Two Years After Katrina, the Mattios Return Home After Hurricane Katrina, the Mattios spent two years in makeshift homes in Baton Rouge. The family nearly fell apart under the stress of the situation. But now, as they finally return to their home in New Orleans, they say they've turned a corner.
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Two Years After Katrina, the Mattios Return Home

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Two Years After Katrina, the Mattios Return Home

Two Years After Katrina, the Mattios Return Home

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

All this month, we're telling stories about people two years after Hurricane Katrina. Last August, we heard the story of one New Orleans family, the Mattios.

The family had spent eight months in a single motel room next to I-10 in Baton Rouge. They lived among prostitutes and drug dealers. And the father, Michael Mattio, told reporter Alix Spiegel that he was struggling just to keep himself together.

Mr. MICHAEL MATTIO, SR (Katrina Survivor): I would leave here. I mean, I went over to that target several times. Have rode my bicycle over there. And God knows, I've sat down there and I felt like just taking that bicycle and just ride on into traffic. I try to keep it from the family sometimes. I try not to let them see me cry many times. But a lot of times, I can't help it.

NORRIS: Shortly after that interview, the family heard about an affordable apartment nearby. And though the space was small and dark, Carolyn Mattio decided they should move in and make the best of things.

Ms. CAROLYN MATTIO (Katrina Survivor): You just have to give it a chance, I imagine. But then, who knows, you might start thinking of it like another home.

NORRIS: Today, as we near the two-year anniversary of Katrina, we visit the Mattios again. And once again, it's before big move. This time, back to their old home in New Orleans.

Alix Spiegel has our story.

Ms. MATTIO: You want raisins or dirty rice?

ALIX SPIEGEL: On a narrow kitchen counter in her Baton Rouge apartment, Carolyn Mattio had set up lunch. But her older son Michael Jr. is unenthusiastic. While his brother Myran sits down to a plate piled with chicken, 17-year-old Michael Jr. lies on the floor in front of the television silently.

Ms. MATTIO: Michael. (Unintelligible).

SPIEGEL: Carolyn and her two boys had lived in the apartment more or less alone for months now. Michael Sr. stays in New Orleans most of the week to protect their old home from looters. Practically speaking, this means Carolyn is responsible for disciplining her children, which has been hard.

Ms. MATTIO: When we first got here, the children was gone haywire. It was like they were in a cage, you know? And my sons, I didn't really, like, know them.

SPIEGEL: In New Orleans before the storm, both Michael Jr. and Myran were in church choir. Myran went to a magnet school. But after Katrina and their time in the motel, they became different people. Suddenly, the boys were involved in street fighting and used foul language. Carolyn still remembers sitting down on the apartment couch with their report cards and seeing something she had never seen before.

Ms. MATTIO: F, F, F, F - all the card, all the way across.

SPIEGEL: Had that ever happened before?

Ms. MATTIO: No. No. They always make good grades. A's and B's. And I don't think they had ever made but one or two C's.

SPIEGEL: Carolyn started taking the boys to the library each night, sitting with them four or five hours at a time. That helped a little. But Michael Jr., who had developed serious sleep problems after Katrina, still ended up failing the year.

What amazes Carolyn is that despite all their troubles, the kids have told her that they have no interest in returning to their home in New Orleans.

Ms. MATTIO: No, they did gotten used to over here. And where we are going, they don't have that many teenagers there. To us, it still got a lot of empty houses and a lot of empty areas still.

SPIEGEL: Carolyn has worked relentlessly over the last two years to arrange for the reconstruction of their home, getting insurance payments and disaster funds. But most people in her neighborhood have not been as successful as her family at navigating the bureaucratic maze. And the street they lived on remains mostly abandoned. In fact, according to Carolyn, there's only one other teenage boy on the block where they live. And she doesn't like him.

Ms. MATTIO: I wouldn't want them to deal with him, you know, because he's on drugs or - in whatever. And I'm kind of afraid that if they start dealing with him, I don't know what they'll do. Praying they will say no, but you'll never know, never know.

SPIEGEL: This is one of the problems Carolyn sees in returning to New Orleans. But there are others. For one, she's worried about her husband, Michael Sr.

Ms. MATTIO: Sometimes, he looks like he is at his last, you know, straw, like. He had been, like, been trying to find jobs. But Mike will be 72 next month. And it's kind of, like, hard for people to want to hire him.

SPIEGEL: Carolyn says that without work, Michael has become short tempered and so withdrawn that recently, even when he's with the family in Baton Rouge, he tends to go off alone. He'll excuse himself to go sit in the bedroom.

Ms. MATTIO: Silently, if I go to door, sometimes I hear him praying. It seemed like he just wants to be by himself, especially when Michael Jr. and him gets into it.

SPIEGEL: And Michael Jr. and Sr. seemed to get into it a lot these days. This, too, worries Carolyn, particularly since the episode one night, a couple of months ago, when Michael Sr. confronted Michael Jr. after he came home past his bedtime.

Ms. MATTIO: They had gotten into an argument and my husband hit him. And my son shoved him and my other son jumped out the bed and pushed him. And I was in the bed and I jumped up and I grabbed them. I got between them two. And - it was the worst I ever seen. I have never seen that before in my whole life.

SPIEGEL: Carolyn says this experience has profoundly affected the way she sees her husband.

Ms MATTIO: That plays in my head a lot. And now, when my husband is here with them, I'm constantly worried about it. He said he would never do it again. But I don't know. I don't - I've never shared it with my husband, nor, you know, my sons. But I don't trust them together no more. And that's bad.

Mr. MATTIO SR: (Singing) Walk with me, Lord. Walk with me. Walk with me, Lord. Come on and walk with me.

