“We made it through the worst part,” said Sue, 33, an office manager who, with her husband of five years and their three children, had to evacuate their New Orleans home when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the city in late August 2005. “We’re renting a nice house in a nice neighborhood in upstate New York, but our family, our friends, our hearts are in New Orleans. Bob and I used to be soul mates. Now, there’s no fun in our lives and not much closeness.
“Our family of five — my daughter, Kristy, 9, from my first marriage, and Bob’s two girls, Alicia, 13, and Jenna, 11, from his — lived in a brick house in a quiet subdivision across the street from a levee. Our garden was our pride and joy; we had grapefruit, peach, and Japanese kumquat trees and gorgeous tropical flowers. We were always socializing with our neighbors. Now we don’t know where many of them are.
“The irony is that we lived through many other hurricanes and the house never even flooded. As late as the Saturday night before Katrina made landfall, officials were telling us it was going to be a Category Three, well short of Category Five, the most devastating. So we stocked up on the usual supplies — candles, flashlights, drinking water — and planned to ride it out. By morning, though, the news was calling it a Cat Five, heading dead at us. That meant mandatory evacuation. We had less than 24 hours to leave.
“We loaded the car and drove to a friend’s home 110 miles north of the city. The trip took 12 hours. We stayed in her tiny house, which was still under construction, for a month, with 11 people, two dogs, one bathroom, a hot plate, and a microwave. Yet not one child complained! It was amazing. Bob’s parents were still in New Orleans and we had no idea where they were. The area where they lived was destroyed, so we were pretty sure they hadn’t survived.
“But a week after Katrina struck, Bob’s cell phone rang. It was his dad; everyone was okay and by some miracle, so was their house. Bob drove back to New Orleans and saw that although our house had fared better than most, it was badly damaged. The roof in back was sheared off, muddy water was everywhere, and our beloved garden was gone. Now we’re trying to figure out if it makes sense to rebuild.
“Luckily, we both worked for national companies that found jobs for us in Pennsylvania. Newspapers were filled with stories about communities opening their doors to evacuees, but not in our town. No one welcomed us; many were downright nasty. The kids were ridiculed for their accents and their clothes. It was a huge relief when, after four months, Bob was promoted and we moved again. But his new job requires him to travel Monday through Friday, and I’m still unemployed, which is really stressing me out. There are so many costs here — winter coats, for example, and heat — that we didn’t worry about in New Orleans.
“At least the people here are nice, and the schools are excellent. But the girls are having trouble making friends. Lately they’ve been crying and saying they want to go home. But there’s no home to go to. And they’ve been fighting, which is a new development. When Bob and I got married we anticipated all sorts of ‘blended-family’ problems, but they never materialized. Now the smallest thing — whether Alicia’s jacket is ‘cooler’ than Jenna’s, for instance — sets them off. Then again, Bob and I don’t exactly set a good example since when he finally gets home for the weekend we’re so tired and tense we do nothing but bicker.”