Alabama Park Houses Hurricane Evacuees
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Hundreds of thousands of evacuees from two hurricanes are scattered across the Southern United States. For many, the most pressing need is still a place to live. Hundreds have ended up in temporary housing sites set up by FEMA in 13 Alabama state parks. NPR's Kathy Lohr visited the largest of these Alabama sites, Wind Creek State Park.
KATHY LOHR reporting:
Elizabeth Jung(ph) sits on a picnic table outside her brand-new travel trailer on a warm afternoon. She's from Chalmette, Louisiana, just east of New Orleans. She made it to this state park seeking refuge in Alabama three weeks ago. Mostly, Jung spends the days worrying about her apartment back home.
Ms. ELIZABETH JUNG (Hurricane Evacuee): This is just sludge. It's grody. You can see, like, the oil and stuff.
LOHR: Jung shuffles through photos of her place that show thick mold and plenty of damage. Her daughter suggested she come to this FEMA site where nearly 500 trailers are set up; only about half are occupied now. Three of Jung's grandchildren are here and that helps, but she knows recovery for her town and for her family will take a long while. It's meant displacement for all of them, including her grandkids.
Ms. JUNG: They went to four schools this year: hometown school, you know, where we're from, and then in Morgan City, Prideville(ph) and here.
LOHR: Jung says the kids seem to be doing better than the adults. They see the move across two states as an adventure.
(Soundbite of crowd noise)
LOHR: In the center of the park, two huge white tents with blue stripes delineate a makeshift dining hall. Since Katrina and then Rita hit, FEMA has served three meals a day here. On the menu, a Louisiana favorite.
Unidentified Man: Tonight, we have red beans and rice, beef stew, macaroni and cheese, potatoes, lasagna...
LOHR: Standing in line with a big smile is Debbie Smith(ph) from Lake Charles, Louisiana, a victim of Rita.
Ms. DEBBIE SMITH (Hurricane Evacuee): Oh, Lord. It's been so long we haven't had a good home-cooked meal. That's one of our favorite meals at home, red beans, rice, corn bread. But we gotta have that Tabasco hot sauce, Louisiana hot sauce, because that's the only thing missing.
LOHR: Smith loved living in Lake Charles. Her house had lots of big trees around it, but there were more magnolias there than the tall pines she sees here. She says people in Alabama have treated her and her grown son Joshua well. They've been here for about two weeks, but they're still not settled.
Ms. SMITH: I started to put my clothes in the drawers and all that, but I didn't. I haven't. But I never unpacked them. I washed them and I put them in a bag, so I never use my drawers or anything. But I use my cabinet space, like, for, you know, my food and stuff like that.
LOHR: Why didn't you put things away?
Ms. SMITH: I don't know. I don't know. I guess I'm just hoping to go home one day.
LOHR: Smith says people spend a lot of time talking every day about whether they should stay here and make a new life or wait things out and go back to the homes they knew. For her, the worst part of the day is nighttime, when things get quieter around the campground and she has more time to think.
(Soundbite of crickets)
LOHR: A few sitting outside around a wooden picnic table are relaxing with a steak they've cooked and a bit of music.
(Soundbite of "Jambalaya")
Mr. STEVE SCHAEFER(ph) (Hurricane Evacuee): (Singing) Goodbye, Joe, we've gotta go, me-oh-my-oh. Me gotta go pole my pirogue down the bayou. My Yvonne is the sweetest one, me-oh-my-oh. Son of a gun, we're gonna have big fun on the bayou.
LOHR: Steve Schaefer from Ocean Springs, Mississippi, spent 11 days in a Red Cross shelter in a high school with several hundred others who were evacuated. Then he ended up in Montgomery, Alabama, before finding a place at Wind Creek State Park. Schaefer says many are still in shock.
Mr. SCHAEFER: I'm having trouble focusing, you know. I don't like to sit around here and dwell on the gruesome, but it's a fact of life, you know. If something like this happens, what do you do? You know, I don't even--it took me two weeks to figure out where I was. I'm looking at the map, and we're somewhere in Alabama.
LOHR: People are coping the best they can, but Schaefer says many don't have real answers about their future.
Mr. SCHAEFER: And we can walk around here and we can sing and act like we're having a good time, but the reality of the situation is a lot of people are not able to analyze what they are going to do in next spring, in next summer, next year. We don't know. We don't know.
LOHR: FEMA says those who live here have 18 months to find a permanent home. A few of the 600 residents of the trailer park have found jobs in nearby Alexander City, Alabama. The mayor says those who want to stay are welcome. Kathy Lohr, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.