After Katrina: Redefining the Concept of Home Many people mark the end-of-year holidays by heading home to reflect on the past year with close friends and family. But what do you do when the home you knew is no longer there to return to? All Things Considered looks at how victims of Hurricane Katrina are redefining the concept of home.
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After Katrina: Redefining the Concept of Home

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After Katrina: Redefining the Concept of Home

After Katrina: Redefining the Concept of Home

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

`Home for the holidays' is not just a sentiment for a greeting card or the title of a song. For many of us, it's the only way to spend the holidays. But for thousands of people this year, Hurricane Katrina means that they have lost their home and nowhere is that more apparent than with the people of New Orleans.

(Soundbite of children playing)

Ms. YVONNE PRAIRIE(ph): Yvonne Prairie. Home is the people that live in it. `Cause you can have a house, beautiful things. Material things don't mean anything to me. It's the people and we have all our people, thank God. Nobody was lost. You know?

Ms. HOPE HELD???: Hope Held. You don't realize how much your home means to you until you don't have--you know, you can't live in it and you don't have it anymore. And you don't realize what it means to you until you don't.

Sister BARBARA HUGHES: My name is Sister Barbara Hughes. I'm a sister of St. Joseph. Home is more than just a house. What I have identified as home has been the city. It has been our central convent, which was out near the lake. But the home that I have known, and it's this city, is very different.

SIEGEL: This half-hour we're going to meet four families who've been displaced because of Hurricane Katrina. Some of them found shelter as far away as Chicago. Others are very close. The Cowands, of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, lost their house in August when Katrina hit. They are still living very close by in a trailer on the land where their house once stood. NPR's David Schaper visited them and has this story.

DAVID SCHAPER reporting:

Just 30 or 40 feet off the Bay St. Louis waterfront at 1,000 Beach Front Drive sits a travel trailer, the top decorated with simple white Christmas lights. This is home now for Lisa Cowand, her husband and their 13-year-old son. It's a tiny, tight space. Some friends are over, and her husband isn't interested in being interviewed.

Mrs. LISA COWAND: You-all want me to take 'em outside? ...(Unintelligible) so you-all can visit.

(Soundbite of door opening)

SCHAPER: So Cowand steps outside into the cool evening air.

Mrs. COWAND: Actually, I live down the street. This was our family home.

SCHAPER: She's standing in what was the front yard of the historic house she had just purchased from her mother. She and her husband were preparing to move here from their own home a few blocks inland right before Katrina hit. All that's left now are the concrete steps leading up to the concrete slab of what Cowand says was a grand front porch overlooking the bay.

Mrs. COWAND: Mm-hmm, it had big white columns and big white railings all around it and would have--we had a beautiful gazebo over here and with a big spiral roof and it was just a fun, beautiful home. A lot of great memories here growing up. It was just a gathering place. My dad knew strange--know--he didn't know any strangers. Everybody was always welcome and...

SCHAPER: The storm not only destroyed this home, but also the house her family was moving from just a few blocks away.

Mrs. COWAND: We had 25 feet of water there, so we got double whammied. Actually, we got quadruple whammied because my son--he has a home six blocks away and there's not a whisper there.

SCHAPER: In all, the Cowand family lost four homes in Bay St. Louis and Waveland. Now they have four FEMA trailers set up next to one another in a family compound of sorts.

Mrs. COWAND: That's one good thing for the holidays, to have all my children back home. So they're all together.

SCHAPER: Cowand says the hurricane put everything into perspective, including the meaning of home.

Mrs. COWAND: Because, you know, we don't have our safe haven, if you will, you know, where--there's no place like home. But, you know, logistics are different, but it--you know, we're all here together and we're safe. And it is different and it's not all cheery and fun, but, you know, my dad taught me to--when you get lemons, you make lemonade. So we've got a lot of lemons to work with right now.

SCHAPER: Cowand says that means digging through the rubble of the family homes every now and then trying to find homemade ornaments or other meaningful decorations and family mementos, very few of which she's been able to recover.

