there by Target several times. I rode my bicycle over there, and God knows, I've sat down there, and I've felt like just taking that bicycle and just ride on in the traffic. And one time it really hit me strongly, just go ahead on and get it over with. But then, it was like a mere thought, and it said to me, what gives you the right?
SPIEGEL: Michael wasn't the only person in the family to contemplate suicide. A month before, his sister-in-law, Beverly Kendall, distraught that she still had to pay mortgage on her lost home, swallowed a handful of pills so she could, as she explained it afterwards, sleep away. Part of the problem seemed to be the motel itself. There had been a rash of rumors about shootings at the Holiday Inn next door, and Michael was regularly solicited by prostitutes on the way to the laundry room. He said he was worried for his children.
Mr. MATTIO: Well, you have all kind of people here. You got dope in here, robbers in here, rapists in here, and you got to be particular who your children are associated with or what time of night they be out and that you have to have them inside for a certain time, and you got to stand guard over them.
SPIEGEL: Michael and his wife, Carolyn, tried to place strict limits on their children. But they said that their 15 and 16-year-old sons had been influenced by the new surroundings. Carolyn Mattio.
Ms. CAROLYN MATTIO (Mother in Mattio family): Oh, God, yeah. They changed like night and day. They didn't never used to fuss back or, you know, speak back to us. What we said was law. They used to like to, you know, I used to hear them saying (unintelligible) around the house. It's not like that now here.
SPIEGEL: Suddenly, there was fighting in Carolyn's home and unruly behavior.
Ms. MATTIO: They did tell me they cursing now, they didn't do that. They'd have never heard us curse.
SPIEGEL: There was even trouble at school. Michael, Jr. was briefly suspended for hitting a classmate, and for the first time ever, Michael and Myron brought home Fs. Carolyn felt that a gang of older boys at the Motel 6 were to blame for the change, and she was hopeful that it would stop. See, after months of uncertainty, Carolyn had found an apartment, a three-bedroom several miles away, and she hoped the new neighborhood would be better for her sons.
Ms. MATTIO: I'm hoping that once we move, I can get on back to, back on a, on a level where I can cope with them. I'm hoping it would change all our moods.
SPIEGEL: Shortly after this conversation, Carolyn, her husband, Michael, and their younger son, Myron, set out to see the inside of their new apartment for the first time. They had to find a ride because they had no transportation, and Michael doesn't have a job. Still, everyone seemed elated as the car pulled out of the parking lot. Carolyn Mattio even began to sing.
Ms. MATTIO: (Singing) Victory, victory shall be mine. Victory, victory shall be mine. If I hold my peace and let the Lord fight my battles, victory, victory shall be mine.
SPIEGEL: The car drove past strip malls for a while, but eventually, the concrete gave way to lush, green lawns and large, well-manicured houses. Carolyn watched the green squares pass with longing.
Ms. MATTIO: No, I would like a home in this area here. This is a nice area. It seems quiet.
SPIEGEL: But the car continued, and green lawns gave way once again to strip malls with shabby discount stores. And then, finally, to a series of large boxy apartment buildings. From the back seat, Myron, who was seeing his new neighborhood for the first time, commented that the area looked like New Orleans public housing, and Carolyn agreed.
Ms. MATTIO: Looked like in the project areas from somewhere.
SPIEGEL: The car slowed in front of a plain, brick building with a sign reading Le Bellaire out front.
Ms. MATTIO: Right here. Pull in here.
SPIEGEL: The former occupant, a tall woman with a baby on her hip, who was clearing out the last of the furniture, was in the apartment and gave a tour while Carolyn asked questions.
Ms. MATTIO: Was this a bedroom?
Unidentified Female (Former tenant): This was our room, yes.
Ms. MATTIO: Okay, that's a bedroom, that's a bedroom.
SPIEGEL: The kitchen and bedrooms were small and dark, but the living room was large, just like the one they had left behind in New Orleans. After a few minutes of looking, Carolyn stood in the middle of her new home and offered her assessment.
Ms. MATTIO: I guess it'll do.
SPIEGEL: On the drive back, the mood in the car was distinctly different. It was mostly quiet. Carolyn and Michael seemed to be absorbing the reality of their changed circumstances.
Ms. MATTIO: The kitchen's kind of small, but that's all right.
Mr. MATTIO: We don't need a large kitchen. I like that little kitchen. Everything is right at hand.
Ms. MATTIO: Okay.
SPIEGEL: Carolyn mentioned that it was difficult not to think of the old house in the Ninth Ward, but then, she shook her head.
Ms. MATTIO: We'll just have to give it a chance, I imagine. Maybe if we'll be here, like, some, some years or whatever, it will be, it'll be different.
SPIEGEL: But there was no more singing. Instead, they sat there thinking, watching the strip malls roll by.
Alix Spiegel, NPR News.