Katrina evacuees put down roots

New Orleans mayor urges residents to return while many stay in Texas

? As thousands of families victimized by Katrina begin the agonizing process of deciding where to piece together their broken lives, to return home or to try their luck in a new community far from the familiar, the sentiments expressed by children are bound to figure mightily.

Interviews with a dozen families and individuals in Texas in recent weeks reveal a battle being waged across cultural and experiential fault lines that will help determine the fate of New Orleans and other areas destroyed by Katrina.

For weeks, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin has been urging New Orleans residents to come home. But in Texas, many of the 400,000 evacuees are leaving shelters for apartments and houses and putting down roots.

In Austin, the local school district started with about 1,000 children from Katrina-affected zones. Today, more than 700 remain.

“My feeling is that most of them want to stay,” said Dora Fabelo, the principal of Katherine Cook Elementary School in Austin, which has 25 children from Katrina-affected areas. “We have experience taking in children like these. We took in Liberian refugees last year and before that kids from Bosnia and Kosovo. Like them, these kids have gone through hell, but, unlike them, they’re neighbors. They are our kids.”

Fabelo and other principals have placed the children into remedial and special-ed programs. They also have gotten parents to come over for parenting and nutrition classes offered at the school – something that has impressed parents and made staying in Texas even more attractive. Fabelo has raised money for several of them and has helped one single mother of three, who was in danger of being evicted, to pay the rent.

“A lot of them are still overwhelmed,” she said. “They spend days working through the red tape.”

Steve Harris, a 37-year-old former dockworker and carpet cleaner from the Ninth Ward, said the bureaucracy has been maddening.

A motorcyclist rides Saturday past a mountain of trash, sheet rock and domestic furniture removed from homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina, at one of three dump areas set up for that purpose, in New Orleans, La.

In New Orleans, he was sofa-surfing at friends’ apartments and therefore was not recognized as the head of a household. He’s concerned that that will make him ineligible for housing assistance. He and his mother were rescued by helicopter from a third-story fire escape a week after Katrina blew through New Orleans. They were taken to the airport and airlifted to Texas. Before taking off, Harris asked an official where they were going. He said San Antonio. “When we touched down the pilot said, ‘Welcome to Austin,”‘ Harris said.

At the Austin Convention Center, where Harris was housed for two weeks, volunteers arranged for him to move into an apartment in a low-slung subsidized development in north-central Austin. Now, several weeks into his stay there, he is running out of money and the rent is due. The Red Cross paid for one month, and FEMA officials at the convention center told him they would step in, but they didn’t give him anything in writing.

“My rent is due tomorrow, and I still don’t know what I am going to get,” he said. “All I am doing is stressing.”

Harris’ one bright spot has been a good interview for a position cleaning carpets. “If I get work, I am not going back to New Orleans,” he said. “Why should I go back? They left me to die.”

The transition from New Orleans, where few people moved around much and the population grew only 7 percent since 1990, to Austin, a mobile society where one in three people is from someplace else, has been baffling for many evacuees.

Confusing, too, is the switch from a city where blacks make up 67 percent of the population to Austin, where they constitute 10 percent. Hispanics are Austin’s largest minority, at nearly one-third of the population. Some evacuees have found themselves in apartment complexes where their neighbors speak no English.

“Wherever I look, someone’s speaking Spanish,” said Steve Harris’s mother, Rose. “When I say ‘Hello,’ they just put their heads down and look away.”