Katrina & Beyond

Displaced by Katrina, One Voter Heads Home

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Kimberly Samuels and her family left New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck. But even though she's now relocated to Houston, she wants to vote in the upcoming New Orleans city elections — even if that means a long bus ride. Hear her story in her own words.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

This weekend, New Orleans voters will cast their ballots in a primary election that could decide who will lead their city out of crisis. But for many displaced Big Easy residents, registering and voting has proven difficult if not impossible. One of these voters is Kimberly Samuels of New Orleans Upper Ninth Ward.

She now lives in Houston. A teacher for 30 years and a voting rights activist, Samuels joined dozens of other displaced residents on the long bus ride back to the Crescent city to cast her vote. Here's Kimberly Samuels in her own words.

Ms. KIMBERLY SAMUELS (Former New Orleans Resident): I have slept in so many different things that we often laugh at it. I've slept on a twin bed, and I'm a big lady, so that was really funny. I've slept on a cot. I've slept on an air mattress. I've slept the concrete. I've slept on the floor. At present, I'm sleeping on a bed that we've pushed together. We took two twin mattresses. We put them together to make a king size mattress and it doesn't quite fit, and we have no headboard. And during the night, I keep feeling like I'm falling. So I told my husband, when we get the house redone, I'm going to have a real bed that I can sleep in.

Teaching is my passion. I love teaching so much that right now, I feel like I'm just--I'm really like a fish out of water right now, because I miss the children so much. When I was really concerned about Katrina was when it became really too late. We did great, we thought, until the water came. And then when the water came, and the water kept coming and coming and coming, and we realized it was no ordinary water. It was just gushing in with a force that was so powerful it didn't even give us the opportunity to move our automobiles to higher ground.

And it was a real tense moment, because we didn't know where anybody was. And that's when young men of community came in boats and took us on the boats to the 610. There were hundreds and hundreds of people who had been there prior to our arrival.

So we stayed on the interstate for two days without food or water, without any shelter, without anything, just waiting for some buses to come and take us wherever it was that they were going to be taken us to. When the buses did come, unfortunately, they said we had to leave our animals. We cannot bring the animals with us, and this was a very big heart break. Our pets were the joy of our life. We felt that was a part of our family.

We had to let our dog go on the interstate. We cried the entire time. And we got on the bus, and when we got on the bus after traveling for a while, they finally told us that they were taking us to Houston.

Houston is so different from New Orleans. It's such a big city. And we miss that atmosphere where you can go to the grocery store and know everybody who you meet along the block. And we're just not feeling that in Houston. I've been back to my home seven times. We still have no electricity. Some things you will never be able to replace. It's very heart breaking, especially when I think about how we planned so hard, we played by all the rules.

We worked hard to pay our house off early so that when, in fact, we did retire, we could live comfortably and prepare for the day that we would have grandchildren. It's hard not to be angry, because you don't know who to be angry with. I don't want to angry at the wrong people. I found out that if I'm angry, it prevents me from thinking straight.

But I try to be very assertive at when I'm saying to the politicians, you caused this to happen to us. The hurricane didn't cause the damage. It was the lack of a well built levee. So, now do something about it. I'm one of these people, I've worked for voter registration even before I was old enough to vote. So when I became 18 years old, I was so excited about voting, I walked to City Hall, and since that time, I have never missed an election, because I didn't have to miss. It made it feel great that I was able to cast my vote.

The process of registering voters was a bit complicated, because we kept getting different information as what would be needed to vote. First, we were told we would have to all sign affidavits. Then they were saying that you would have to appear in person on a different date. If you had registered prior to September something, then you would have to do thus and forth.

I think it was all deterrents to keep people from actually voting and from people just saying, well, look this is too much of a hassle. I'm not going to worry about it. But we wouldn't let the people become discouraged. We were like, no, we're going to handle the situation for you. We're going to check on your status. So we actually did all of the ground work to assure those people who actually wanted to become registered voters that the opportunity would be there for them.

Each night I talked to my children, my sister, my mother, my brothers, my sisters, and it's so many of us that I find myself still up till 1:30, 2:00 in the morning. And then I prepare to go to bed so I could start all over again.

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