Mrs. COWAND: It's almost like you go through a process. You know, you put it in a pile and there's a possibility you could salvage it. And then two weeks later, it's disintegrating in your--in front of your eyes. So you lose it anyway, but I guess it's just a process you've got to go through. And so, I'm still going through that. I'll go over there and dig a little bit, and my second story is still standing and it's a little caddywampus. But it's standing. And it's just--it's different.

SCHAPER: Different, and during the holidays, more difficult.

Mrs. COWAND: It is, but it isn't. But it is what it is, so take one day at a time and we'll get through this. I'm sorry.

SCHAPER: Everyone's healthy, together...

(Soundbite of traffic)

Mrs. COWAND: Main thing. We could have been swallowed up. We lost a lot of our citizens. And so, right there, we could have had--this is fixable. Losing a loved one isn't. So...

SCHAPER: For Cowand and her family, this piece of land right on the bay is still home.

Mrs. COWAND: Oh, always, this will be home forever. Not going anywhere. It's where I belong. This is where my family belongs and we've just got to do things a little differently.

SCHAPER: Like putting her Christmas tree up on that slab that was the front porch, and decorating a fenced-in area for her dogs with garland and lights all around it. And later this week, Cowand says they will ring in the New Year just as the family always has.

Mrs. COWAND: Yeah, we have a New Year's Eve party every year, and we won't be as grandiose as what we--well, it's never grandiose, but it's a lot of fun and a lot of people come. But we don't--we're not up to that one, but--and plus, the bathroom facilities don't accommodate too many in these RVs. But...

SCHAPER: A party to make new memories while looking forward to better things, like building a new home in Bay St. Louis. David Schaper, NPR News.

SIEGEL: The Cowand family may be without their house, but they've spent the holidays on their land in their neighborhood. The Sawyer family of New Orleans East was more dispersed by Katrina. They live on Honeysuckle Lane, a street that we've been following over the past few months. Martin Sawyer Jr. is renting a house in Kenner, Louisiana, nowadays and he joins us from our bureau in New Orleans. Welcome to the program. Happy Holidays.

Mr. MARTIN SAWYER Jr.: Thank you. Same to you.

SIEGEL: And how are you doing?

Mr. SAWYER: I guess as well as can be expected, you know, considering.

SIEGEL: You and your wife, daughter and--Is it your father?--all live together on Honeysuckle Lane?

Mr. SAWYER: Right. That's correct.

SIEGEL: And the house in New Orleans East, what's the condition of it now?

Mr. SAWYER: Right now, it's fully gutted. All of the appliances and fixtures are all taken out now.

SIEGEL: How does this experience of Katrina figure in what the family does and what you talk about when you're all together for the holidays? Do you just try to keep it out of mind and not talk about it? Or do you find yourselves talking about it quite a lot?

Mr. SAWYER: Well, no, we try to not talk about it unless we have to. It's just at those times when we do have new information that we discuss it. But otherwise, we try to keep other forms of normalcy and keep this sort of behind us right now.

SIEGEL: So a challenge at Christmas to try to have a normal Christmas for your daughter then under these circumstances?

Mr. SAWYER.: Well, for her she had a wonderful Christmas. We made sure of that. So that part was pretty easy for us.

SIEGEL: Your daughter's name? And how old is she?

Mr. SAWYER.: Her name is Mira Marie Sawyer and she's two years old.

SIEGEL: She's two years old?

Mr. SAWYER: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Was your daughter at age two--or I guess she was only one and a half a few months ago--was she aware of what was going on and the whole point of this move and leaving the house and going to Kenner to live in an apartment?

Mr. SAWYER: Well, I don't--you know, when we first left the city, we ended up in Baton Rouge for a couple weeks and then in Hammond for the duration. And just recently, we moved to Kenner, which put us a lot closer to the city. During that time, we did the best that we can to make sure that she didn't feel any major change. I don't think she's, you know, fully aware of what's going on, and I think we did a pretty decent job of keeping some normalcy in her life.

SIEGEL: What kind of a place are you living in now?

Mr. SAWYER: It's an apartment complex, a small apartment complex our in Kenner which is an adjacent city to New Orleans.

