Some Katrina Evacuees Long For What They Lost When the thousands of people fled New Orleans after the storm, they scattered all over the country, with Houston receiving the biggest influx of evacuees. For some families the transition to a new city was easy though bittersweet. Still, others struggled to plant roots.
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Some Katrina Evacuees Long For What They Lost

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Some Katrina Evacuees Long For What They Lost

Some Katrina Evacuees Long For What They Lost

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

It was five years ago Sunday that Hurricane Katrina made landfall, a disaster that sent thousands upon thousands of people fleeing New Orleans. Houston, 350 miles west, was one refuge. The Astrodome became a massive shelter, and scores of families opened their homes to friends and strangers alike. Many New Orleanians have stayed in Houston while staying firmly attached to the city they left.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.

WADE GOODWYN: For snare drummer and band leader Lumar Christopher LeBlanc III, life was sweet before the storm.

Mr. LUMAR CHRISTOPHER LeBLANC III (Musician): Man, it was a paradise for me, especially. Five years ago, prior to Katrina?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LeBLANC III: Oh, I was playing music, taking care of my two kids and my wife, going through the daily routine of a New Orleanian - you know, eating good food, enjoying good music, seeing good people.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWYN: There are few things in the world that can spread smiles, boogieness and pure, unadulterated joy like a seven-piece, New Orleans brass band.

(Soundbite of music)

GOODWYN: Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina drowned the Soul Rebels' instruments - if not the band, which fled to Houston with their families.

Mr. LeBLANC III: So the most important instrument is the tuba. That thing, brand new, is close to $6,500. So I couldn't find enough money to just buy one.

GOODWYN: The story of the Soul Rebels casts an interesting light on the plight of Katrina evacuees. Before the storm, Lumar LeBlanc and his band lived regular, middle-class lives. He had a day job teaching middle school. And at night, they played New Orleans and toured some around the country. But after Katrina, the nation's arts world came running. And those people not only had money - they bought the band new instruments - they had influence and connections.

Mr. LeBLANC III: After Katrina, we even skyrocketed more the popularity of Soul Rebels...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LeBLANC III: ...due to New Orleans exposure. The Grammy organization, different movie stars - you know, Brad Pitt and all these people kind of found us.

GOODWYN: The Soul Rebels became much more well-known than they'd ever been, and began touring across the country. In fact, LeBlanc doesn't have to teach anymore. And his children liked the schools in Houston better. They said they didn't want to go back. His wife got her same job in Houston, with the same big hospital corporation she'd worked for in New Orleans.

Their insurance company paid off the mortgage in the Ninth Ward, but there was no money to raise the ruined house off the ground and rebuild it like FEMA demanded. That would have been another 150 grand. But FEMA would help him buy a new house in Houston.

Mr. LeBLANC III: Don't tell me why, but that's what they offered. So I obliged with that, and that's how I bought my home here in Houston.

GOODWYN: And so like tens of thousands of other former New Orleanians, Lumar LeBlanc and his family will stay in Houston. And LeBlanc has started a new band here, called The Hustlers.

(Soundbite of music)

THE HUSTLERS (Band): (Singing) I got a big-legged woman love me all night long. Don't tell nobody. I got a big-legged woman love me all night long. Don't tell nobody. And that big-legged woman love me 'til the day is long. Don't tell nobody.

GOODWYN: LeBlanc says it's slow going in Houston. Zydeco's what's popular here, not second-line soul, but The Hustlers are trying to change that a little.

(Soundbite of music)

THE HUSTLERS (Band): (Singing) Don't tell nobody.

GOODWYN: But of course, not everyone has had the happy experience the LeBlanc family has enjoyed.

(Soundbite of crying)

GOODWYN: Three years ago, Lorenthia Richardson was living in a three-bedroom apartment with three other women - all relatives - and their 14 children. Twelve of them had come, all crammed together, in her Pontiac Grand Am.

