Displaced Family Acclimates to Life in Texas
ALEX COHEN, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
I'm Alex Chadwick.
Ever since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast two years ago, DAY TO DAY has followed the story of one family. Selwyn and Chiquita Smith and their three children fled New Orleans and began making a new life in Texas while still trying to hold on to their past.
Reporter Joshua Levs has traced their story in our series Katrina Odyssey. Here's the latest.
JOSHUA LEVS: When I first met the Smiths two years ago, they were holed up at a small hotel in Atlanta that had become a refuge for many who fled Katrina. They were exhausted and terrified for family members back home. Chiquita told me she had just spoken to her mom, who was in an attic with other relatives.
Ms. CHIQUITA SMITH (Hurricane Katrina Survivor): She was crying when I was talked to her on the phone. I don't know if they got rescued or nothing.
LEVS: They did, but the Smiths' house was largely destroyed. I joined them when they returned to New Orleans to see it.
Ms. SMITH: Everything we worked hard to gain, we wanted it, but we come back to nothing.
LEVS: They set up a new life in McKinney, Texas, just outside Dallas. They struggled to adjust, took frequent trips back, and still felt the pain of all they had been through. That's why seeing them now is so striking.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LEVS: At their ranch house in McKinney, a suburb north of Dallas, the Smiths seemed happy and adjusted. They seemed like any other family at home.
The oldest daughter, Chianti(ph), is busy with her sawing kit in her room and making plans for the future.
Ms. CHIANTI SMITH (Daughter): I want to be a fashion designer.
LEVS: The two boys, Selwyn Jr. and Tremaine, are comparing their skateboarding videogame to the kinds of real skateboarding tricks they like to do.
Mr. SELWYN SMITH JR. (Son): I can almost kick flip (unintelligible)
Mr. TREMAINE SMITH (Son): But you can't like board slide.
Mr. SMITH JR.: That's the only thing I can do, is board slide.
Mr. T. SMITH: Well, he can't, like, (unintelligible).
Mr. SMITH JR.: That's going down. I can do it board(unintelligible).
Ms. T. SMITH: Oh yeah.
LEVS: It's the first time I've seen things look and feel pretty normal. Selwyn says things have really turned around.
Mr. SELWYN SMITH (Hurricane Katrina Survivor): Well, it's better. It's a lot better. A little bit more normal, not running back and forth to New Orleans.
LEVS: They used to go back every month to deal with their property, but not so much anymore. Chiquita misses her relatives a lot, but she also sees a silver lining to what her family has been through.
Ms. CHIQUITA SMITH: We got to experience a change. I mean the kids got to see another way of living. And you know, if we go back or whatever, you bring back something new, you know, to home, you know? So it's the experience.
LEVS: Both of them have found jobs doing the kind of work they did in New Orleans. Selwyn does mortgage lending for a local company. Chiquita cuts hair in the salon.
Ms. CHIQUITA SMITH: This is a nice atmosphere and kind of laidback, and it's really nice.
LEVS: They've made friends and connections beyond their relatives in McKinney who drew them here, and they've pretty much figured out their way around.
Mr. S. SMITH: I (unintelligible) lost sometimes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CHIQUITA SMITH: Not me.
LEVS: While they demonstrate that there is life elsewhere after Katrina, the Smiths love New Orleans, but they've stopped paying attention to the news about it. It's too painful to hear about all the crime.
Ms. CHIQUITA SMITH: It wasn't like that, you know. And I know what the situation has done to people and it's like what people see in New Orleans wasn't like that. And the people are, you know, better than that. It's just what the situation has done to people. It's just turned them around a whole 'nother way, I mean crazy.
LEVS: The Smiths have been affected by that crime. A small home they still own and try to rent out was robbed recently when someone went under the house to steel the copper plumbing. It's frustrating, but they recognize that compared to many other families uprooted by Katrina, they're among the lucky ones.
Ms. CHIQUITA SMITH: We're just thankful anyway to...
Mr. S. SMITH: Yeah. We just...
Ms. CHIQUITA SMITH: We're not worst off as, you know, some folks are, so...
LEVS: While the three kids are thriving in their own ways, they also remain to some extent caught between worlds.
Sixteen-year-old Chianti has had the hardest time making new friends. She spent most of this summer on the phone chatting with friends back in New Orleans.
Ms. CHIANTI SMITH: We pretty much talk like all day.
LEVS: Thirteen-year-old Selwyn Jr. is becoming something of a local football star, and he knows who he wants to play for someday in the NFL.
Mr. SMITH JR.: The Saints.
LEVS: Not the Cowboys. Eleven-year-old Tremaine has decided to become a politician.
Mr. T. SMITH: I'm (unintelligible) slash-lawyer.
LEVS: He says he wants to help fix problems that the government isn't fixing.
Mr. T. SMITH: Like bad places, it can make it better.
LEVS: I asked Selwyn if he's proud of how the family has made it through the nightmare.
Mr. S. SMITH: Yeah, well, I guess proud is a word you use, but it's just - we just did what we had to do, actually, you know, just try to make the best of it.
LEVS: The family's living room is like an art gallery. For commission, Selwyn sells works by two respected New Orleans artists who are trying to keep making a living. So images of jazz scenes and New Orleans' nightlife fill the Smiths' home. I asked Selwyn if New Orleans is still home.
Mr. S. SMITH: Yeah. Deep in my heart, yeah, it is.
LEVS: But for now the Smiths can only envision their future in Texas.
For NPR News, I'm Joshua Levs.
CHADWICK: And you can hear other stories about the Smith family at npr.org.
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