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I Know I've Been Changed

Much has occurred since Katrina's wrath left thousands of people homeless, struggling to make sense of it all and wondering how to rebuild their lives. Here are some of their thoughts on the devastation and the difficulties of starting over

Leslie Livana-Brown, 38, a second grade teacher at the North Bay Elementary School in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, expected the trauma of the storm to wreak havoc on her students. She soon learned the children were more resilient than she expected.
“When we returned to school 45 days after the storm, most of us were displaced or homeless. We were prepared for behavioral problems, outbursts or extreme emotional vulnerability, but it was the total opposite: The children were surprisingly calm and focused. Even in the small double-wide trailers that we are using for classrooms, these 7-year-olds have been remarkably adaptable. While the circumstances after the storm have tested them, they’re starting to get their youthful energy back. We recently built a new playground, and things are almost back to normal-in school, at least.”

Kelvin Mobbs, 32, a New Orleans evacuee now living in Fort Worth, Texas, last saw his mother, Annie Bell Mobbs, in August 2005, two weeks before Katrina hit, but believes she is still alive.
“When the storm hit, I went straight to the Superdome. What hurts me is that I didn’t get my mama. Even though she is schizophrenic, she had her own apartment, paid her bills, handled her business. I saw a picture of her on the Internet, on a personal Web site by someone who took photos after the storm. She was sitting on a bridge outside the Superdome on September 8. She looked bad, but I felt good about it because I knew she made it through the storm. The Red Cross said she registered with them on September 15 and got food and water, but they don’t know where she went after that. My family is searching through Louisiana and Texas, putting up flyers. I gave DNA and haven’t gotten any bad news back. I really think she’s alive. It hurts so much because I’ve changed my life since the hurricane. I go to church now; I got a job. Everything is beautiful, except I don’t have my mama.”

Postscript: In June, Annie Bell Mobbs was found living with a friend in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She and her family are doing fine.

During the MSNBC news show Countdown With Keith Olbermann, cameraman Tony Zumbado wept on air as he described the critical situation at the New Orleans Convention Center in the earliest days after the storm. He was disturbed by the lack of aid, and his visible outrage called attention to the need for food, water and medical supplies.
“We were one of the first crews to get to New Orleans. I went on camera because no correspondent had witnessed what I had: grandmothers suffering on breathing machines with no medicine, people in wheelchairs with swollen faces sitting in their feces. I mingled with the crowd and talked to people who could have been my family. I saw suffering on a scale that I wasn’t expecting. It affected me. In the broadcast I said what the people in the Convention Center wanted me to relay to the rest of America: These folks are here, they’re good people, nobody’s doing anything nasty, and they need help.”

Tara Joseph, 37, along with her husband, Michael, and their six children, left New Orleans the day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall. They lost everything but are now home owners in Houston in the newly developed Village at Glen Iris, a subdivision of 65 houses built by Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network and Houston Habitat for Humanity for displaced low-income families.
“After seeing a story on TV about getting a home in Houston built by Habitat for Humanity, I went to St. Agnes Baptist Church and filled out the application. I was called back by the realtor’s office and told that we were going to have a second interview at a local high school. They gave us lunch, and then we sat in the auditorium. Oprah came onstage-just walked out on the stage-and we were shocked. We didn’t know she was there. I cried because I knew something amazing was about to take place. When you see Oprah, you know something good is going to happen. I said, ‘Lord, you’ve sent an angel.’ They told us we were going to get a home. I hugged her and thanked her. It just felt wonderful getting the house. It was God’s doing; He had a plan.”

On the Saturday before Katrina hit, 5-year-old Michael Leavings, Jr.’s father took him for a haircut and never brought him back, according to court documents. Delisha Smith, 23, the child’s mother, knew nothing of his whereabouts until investigators located her son and his father in West Orange, Texas, outside Houston. Mother and son were reunited in May in Memphis, where Smith now lives.
“I wondered if he was being treated okay. Was he alive? Was he healthy? It felt like a part of me was missing. He’s gotten a little taller. He talks much better, and he talks a lot. I think he’s just happy to be back with me and his brother, with all his toys and sleeping in his own bed.”