SPIEGEL: Michael Sr. gave a tour of his neighborhood on the edge of the Ninth Ward shortly before his family moved home. He started at the family has refurbished brick ranch house and walked down the street to their old church now gone, past rows of abandoned houses.

Just as Carolyn had said, the neighborhood was desolate. Even at midday, the streets were practically deserted. And with no cars to cover the sound, Michael's footsteps echoed strangely on the pavement.

Mr. MATTIO SR: Nothing around here.

SPIEGEL: Later, back at the family home, Michael Sr. settled on to a couch still covered in plastic and explained that he, like Carolyn, was worried about the children.

Mr. MATTIO SR: They're really - I don't believe they're really doing well, you know. Michael, I don't know what I'm going to do with Michael, to tell you the truth. I don't know really what he would respond to.

SPIEGEL: Every week, Michael Sr. said, he would bike the city, looking for the kind of places the boys might respond to - an open pool, a good view of the river, anything that might distract them from the negative influences he felt closing in.

It was the kind of thing that Michael Sr. and Carolyn had really consciously spend their lives doing. And for 14 years before Katrina, they had been successful. They'd fought up every threat that a young African-American kid growing up in a poor city neighborhood might encounter - until the storm. At which point, the barriers that the Mattios had so studiously erected between their children and the world were washed away. And their kids, particularly their eldest Michael Jr., were exposed.

Mr. MATTIO SR: You know, he told me one day, told me and said, daddy, I'm more streetwise than you. Before Katrina, he wasn't like that. That would get me so concerned about Michael.

SPIEGEL: In terms of his own well being, Michael Sr. says that now his family is coming back to New Orleans, he feels he's turning a corner.

Mr. MATTIO SR: Well, I'm doing okay now. Yeah, I'm doing okay now. I'm doing pretty well now. I'm trying to see where I'm going rather than where I come from.

SPIEGEL: Michael Sr. admits that over the last year, he did withdraw from the family. That in the strange way, he almost felt better living alone in New Orleans, sleeping on a sheet of plywood in the decimated living room, trying to deal with the idea that many of the things he had worked so hard for were now gone.

Mr. MATTIO SR: Sometimes I was glad to be alone because I can, you know, I can just let myself go when I couldn't do that in front of my family. I couldn't get out and cry in front of my family, you know. But when I get here, I just let the tear just go like they want to go.

SPIEGEL: So how often would you sit here and cry?

Mr. MATTIO SR: Oh, well, it wouldn't be every night, maybe two, three nights out a week. I come, sit up in here now and I'll cry and I'll pray.

SPIEGEL: Even with his family coming back to their home, Michael Sr. doesn't feel like Katrina is entirely over. But in a way, he thinks that might be not such a bad thing.

Mr. MATTIO SR: I think Katrina would always linger in there somewhere. But instead of it would be disastrous thought, I think it'd be a thought that we can build on because for the simple reason I have seen the distress in it. I've experienced the hurry. So it would always be there for a teacher. Always.

Ms. MATTIO SR: No, that's not it. It's right here, Michael.

Mr. MICHAEL MATTIO JR (Katrina Survivor): You said, where's the napkins?

Ms. MATTIO: No. That's more than napkins in the bag, Michael.

Mr. MATTIO JR: There's so much more in the (unintelligible).

Ms. MATTIO: Oh, okay. All right.

Mr. MATTIO JR: Okay.

Ms. MATTIO: Come on, you all.

SPIEGEL: Back in Baton Rouge, about a week after Michael Sr. gave us that tour, the family loaded the last of their belongings into Carolyn's Chevy Cavalier. And after two years, finally, got on the road to New Orleans.

Ms. MATTIO: Goodbye apartment. Nice staying there, but don't want to live there no more. Tell them bye, Michael and Myran.

Mr. MATTIO JR: Yeah. Yeah.

Ms. MATTIO: Tell our apartment bye-bye.

Mr. MATTIO JR: And we thank you. Bye-bye.

Ms. MATTIO: Bye.

SPIEGEL: Though the packing had been harried, somehow when they got on the open highway, the mood in the car shifted.

Ms. MATTIO: The pressure is beginning to lift.

SPIEGEL: An hour or so later, they were sneaking their way to the streets of New Orleans, pointing out familiar landmarks, noting progress, lack of progress. Finally, they came to their old street.

Ms. MATTIO: Oh, it seems strange turning here. It seems strange.

SPIEGEL: In the driveway, the family embraced. Then inside the backdoor, Carolyn threw down her bags and put her hands together.

Ms. MATTIO: Oh, thank God, we're home. Oh, I pray for peace and blessings.

SPIEGEL: Then she gave a sharp look at her two boys.

Ms. MATTIO: ...and respect in this home.

SPIEGEL: But they weren't paying attention. They had joined their father in the kitchen. The three were making sandwiches.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News.

Mr. MATTIO SR: Just think, if my boy James Brown was still living, I would let him sing this song with me.

Ms. MATTIO: What song?

Mr. MATTIO SR: "I Feel Good."


(Soundbite of song "I Feel Good")

NORRIS: To hear Michael Mattio Sr. read his poem, thanking people who helped his family after the storm, visit our Web site, Our story about the Mattio family from last year is there, too.

SIEGEL: All across NPR News programs this month, we're revisiting the Gulf Coast two years after Hurricane Katrina. We'll touch base with homeowners and public officials, aid workers and musicians. Some have stories of triumph to tell, but many do not.

NORRIS: Our reporters will visit evacuees in Houston and emergency management officials in Hancock County, Mississippi. And we will measure how the federal government has done in the lagging recovery after. That's all this month across NPR News.

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