SIEGEL: Kenner's really just west outside the city. This is where the airport is, huh?

Mr. SAWYER: Right, right.

SIEGEL: But if you had the choice right now of where you are or in a trailer in front of your own house with utilities connected, which would you prefer?

Mr. SAWYER: Well, you know, that's a good question, Robert. I would love to be in front of my home, being there to get it rebuilt and taken care of. And where we are now is safe for my daughter if I may say. Because right now we still don't know 100 percent what the environmental issue is. Just because they would put a trailer there doesn't mean that, you know, it's all safe and good. So it's kind of tough to say. I would rather stay where we are in the apartment until we know for sure, you know, that that area is safe.

SIEGEL: Is it clear to you that the point of rebuilding is so that you and the family can all move back and resume life on Honeysuckle Lane in New Orleans East? Or might it be to sell the house and make your life somewhere else?

Mr. SAWYER: Well, it would be to move back into New Orleans East. Not that I wouldn't, you know, move my family somewheres else if conditions are so deplorable that we cannot move back. But for starters, you know, which is very, very important, is the funding to get started on shoring up the levees for next hurricane season. You know, secondly, schools. That's very important, you know, the funding of schools.

SIEGEL: If there isn't that assurance that the levees are going to be built to withstand a good storm--that it's going to be done--if there aren't schools opening up anywhere nearby Honeysuckle Lane soon, does there reach a point when you say, `Well, that was--you know, that was that chapter of our lives and goodbye, New Orleans East, or goodbye, Honeysuckle Lane'?

Mr. SAWYER: Yeah, absolutely. It would be the only prudent thing to do. I mean, you have to look out for your family and your well--your family's well-being as well as yourself. And if things--if conditions doesn't seem like it's improving, the best thing to do is to, you know, stay out of that area and make a new home somewheres else. Definitely.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Sawyer, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. SAWYER: And thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: Happy holidays.

Mr. SAWYER: Same to you. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees from the Gulf Coast fled to Houston in August and September. Nearly four months later, many are calling Houston home, and many are grateful to that city's black churches for providing shelter from the storm and the support to begin rebuilding their lives. NPR's Carrie Kahn has the story of one woman, her church and the new city that she is beginning to call home.

CARRIE KAHN reporting:

I met Deon Coleman in September as she walked out of a Sunday service at New Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church on Houston's southeast side. Coleman, a stout woman in her mid-40s, recovering from years of drug addiction, was tightly clutching her five-year-old son's hand. She was distraught, distant and harsh. It had been barely a week since the two had been bused from New Orleans Superdome to Houston's Astrodome. During the chaotic evacuation, she was separated from her 14-year-old, Carl. That's when Mount Calvary and its pastor, Ronald Smith, stepped in. Smith met Coleman at the Astrodome, took her to the church and finally found her son, Carl. Then Smith and the church got working on Deon Coleman's healing.

Ms. DEON COLEMAN: I was--this is the living room.

(Soundbite of child playing)

KAHN: Four months later, that work has paid off. Coleman is living in a new apartment in Houston. It has no furniture, but she says it's great.

Ms. COLEMAN: You need a lot of stuff here. You see it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLEMAN: You need a lot of stuff.

KAHN: Coleman moved into her new two-bedroom apartment just last week. It's empty except for a TV on a box in the corner and mattresses on the floor of each room. She says she wouldn't have this home today if it wasn't for Mount Calvary.

(Soundbite of child playing)

Ms. COLEMAN: I probably would still be out there lost. Can't find my boy still. I don't know where I be at, because I was really messed up when I met them, you know. I was really messed up. I don't know where I'd be at now. I really don't know.

KAHN: Coleman says it was hard to leave the church, hard for everyone.

Ms. COLEMAN: They didn't want me to go. Pastor didn't want me to go. He like--I said--I'm like, `OK, it's time for me to go.' It may--I'm gonna walk around the corner lookin' for the house or findin'--tryin' to find the house. He didn't want to let me go. I say, `Pastor, I got to get up out of here.' `D., where you going? D., where you going? You play too much.' I said, `I ain't goin' too far.'