Several months after the storm, filmmaker Spike Lee began shooting When the Levees Broke, a documentary about the government’s response to Katrina. The four-hour film was scheduled to run this summer on HBO.
“At the time the hurricane hit I was in Italy for the Venice Film Festival. Flipping back and forth between CNN and BBC, seeing all those images, I felt I needed to do a documentary about it. We started shooting here in New York, talking to evacuees; then we made seven trips to New Orleans. While we do talk about the conspiracy theories surrounding the levees, it’s not a four-hour documentary about whether or not they were broken by the government. It’s just the people telling their stories-no narrator. One thing I feel people need to understand: Just because this happened in New Orleans, somewhere below sea level, doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen to you, no matter where you live. The Northeast, for example, is due for big hurricanes. It’s been a while, so don’t get too complacent.”

William W. Martin, 49, an elected district supervisor for coastal Harrison County, Mississippi, has testified before the state legislature and urged fairness from Washington as the region presses into an uncertain future.
“The day-in and day-out work has been to ensure that the effort to rebuild is all-inclusive. What about the people without any insurance, the elderly on fixed incomes? We have numerous subdivisions being proposed, but all those are houses for $150,000 and up; employees at the casinos cannot afford those. This is not an easy problem.”

When Sandra Johnson, 48, Ph.D., heard that Katrina evacuees were headed to Houston, she knew they would need a lot of support. The licensed minister, physician’s assistant and college professor used faith and therapy to help ease the emotional burdens of those in need.
“I went in to speak with the evacuees in the Astrodome. When you first see them, your heart just drops. A lot of them thought that they were not going to make it out of New Orleans. A lot of them felt they were left behind. Being in New Orleans all of your life, being shipped to another city or state, losing everything, they were traumatized to the highest extent. On the anniversary of Katrina, some evacuees will likely experience flashbacks. If they don’t receive counseling, it will have a lasting, major effect on them. They need to talk about it; that’s how the healing begins.”

Cierra Cojoe, 16, was excited and ready to go to school in Houston, but tensions were high between Katrina evacuees and the city’s students. On the first day that she and several fellow evacuees started school, she got into a fight.
“As soon as we got there these girls said, ‘Oh, my God, they’re from New Orleans.’ We were like, ‘Yeah, what’s wrong?’ There were some girls sitting on a brick wall. When we turned the corner, my cousin almost stepped on one of them. She apologized and we walked off. I stopped to answer my phone and another girl said, ‘Don’t look at my friend!’ ” My cousin and the girl started fighting. Another girl from Houston jumped in. Then I jumped in. After the fight broke up, we ran and caught a bus to go home. Two days later my mom took us to another school.”

After looking for housing in Louisiana, Mississippi, California and Seattle, single mom Iceola McDowell, 40, and her daughter, Abigayle Earl, 14, were resettled by a church to Anchorage, Alaska. It is three time zones, 4,500 miles and a world apart from New Orleans, where McDowell was a medical receptionist and Abigayle had just won admission to a highly selective public school.
“Sometimes we go out to eat and we’re the only African-Americans there. Some people are friendly, and many are not. We say ‘Good morning,’ and some people just stare at us. Southern hospitality? I really do miss that. I have pangs of homesickness. I miss my friends, my family, my godchild. On Mother’s Day we used to have a crawfish boil in the country where my daughter’s (paternal) grandmother lives. This year we missed that. Alaska is far, which didn’t occur to me when we decided to move here. People were just trying to find a place to live. This place seemed like an oasis.”

James McIntyre, a FEMA public affairs official, is frustrated by the public’s perception that the agency hasn’t extended sufficient relief.
“People need to understand that our legal mandate is not to make people whole again. Our mandate is to give you a bridge to bring you back to recovery. If a person is eligible for FEMA assistance, we can provide money from the date of a disaster up to 18 months. It depends on your particular situation. If people received insurance payments, we cannot duplicate benefits. If they were homeless pre-Katrina, we cannot pay for housing, but there are other agencies that can take care of them. In multiple family living situations, we can only assist one primary member of that household unless the other members have documentation showing they paid half of the rent, utilities and so on. We’ve had trouble getting the whole story out there, but the government is trying to work with everyone.”

