There were houses that floated off their foundations and into the middle of the street. Boats blocking doorways. Bicycles still entangled in the wires atop telephone poles. These are just a few of the sights Sandra Pender and her daughter Yanada Essex encountered when they returned to what was left of their New Orleans home, just two months after they’d escaped Hurricane Katrina. Although her house there is still standing, virtually all of its contents were destroyed in the flooding after the storm.
In all, 31 family members made it out of the storm, eventually converging in at the Newark, New Jersey, home of Sandra’s sister, Monica Williams Smith, including Pender, her husband and three of her four children. Churches, schools and sympathetic WWRL (AM 1600) radio listeners showered the household with donations, food and other acts of kindness, in answer to a plea made by Smith shortly before her family arrived. The experience has brought a family that was already close, even closer. Now the family members are grappling with the difficulties of adjusting to a life far away from home as well as to the prospect that they may never truly go home again.
“The uncertainty of the future is what pains all of us now,” says Pender, who was a nurse back in New Orleans. Since relocating, family members have been thrilled by the hospitality they’ve received but many of them are eager to go back down South as soon as possible.
“I love it here but every day I’m there, I’m in my kitchen—I’m at home. In my mind I’m still in New Orleans,” says Minnie Williams, Pender’s 75-year-old mother. “These people up here just don’t cook like we do,” she said.
The family hails from the notoriously hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward, which was nearly obliterated in the storm. Bodies are still being uncovered in the wreckage left behind. That they’ve been extraordinarily lucky—no family members lost, including among the few that stayed behind—has not been lost on them. They credit their religious faith, sense of humor, and strong family bonds with helping them endure the emotional toll of losing their New Orleans existence.
While a few members have already made a decision to go back, or to stay in New Jersey for good, others, like Pender’s daughter, Yanada, are planning to give themselves a year before deciding for sure. After the turmoil, the family has embraced the philosophy of Morgan Freeman’s character in The Shawshank Redemption: “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.”
This is one family that passionately believes in living.
Adam Howard is a freelance journalist based in New York City.