KAHN: She didn't go too far. Her apartment is about a mile from the church in walking distance to a small business owned by one of reverends at Mount Calvary, Byron Jones(ph).

Reverend BYRON JONES: It all started with a cell phone.

Ms. COLEMAN: Oh, Lord.

(Soundbite of business noises)

Rev. JONES: It really did. It all started with a cell phone.

KAHN: Jones stands at the counter at his Houston store where he sells cell phones alongside everything from movies to motor scooters. He recalls when Coleman first arrived at the church. She asked him for a phone to help in the search for her son. Jones says that was his in and he slowly got her to talk about the storm, her past and her fears.

(Soundbite of child playing)

Rev. JONES: ...I told her, `You know, you've just got to step out there and know that just being isolated at the church, you're limiting folk that you get the chance to meet, friends that you can meet, you know, to make a new home.' And so, it took a while, but she did.

KAHN: Deon Coleman says Reverend Jones rings her every morning, gets her day going. She calls him `uncle' and his wife, `auntie,' Mandy Jones(ph) says she likes the title. She says she's so grateful that Coleman is finally adapting to Houston.

Mrs. MANDY JONES: Now she's moving around. She's out catching the bus. Deon catching the bus in Houston.

Ms. COLEMAN: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAHN: And she goes shopping.

(Soundbite of store announcement)

KAHN: At Fiesta Market, Deon Coleman grabs the daily specials flier advertising a Louisiana section for all the new customers.

Ms. COLEMAN: Pickled chip--tips. Ooh, pickled chips. Let me see. Ooh, they've got some pickled chips!

KAHN: Pickled pig tips and tails gets Coleman rushing to the meat department, but what she finds is disappointing.

(Soundbite of store announcement)

Unidentified Woman: The same thing.

Ms. COLEMAN: No, no, no. Tails have fat on them. Tips don't have no fat on them.

KAHN: She tells the clerk the tips are too fatty and they're aren't any tails. So she shifts gears and grabs some crab, shrimp, gizzards and sausage to make a pot of gumbo.

Pastor Ronald Smith says he brags about Coleman's gumbo to other preachers who house Katrina evacuees. Smith heads Mount Calvary Church and easily slips between the serious and silly when reflecting on having Coleman in his life now.

Reverend RONALD SMITH: Deon was so withdrawn, stayed to herself in her room. You couldn't pay her to have a conversation. But now we can't pay her to keep quiet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAHN: The two laugh, eat gumbo and talk God late into the night. They have a special bond and an easiness now neither said they could have imagined four months ago. With these new friendships and a new apartment, Deon Coleman says she just doesn't know if she's going to return home to New Orleans.

Ms. COLEMAN: I'm kind of like in between. I don't know. See, I'm in between. I want to go home and I want to be here and I don't know what. Maybe if I get myself together here, you know, everything might be all right.

KAHN: What she does know, she says, is she's got a family in this little corner of Houston unlike any she's had before. Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Next we meet Ronnie Callero, who's a long way from home and loving it. He is 13 years old and he came to Chicago with his brother and sister and grandfather a couple of weeks after Katrina hit his hometown of Kenner, Louisiana. But not everybody in the family has adjusted to life in their new home in the north as well as Ronnie has. Chicago Public Radio's Robert Wildeboer reports on the Callero family and how some of them are more comfortable being in Chicago, while others want to get back to Louisiana as soon as possible.

ROBERT WILDEBOER reporting:

Ronnie Callero loves his new school.

(Soundbite of children playing)

WILDEBOER: And school's your entire universe when you're 13.

RONNIE CALLERO: Here like the principal and the assistant principal know all the kids' names. Like, they can point you out and tell your name.

Unidentified Child: Yeah.

CALLERO: Back home it wasn't like that.

WILDEBOER: He likes the kids here, too.

CALLERO: Josh can do the weirdest things with his body. Do the eye thing.

(Soundbite of children playing)

WILDEBOER: Ronnie's sitting with his friends in his homeroom and munching on a sandwich while trying to finish up some math homework.

