Houston Holds Hope, Despair for Katrina Evacuees Two years after Hurricane Katrina emptied New Orleans, more than 90,000 evacuees live in Houston, permanently it seems. Life for all of them has been difficult, and their stories are a mix of sadness, loneliness and triumphant hope.
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Houston Holds Hope, Despair for Katrina Evacuees

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Houston Holds Hope, Despair for Katrina Evacuees

Houston Holds Hope, Despair for Katrina Evacuees

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Two years after Hurricane Katrina emptied New Orleans, more than 90,000 evacuees live in Houston - permanently it seems. Their stories are a mix of sadness, loneliness and triumphant hope.

Here's NPR's Wade Goodwyn.

WADE GOODWYN: At 40 years old, Terry Gabriel still seems very much the star basketball player she once was. Six-foot-one, strong, attractive and charismatic-to-boot, Gabriel carries with her an unshakable Christian faith. She and her sister and four children fled Hurricane Katrina in a rental car and began living on the floor of the Houston Convention Center. Like her fellow evacuees, Gabriel was shell-shocked and disoriented. But she understood earlier than most that her life in Louisiana was over.

Ms. TERRY GABRIEL (Hurricane Katrina victim): I started looking for a job, I think, a week into it because it was so stressful, you went thinking, work just yet? But at the same token, what I was seeking first and foremost was a church home. So I was just hungry for the work because I needed stability and I didn't have it mentally.

GOODWYN: In the last two years, Terry Gabriel has come a long way. In a brand new Houston suburb, she stands in front of a brand new house she's renting to own. Her eyes are filled with wonder as she takes in her new world.

Ms. GABRIEL: Two-car garage, two-story home, beautiful neighborhood, kind, polite loving neighbors, kids are very friendly.

GOODWYN: Gabriel first landed a part-time job with UPS as a small-package sorter in an unairconditioned warehouse.

Ms. GABRIEL: Four girls tried out for the job. And when it came back for the second interview, I'm the only one who showed up by all the girls. And I took it upon myself. I claimed the job. I say, Mr. Greg - and I shook his hand - I say, I'm looking forward to working with you.

GOODWYN: And with that, Gabriel had her first job, then a second, manning a beer stand at the Houston Astros games. Gabriel and the city of Houston are a good match. She's attractive, hardworking and smart. Houston likes attractive, hardworking and smart. Gabriel could end up being a success here in a way she may never have been able to in New Orleans. Her three children are going to new schools with healthy budgets, decked-out sports teams, and big bands for halftime.

As an evacuee, the federal government is helping her pay her rent, and that $900 monthly subsidy makes all the difference. For the first time in her life, Terry Gabriel is living the American dream.

Ms. GABRIEL: It's not even on MapQuest. That's how new it is. God is good. I love it. I mean, I feel as though I fit right in. I don't feel like a sore thumb. Every day I wake up, I feel like a million bucks.

GOODWYN: This is Houston's right hand, the one that gives to the evacuees. It gives them its powerful economy, inexpensive new homes in far-flung suburbs, and public schools collectively educating Asians, Indians, blacks, whites and Hispanic children. Taken together, it is a powerful offering. But Houston has two hands.

(Soundbite of child crying)

GOODWYN: In a three-bedroom apartment in southwest Houston, four Katrina women evacuees, all related, live with their 14 children. Twelve of them came together from New Orleans that fateful day, all in a single Grand Am. The five-hour trip took three days.

Ms. LORENTHIA RICHARDSON (Hurricane Katrina victim): We get in this apartment that we have split the money on and we say, okay, now, okay, this is a start. But then, I'm thinking about, we didn't have clothing, we had nowhere to sit. So basically, we're sitting in this living room on the floor looking around like no, no toys for the kids to play with. So you got to imagine all these kids running around with nothing to do, wondering what is going on. And then you see us sitting on the floor, looking at each other, like, where do we go from here?

GOODWYN: Lorenthia Richardson had been a nursing student in New Orleans. She quickly enrolled in nursing school in Houston in a desperate attempt to continue her previous life.

Ms. RICHARDSON: I ended up having to drop out because, I guess, mentally I was not prepared. In most situations, when you have a chaotic situation, there's one levelheaded person who will say, this is what we're going to do. Well, I'm usually that person, but at this point, I could not figure it out.

GOODWYN: In addition to nursing school, in New Orleans, Lorenthia Richardson worked part time at a hospital. Before the hospital, she was a Wal-Mart manager for three years. But in Houston, a job interview was out of the question.

Ms. RICHARDSON: When I call, they would say, well, we can't seem to pull up your application. And I'm like, okay, well, I'm pulling it up from my house, but you can't seem to find it. And as I've - I would say, well, I'll reapply. And, of course, I would reapply.

GOODWYN: Richardson knows how to dress and act for the professional world. That's not her problem. Her problem is she's a black, single mother from New Orleans. For two full years, Richardson has been unable to land a job despite more than 50 separate attempts. This is Houston's other hand, the one that slaps evacuees around.

Take Donna Rodriguez and her four children, for example.

Ms. DONNA RODRIGUEZ (Hurricane Katrina victim): I appreciate that, but you don't go find nobody making out one child (unintelligible) all these children. And I know that - I know it's like that all of the (unintelligible) at the same time. I know (unintelligible) so that's why you have one child.

Ms. RICHARDSON: I do not worry because that one was ought to come.

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: I don't even - I'm so sorry. I'm just - I'm sorry.

GOODWYN: Donna Rodriguez is Lorenthia Richardson's cousin. While searching a Red Cross database, Richardson found Rodriguez' name after two years of not knowing what had happened to her. Richardson drove over and rescued Rodriguez and her children from a Houston homeless shelter. Rodriguez has fallen through the cracks in the system, and the last two years have left her shattered.

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: I can't even express how I feel because I don't think nobody going to ever just understand how I feel. We go to a house, where they have people who don't have no kids or would have a date night used to this noise. So every noise my kids make may go be a problem to people. And it's very stressful not just for me, but it's stressful to them, too, because it's like having just being three, you know?

GOODWYN: Rodriguez has proved no match for the government bureaucrats, the ever-vigilant gatekeepers or Katrina aid. She and her children have gone from Houston homeless shelters into the homes of families who took pity, then back to the homeless shelter, where they've spent months at a time. With the addition of Rodriguez and her children, Lorenthia Richardson is now providing shelter to 18 evacuees in her three-bedroom apartment. Having finally found her cousin's arms, Rodriguez's shame comes in a flood.

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: I'm sorry. I am so embarrassed.

Ms. RICHARDSON: That's okay.

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: (Unintelligible) I'm sorry.

GOODWYN: In many quarters, Houston's patience with the Katrina victims has run out, and evacuees are left to help each other. But just when you think you've taken all of the punches you can stand, sometimes Houston reaches down and helps you off the canvas. Two weeks ago, Lorenthia Richardson landed a full-time job with benefits. Ironically, it's as a caseworker for a private agency that's helped her and over fifteen hundred other Katrina evacuees. And the Houston agency also agreed to enroll Richardson in nursing school and pay for it. She starts next month. And just like that, Richardson, and the women who depend on her, have hope.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Building a new life in Houston does not mean forgetting an old one in New Orleans. There's a story about that at npr.org.

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