The Warrens: One Family's Attempt to Rebuild In San Antonio, Texas, thousands of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina remain in local Red Cross shelters, wondering what comes next. The Warrens, a family from New Orleans, are among many trying to rebuild their lives.
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The Warrens: One Family's Attempt to Rebuild

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The Warrens: One Family's Attempt to Rebuild

The Warrens: One Family's Attempt to Rebuild

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The homelessness caused by Hurricane Katrina has demanded a lot of people, the ability to let go, to trust strangers, and for those strangers, the wherewithal to get involved. NPR senior correspondent Ketzel Levine went to San Antonio which is home for now to at least 4,500 evacuees. Over the last several days, she's watched an extraordinary relationship unfold.

(Soundbite of music)

KETZEL LEVINE reporting:

The big old jukebox at this Tex-Mex drive-in is usually the throbbing heart of the place, but tonight, the air is charged with the presence of the Warrens. They are a handsome couple from New Orleans, Alton imposing, Yvette(ph) statuesque, and together with their children, they've been through hell.

Mr. ALTON WARREN (Hurricane Survivor): Two weeks ago, fight for my life, fight to keep my family together, fighting gangsters. My wife and all five of my kids, we all made it together. People decayed out there. You know, I'm still mad about that.

Mrs. YVETTE WARREN (Hurricane Survivor): I don't feel the anger. I don't.

LEVINE: Yvette Warren is far more forgiving of the flawed rescue effort. Though her own family's ordeal was harrowing enough--a night in their attic, a day on their roof and three lawlessness nights in the New Orleans convention center--but tonight sets a different precedent, a fund-raiser for their family with a gumbo of colorful locals gathered to help them start over. Yvette Warren is ready.

Mrs. WARREN: Once the storm came, the storm came and then I adjusted to that. And then once the house was totaled, the house was totaled and I adjusted to that. Everything that left me, I said goodbye to it. So I'm looking at new.

LEVINE: Among the new is Vivian Holder, who's helped pull this event together.

Ms. VIVIAN HOLDER (Fund-Raiser): We need a car. We need a house or an apartment with at least two to three bedrooms.

LEVINE: She's a feisty blonde from the Mississippi delta, a 43-year-old sales rep who calls herself and her friends the can-do girls.

Ms. HOLDER: We've got to have enough beds in this house for this family to be together during the holidays.

LEVINE: Giving money to a non-profit was way too easy for this bunch. They decided to focus their energies on one evacuee family. Sense and serendipity led them to the pragmatic Warrens. By the time this evening ends, everyone will have their marching orders as the can-do girls regroup into a guerilla Red Cross.

Unidentified Woman #1: Gregory Booth, Gregory Booth, please come to the information...

LEVINE: While Vivian Holder and company hustle to get the Warrens into their own home, the family is still living in a Red Cross shelter 20 minutes from downtown San Antonio. The last time this cavernous Montgomery Ward saw any life, the Clintons were still in the White House. Vacant for five years, it's now a reasonably well-stocked village with just about everything but walls. Privacy is not an option. Families like the Warrens sleep on cots inches apart.

Mr. WARREN: My wife and Alex(ph) sleep right there. Randy(ph), Justin(ph), Chris(ph) and Elton(ph). That's them.

LEVINE: Alton Warren sleeps--make that rests--with his back to the wall, too guarded to relax around a thousand strangers, but the atmosphere here is really quite sane. Yvette Warren's even found the space to think and feel.

Mrs. WARREN: The second night I was here, a depression just hammered me, and I'm like, `Man, my whole world is gone.' And so what I did was I just went to sleep because I really--I had to get away from it. I'm like, I can't think like that because my world isn't gone. My kids need me to be strong. I need me to be strong.

LEVINE: She also needs to get outside for the 4:00 bus, which is not just bringing her youngest, an 11-year-old, home from her new school.

Mrs. WARREN: This is my Alexandra.

ALEXANDRA: Mom, we have a field trip tomorrow.

Mrs. WARREN: Where are you guys going?

ALEXANDER: We're going to...

Unidentified Child: The Alamo.

ALEXANDER: ...The Alamo. We're going to...

(Soundbite of door closing)

LEVINE: Despite the continuing efforts of the can-do community to find Alton Warren a job, possibly as a detention officer, he's waiting his turn today for food stamps.

Unidentified Woman #2: Alton Warren, window six, please.

LEVINE: He takes his seat across from a very congenial clerk, roughly his age, late 40s, and the paperwork begins.

Unidentified Woman #2: On the birth dates...


Unidentified Woman #2: ...on your kids, you've got two of them in '83 two days...

LEVINE: The older Warren kids are pretty close in age. All three are in college--make that were in college. Their New Orleans schools are now closed. The kids will find out soon whether they've gotten into San Antonio colleges. The challenge will be transferring their financial aid.

Unidentified Woman #2: What we're set up to do today is...


Unidentified Woman #2: ...issue September benefits...

LEVINE: Their father is all set through November.

Unidentified Woman #2: So if you go back home before then, do you--have you even gotten that far, to think what you're going to do?

Mr. WARREN: My wife wants--she ain't going home.

Unidentified Woman #2: OK. Well, welcome to Texas.


LEVINE: The next day, Yvette Warren, along with Vivian Holder, navigate through downtown.

Mrs. WARREN: Oh, right here.

Ms. HOLDER: I have the worse sense of direction.

Mrs. WARREN: Right here. No. No, I have a good sense of direction.

Mr. WARREN: Right here.

Ms. HOLDER: Oh, good.

Mrs. WARREN: It's right over there.

Ms. HOLDER: Excellent. That's where we need to go.

LEVINE: The two share a mind-set and a culture. They're both from the Mississippi delta. Move over. Thanks to Vivian's network, Yvette is just out of an interview for a file clerk position in the DA's office. Vivian's also helped score the Warrens an '89 Cadillac Seville, and they're all expecting word any minute whether the older kids' school funding has been transferred.

Vivian Holder's never questioned why she's gotten so involved. `I'm no saint,' she says. In fact, she is galvanized to act by her own anger over social inequities, tough breaks and simple dreams deferred.

Ms. HOLDER: I was talking earlier with someone. She said, `I'm really worried about, you know, having to find a place to live. I'm really worried about that.' And I said, `Why are you worried about that? Dadgummit, that's just a waste of your time. If you're worried about it, then you're not doing enough.'

LEVINE: And just sometimes the system works.

Mr. WARREN: They got in?

Ms. HOLDER: To the school?

Mrs. WARREN: They got in.

Ms. HOLDER: The school thing's been fixed.

Mrs. WARREN: School is fixed.

Ms. HOLDER: School is good.

Mr. WARREN: Let's get something to eat.

LEVINE: Today, the Warrens are besotted with San Antonio. For that matter, Vivian Holder is pretty besotted with the Warrens. Whether the friendship takes or the city works out has yet to be written. What matters today is the solace of connection as strangers collide.

Ketzel Levine, NPR News.

INSKEEP: We have an update on this story. We've just learned that Yvette Warren got the job that she interviewed for as a file clerk.

You can find photos of the family and more evacuee stories at our Web site,

And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): And I'm Renee Montagne.

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