(Soundbite of children playing)

WILDEBOER: His homeroom teacher, Mary Crepps(ph), says Ronnie's fit in well, bu there was a period of culture shock for both Ronnie and the 1,000 students at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic School.

Ms. MARY CREPPS (Ronnie's Teacher): When he first came in, he would say hi to everyone in the building, you know. `Hey, hi, how are you? Blah, blah, blah,' you know, to the nurse, to the secretary, to the principal. And, you know, we just kind of had to kindly remind him, you know, `We love your enthusiasm, we love your friendliness. You know, but these are the ways that we would say hello here, you know, up in Glenview and pretty much in the North.'

WILDEBOER: Glenview is an upscale suburb on Chicago's North Shore. It's not actually on the lake, but in Chicago North Shore doesn't refer to geographic location so much as it does attitude and social status. Five years ago, the median home value in Glenview was $336,000. Now that's a far cry from Ronnie's home in Kenner, where he shared the living room of his grandparents' house with his brother. He says they would use a sheet to divide the room in two. He's still living with his grandparents, only now it's at Maryville Academy, a vacant residential facility for troubled kids. The bucolic 100-acre campus may be a great home for boys, but it doesn't suit Ronnie's grandfather, James Callero, very well. He sits on a bunk bed and looks at the pond and fields outside his window.

Mr. JAMES CALLERO (Ronnie's Grandfather): Well, it's just bleak. I mean, it's just this vast expanse of snow.

WILDEBOER: The Calleros have a second-floor apartment in one of the brown town house-like buildings that dot the campus. The oversized dining room, thin carpeting and modest furnishings give the place an unmistakable institutional feel. But Ronnie doesn't mind. In fact, he wants to stay in Chicago permanently. His grandfather, James, does not.

Mr. CALLERO: It means I long to be in Louisiana and see my house, you know, and my friends and familiar places. I miss the familiar.

WILDEBOER: James Callero's tried to surround himself with familiar things, but when he fled Katrina with his grandchildren, his car was too full to bring his wife, let alone a whole bunch of stuff. But his prized possessions are displayed on his dresser which has become a sort of shrine to the South. It's draped in a Confederate flag and, on top, holding the flag in place, is a large Bible, a crucifix and a statue of the archangel Michael.

(Soundbite of music)

WILDEBOER: A singer-songwriter, Callero also took is $2,000 Guild guitar.

(Soundbite of guitar music)

Mr. CALLERO: (Singing) Well, when I came home this morning, a letter was waiting for me. And it read, `I'm leaving you, darling. My train leaves town at three.' And that train has come...

WILDEBOER: Sandra, James Callero's wife of 40 years and the mother of his seven children, says her husband is longing for things that no longer exist. She was in New Orleans when the storm hit and didn't get to Chicago until a month later. She says familiar places and streets were destroyed by Katrina.

Mrs. SANDRA CALLERO (Ronnie's Grandmother): He's remembering it in his mind's eye the way it was before he left. When he goes back and sees it barren, you know--it looks like a war-torn country.

WILDEBOER: James Callero says that they'll stay in Chicago until June so that the kids can finish off their school year. Thirteen-year-old Ronnie's working on a plan to stay longer.

CALLERO: I wish there was like a program where a kid from the school--his family would adopt me. But I doubt that that'll happen.

(Soundbite of children playing)

WILDEBOER: James Callero hopes his grandson gets his wish. But for himself, he's anxious to get back to the South. He puts a CD into the small boom box on his bedside table. It's an 11-track album he wrote and recorded for free at different studios between 1984 and 1998. The first track is "Steamy Days and Dreamy Nights (In New Orleans)."

(Soundbite from "Steamy Days and Dreamy Nights In New Orleans")

Mr. CALLERO: (Singing) Because I have been through the steamy days, the steamy days and dreamy nights in New Orleans.

WILDEBOER: For NPR News, I'm Robert Wildeboer in Chicago.

SIEGEL: Our coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina continues online. You can read about going to school in a tent in Waveland, Mississippi, at npr.org.

(Soundbite from "Steamy Days and Dreamy Nights In New Orleans")

SIEGEL: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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