At the time, Richardson was single, no children of her own, a nursing student. When we met her in 2007, she'd just discovered her cousin and her four young children in a Houston homeless shelter. In the living room, her cousin, Donna Rodriguez, fell into Richardson's arms and wept out two years of misery.

Ms. DONNA RODRIGUEZ: I can't even express how I feel because I don't think nobody is going to ever just understand how I feel. We go to a house where they have people who don't have no kids, or whatever. They're not used to this noise. So every noise my kids make - going to be a problem to people. And it's very stressful not just to me, but it's stressful to them, too, because he's like, he's just being 3, you know? Yeah, sorry. I am sorry.

GOODWYN: In the ensuing three years, it's been a long, hard journey for Lorenthia Richardson and her family. Eventually, the housing money in Houston ran out, and they moved to Kansas City to be with other family.

But three months ago, Richardson decided to move back to Texas. A Houston organizer who'd watched her struggle, and who admired her spunk, found money to help Richardson move into an apartment near a nursing school. She was a 25-year-old with a bright future when she left New Orleans that day, her sporty Grand Am crammed full of misery. But that's over with. Richardson says she's come back to Houston to make a life for herself.

Ms. RICHARDSON: I don't want to just lay down and say, well, you know what? This didn't work, and I'm just going to give up. I don't want to give up. I just want to find a job, hop back in school, and just start fresh.

GOODWYN: You know, they're dying for nurses.

Ms. RICHARDSON: I know, and I'm dying to be one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOODWYN: What was lost in New Orleans, and what's been found in Houston?

Ms. FELICIA LIPP: There is no home left.


Ms. F. LIPP: And I mean, we've been back a couple of times since then, and it's not the same. It's really not.

GOODWYN: Twenty-year-old Felicia Lipp was born and raised in New Orleans. She and her brother and her mother and father lived in Vista Park, just down the street from the London Avenue Canal, which broke. The neighborhood went under. Felicia remembers what it was like before.

Ms. F. LIPP: We would sit in the middle of the street, and all of the neighborhood moms would talk, you know? And we would play kickball out in the street. And you know, it's not the same here. Everybody kind of keeps to themselves.

GOODWYN: Here is Katy, Texas, a well-known Houston suburb. The Lipp family decided quickly there was no going back. Five weeks after Katrina, with the help of relatives who lived in Katy, they bought the house they live in now.

Stephen Lipp was a successful programming engineer in New Orleans. He's an even more successful programming engineer in Houston. But life is different.

Mr. STEPHEN LIPP (Programming Engineer): Oh, today is Mardi Grass. And everybody looks at you like - and that means what? And you look at them, no, that means everything. And they look at you, no, it doesn't mean anything. And that's always been a strange feeling for me.

Ms. LIPP: You know, things couldn't go back to normal, like you felt like something was wrong and you're just kind of stuck in a place where you can't get out of there. And you just have to know the truth that, you know, this is where you have to be. You don't have any other choice.

GOODWYN: But it's not all just loss. Felicia says when she got to Katy public schools, she was a high school sophomore; she had to work much harder. And that's paid off. Felicia's a rising sophomore at Texas Women's College, getting her degree in music.

For her mother, Nancy Lipp, Houston is not New Orleans. She left behind her teaching position at the University of New Orleans, but she says what's she's found in Texas has meaning, too.

Ms. NANCY LIPP: I just told everybody I know, you know, I lost all my cookbooks. If you have some cookbooks you're not really using, give them to me. And I have a whole shelf full of them. And it's sweet, it's sweet. You know?

GOODWYN: Is this home?

Ms. N. LIPP: I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. N. LIPP: Yeah.

Mr. LIPP: Yes.

Ms. N. LIPP: Yeah.

Mr. LIPP: Yes, it's home, it's home. But I'm being purely pragmatic.

GOODWYN: For the evacuees in Houston, life goes on. It will never be the same. The best they can do now is try to bring a little New Orleans to Texas.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.

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