New Orleans Police Captain Bernardine W. Kelly, 53, commands the Fifth District, which includes the Lower Ninth Ward where flooding destroyed the entire neighborhood.
“I went to work that Sunday the 28th, and our whole lives changed. We lost ten or 15 officers; they just decided it was too much for them to uphold their duty, and they left. But some of the stories that went out did not reflect the dedication and commitment of the men and women who stayed. We took a lot of unwarranted criticism during the storm. These people put aside their own needs and were dedicated to evacuating others. With 9/11, people had the opportunity to go home. Eighty percent of our officers didn’t have that luxury; we were sleeping in schools, sharing accommodations with other officers. Some didn’t see their loved ones for days. And we’re still here, preparing for the next hurricane season.”

Haden Brown, a New Orleans firefighter, had the task of searching for bodies as the floodwaters receded.
“Almost two months after the storm, I was activated to perform urgent search and rescue. By then, due to the extreme heat and high water levels, the odds of discovering survivors were considered slim to none. I was hoping not to find bodies, but as we searched, we uncovered so many bodies. It was a nightmare. Some of the corpses had begun to decay. You can only imagine the stench. Some people got rashes from the bacteria in the water.

“The devastation hit very close to home for me, unlike other rescue workers who came in to help. One of the hardest things I had to do was to tell guys I grew up with that I’d found their brothers’ bodies. It was difficult, but I know part of my job was allowing people to start the healing process, even if it never ends.”

Henry L. Irvin, Sr., 70, has a FEMA trailer parked outside his son’s house in New Orleans because the city hadn’t yet declared his neighborhood safe for reentry.
“It’s not like living in a house but, hey, it’s something. You got one big bed in the front part of the trailer. There is a sofa, a table that you can fold down and put pillows on to make another sleeping area, and two bunks in the back of the trailer. My ambition is to fix one bedroom in my house, a bathroom and a kitchen, and I’ll go on from there. I’ll do it the same way I did it in 1965 after Hurricane Betsy, when I rebuilt it in stages.”

In March, Jaclyn Overton, 21, joined Katrina on the Ground, a volunteer initiative that assists victims in rebuilding and recovery.
“I thought I had gained some understanding of the disaster from the photographs I’d seen, but as we passed the neighborhoods in ruins, I was speechless. We found a man dead in his attic six months after the hurricane hit. We saw people’s belongings and homes left deserted in the Ninth Ward. And nothing was being done. Through the program, we took the first steps to rebuilding homes and informed people of their rights. I think it helped. It was good for victims to see relief coming from young Black people. We do care. We’re not oblivious.”

Earl Bernhardt has been in business on Bourbon Street for 18 years. He owns four music clubs there, including Tropical Isle and the Funky Pirate blues club.
“People see the devastation on TV and think the French Quarter’s like that, but it’s not. In terms of my business, there hasn’t been any physical damage, but it’s been slow since the storm. Tourism hasn’t rebounded like we hoped. We’ve had some people come down; we still have a party atmosphere. But some of the employees have been a little depressed. We’re on the mend now, but it’s just going to take time.”

Grammy Award-winning jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, 44, was born and raised in New Orleans and still lives there.
“There’s always this question of who will come back. I think we’re kind of weeding out those who were not committed to the city to begin with. But New Orleans is a very powerful magnet. A lot of jazz musicians who are displaced are yearning to get back. Many of us are back. The city has a unique culture, and it’s a hard thing to give up. I’m talking about guys who are the pioneers of the music-the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Neville Brothers, Nicholas Payton-who live here and are a big part of the community. There are clubs where we all hang out that are holding benefits for musicians who lost their instruments. Everyone knows what this city has meant to our development as musicians, and what it still means. We’re not going to give that up for anything.”