Katrina Survivors Contemplate Whether to Go Home
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
The victims of Hurricane Katrina got word of more help today from the federal government. They will get debit cards worth $2,000 to help them get by. The EPA issued a warning about the floodwater in New Orleans. It is so toxic that anyone left in the city, residents and rescue workers, should try to avoid it. That's just one of the reasons that there's an extra push today to get the last of the people out.
BLOCK: For the thousands of families that are already in shelters away from the city, their immediate goals are simple: their next meals, their next shower, where they plan to sleep. It will be months, perhaps even years, before all of New Orleans is habitable again. But eventually former residents will have to make a decision: Do they return and help rebuild their battered city, or do they start fresh in another city or another state? Our colleague Michele Norris spent time in Baton Rouge today talking with former New Orleans residents who face that choice.
MICHELE NORRIS reporting:
Along Highway 12 in Baton Rouge the Istrouma Baptist Church is a massive sanctuary surrounded by a moat of empty pavement. It's a church that looks to be in midweek hibernation; that is, until you realize that 600 people are housed there inside a temporary shelter. Istrouma's children's center is abuzz with new arrivals, and the broad steps leading up to the building have been transformed into one big front porch. People are playing cards, reading the Bible, smoking cigarettes and letting children work off steam. A woman leans over the head of a man who was a stranger until just hours ago. She's using body lotion to oil his scalp.
Unidentified Man: I'm loving it, loving it.
Unidentified Woman: We got to help each other. You know what I'm saying? We're in this crisis together, baby, you know, and we all got to look out for one another.
Unidentified Man: We're a big old family in here.
Unidentified Woman: We are one big family.
NORRIS: Many here are desperate to find their actual family members, blood relatives whose fate is uncertainly.
Ms. SHEILA ROBERTSON CASTON(ph): Lakisha Robertson(ph), would you call your mama, Sheila? Lakisha Robertson, call your mama, Sheila. Please call me. I miss y'all.
NORRIS: Sheila Robertson Caston has been separated from her only daughter and her grandchildren for a week. She was the last person left in her apartment in the Mellow Pemimi Projects(ph) when the water rose and fast. She hitched a ride out of the city and found herself at the Istrouma shelter with little more than the clothes on her back.
Ms. CASTON: I don't have anything, anything, nothing. I have the 80 cents you left me, Lakisha. That's your 80 cents I have, and I'm holding on to that. I'm never spending it till I find you.
NORRIS: Sheila Caston is 50 years old, and before this she had never left the city of New Orleans. She's been offered temporary housing in Los Angeles, but she'd have to leave in the next few days. And what if there's still no word from her daughter? Tough choices.
Out on the front lawn, another woman in a bright orange cap sits off by herself under a tree rubbing her temples with well-manicured nails. Belinda Bruce(ph) got out of New Orleans before Katrina smacked the city. She escaped with her boyfriend and six daughters. Newly homeless and cut off from her extended family, the nursing assistant is trying to figure out how to explain the disaster and the displacement to her children.
Ms. BELINDA BRUCE: I really can't explain some, but just say that maybe it was for the best.
NORRIS: For the best.
Ms. BRUCE: Yes, because I'm more happier when I can stay homeless.
NORRIS: Help me understand that. You're sitting here at a shelter, your house is most likely underwater, and you're happier here than you were back home.
Ms. BRUCE: Because there was so much going on in my neighborhood. Even though I was comfortable in my house--in my house--blocks up where the kids went to school, it was horrible. They always had shootouts. They just didn't respect the kids. They were selling drugs. The good thing is I'm away from that with my kids, and maybe they'll get into better a school, a better neighborhood.
NORRIS: So when you think about this, how do you make sense of it now, as you're sitting here and as you realize that even after the disaster, after you had to leave everything you loved and a lot of people you loved behind, but you're somehow happier sitting here outside of a shelter?
Ms. BRUCE: I felt that God sent that there because of all the nonsense that was going on in that neighborhood and just in New Orleans, period. There was too much violence going on--and just a cleansing, just to clean up that city.
NORRIS: So will you go back to New Orleans?
Ms. BRUCE: I'm not going back. It's not my intention. I'm not going back to New Orleans, not where I was living at.
NORRIS: Just that easy, you'll leave everything behind, your family, your house?
Ms. BRUCE: It was hard at first, but I'm just looking at it as a new beginning for myself and my kids. So...
NORRIS: So Belinda Bruce says she'll never go back to Elysian Fields, the neighborhood with the heavenly name that, to her mind, was more like the devil's playground.
Inside the shelter each person, each family will face the same choice: Do they move on or hold on to the hope of one day returning to their bathtub of a city? The actual shelter at Istrouma Baptist Church--the sleeping quarters, that is--is inside the children's center. It's a gymnasium-sized room that looks like a giant patchwork quilt of donated blankets, bedspreads, pillows and playpens. It's well-run, well-stocked and well on its way to being filled to capacity. We spotted Sharon White as she was furiously sweeping up space 26, home now to four adults and two children. Life in a shelter doesn't sit well with Sharon White. She worked her way out of the projects, bought a home, a duplex, and worked as a manager at a department store. She's what you would call house-proud, despite the current state of her property.
Ms. SHARON WHITE: Property--my property is underwater right now, and I'm going to rebuild that sucker, and I'm going to make it bigger and better. And we're going to get it back together.
NORRIS: It's easy to say that...
Ms. WHITE: We going to...
NORRIS: ...right now, but you know what you face in New Orleans. When that water goes down...
Ms. WHITE: We hearing the stories. We know a lot.
(Soundbite of child screaming)
Ms. WHITE: A lot of these people are friends and family. I know it's going to stink. You're looking at a--years probably before I can--it'd probably be a year before I can even get to see my property.
NORRIS: If you really do want to go back and build your property bigger and better, that's going to take a lot of...
Ms. WHITE: It's just going to take determination. But, see, you're looking at a person that's persevered through the hardest. I lived 11 years in St. Bernard housing projects, OK? I worked my way up, I saved, I prayed a lot, you know, and God got me out. It's not about, `Well, it's going to take a lot.' No, it's not. You get that insurance money, you look at it, you cry about it and--Guess what?--you sweep it away, and you build and you go on.
NORRIS: Sharon White is highly upset with the media, angry about the way her city's been portrayed and the lingering impression that New Orleans was filled only with black families dependent on welfare.
Ms. WHITE: You know, they keep on saying, `Those people, if they would help themselves and if they would do this and if they would do that'--I was one of those that was helping. I pay taxes. My taxes probably help pay for the shelter, that--FEMA, all that stuff. I've been working all my life.
NORRIS: And as for the question of what to call all the people who have fled New Orleans, Sharon White has some strong views on that, too.
Ms. WHITE: And I am not a refugee. I wasn't shipped here. I don't care if we were brought from that River Center or that Superdome or wherever we been shipped. We are not refugees. You hold your head up. We are United States citizens, and you be proud of that. A lot of us are taxpaying, honest, hardworking people. I'm like, `When did I come from another country?' That's what they used to call people that was in the boats and that was sneaking over here. I am a survivor. They need to say `the survivors of Katrina.'
NORRIS: And Sharon White says there is no shame in that. In Baton Rouge, I'm Michele Norris.
BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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