By JONATHAN TILOVE
November 24, 2005
c.2005 Newhouse News Service
HOUSTON _ The other day at her new school here, 9-year-old Erica Johnson was wounded by a classmate’s words. “A girl said, `I wish you drown in the hurricane,”’ Erica recalls.
“She didn’t want to go to sleep that night, she was so terrified,” says her mother, Samantha. “She wrote me and her dad a note saying she wanted to go back to New Orleans.”
But after a trip with her family to see the wreckage of their old neighborhood in the Ninth Ward, Erica, one of eight children, knows there is no home to go home to. “Not yet, until they fix it up,” she says.
A few miles from the Johnsons’ apartment, some 400 expatriate members of New Orleans’ Franklin Avenue Baptist Church jam a borrowed sanctuary at Houston’s First Baptist for Sunday services.
Afterward, Oneida Banks, 93, shrugs when asked if she wants to return home. “I do and I don’t; it seems like I won’t,” murmurs Banks, slender and resplendent in a cheery yellow suit and orange corsage.
Her fate hinges on her daughter, a social studies teacher at New Orleans’ McDonough 35 High School, who says she has been advised to “look for work where you are.”
It has been nearly a season since the storm of the century. The holidays _ the ones all about family and home _ are upon us. The hundreds of thousands of the Katrina diaspora remain where they’ve been: in limbo, unsure if and when they can return home, unsure even whether they want to. In the meantime, they deal with their shock and loss, trying to remake community amid the ruins of their former lives.
In their collective decisions, these exiles of every rank and station will determine the fate of the city they loved, but didn’t always like or trust.
“I love New Orleans like my significant other, so it’s like a bad marriage _ you just want to move on,” says Catherine Flowers, a top aide to Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, living with other evacuees in what was senior citizen housing near Texas Southern University. Still, Flowers insists: “We have a right to return. We need a plan to return. … We are New Orleans. Without us, there is no New Orleans.”
What there is now, and will be for a while, is New Orleans West, a city in exile strewn across the freeway-latticed landscape of Houston.
City and federal data suggest that well more than 100,000 persons displaced by Katrina are living in the Houston area, more than anywhere else. The greatest number are from in and around New Orleans, and in their racial makeup, they give New Orleans West a complexion more like the mostly black New Orleans of old than the far smaller, whiter New Orleans post-Katrina.
In obvious ways, Houston is everything New Orleans was not _ huge and growing, modern, fast, faceless and efficient. In New Orleans the airport is named for Louis Armstrong; in Houston, for George H.W. Bush. Houston, bastion of enterprise, has no zoning. New Orleans, mecca of hedonism, has no closing time. It is telling that the closest thing to a Rudy Giuliani figure to emerge from Katrina is Bill White, the mayor of Houston, who managed to make his city a truly safe haven for so many who felt let down by their own leaders.
The exiles are interdependent, the decisions of each ultimately dependent on the decisions of the others, and all waiting on the grand plans of the powers-that-be beyond their command.
“The whole infrastructure of your life is based on instability,” says Dr. Jocelyn Tinsley-Greely. “You make a plan, the next day you read the paper and something’s different with whatever you made the plan on, so then you’ve got to regroup.”
Tinsley-Greely, mother of two, had an ob-gyn practice at two New Orleans hospitals, both destroyed. Her husband was a nurse at a third hospital from which he has been furloughed. Their home is livable and they want to resume a life they loved. But will the hospitals reopen? Will the patients return? Houston, she says, is flush with opportunities.
Carl Foucha, a laborer for Boh Brothers, New Orleans’ largest construction company, has the reverse dilemma. “There’s nothing but work down there now, but nowhere to live.” Having barely made it out of New Orleans with his wife, Kianyo Davis, and her two children, he won’t leave them now.
Erica’s father, Melvin Johnson, a cabbie, says he wanted out of the city even before Katrina. The corruption. The lousy schools. The neglected levees. “They can’t guarantee no one that it will be fixed better than it was, and it’s got to be fixed better than it was before,” he says.
The Hilton Hotel in New Orleans’ central business district wants Johnson’s uncle, Adam, back, and will put him up. (After 21 years in housekeeping, he earned $12 an hour.) But Adam Johnson’s nightmare of his time in the Superdome is still too fresh.
“They want people to hurry to go work but some people’s minds haven’t acquired to that taste,” says his fiancee, Dorothy Stukes, a school security guard who was by his side through the ordeal.
“I have to have a drink every night _ three beers and two shots of gin _ to go to sleep,” she says, glancing at her man. “Every time I close my eyes, I see you walking in that water.”
What the evacuees have is “root shock,” says Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University in New York.
Last year, Fullilove wrote a book by that name and created an institute (rootshock.org) to contend with the trauma caused by urban renewal’s uprooting of some 1,600 black neighborhoods _ her count _ over the last half-century. Community is destroyed. Bonds are ruptured. “People get sick, they die early, they leave their children worse off,” Fullilove says. Heartbreak and rage ripple through the places they resettle.
The answer, she says, is to reconnect, to turn the pain of these holidays in exile into times for healing and self-assertion. “People need to get out of that terrible state of being lost,” she says. Just as Jews traditionally end Passover Seders with “next year in Jerusalem,” Fullilove says the blacks of the Katrina diaspora need to raise their glasses at holiday gatherings to “next year in the Gulf.”
For some, Houston is their New Jerusalem.
“It’s better than home,” says Davis, a nursing home aide who with Foucha and her two children lived in New Orleans’ B.W. Cooper public housing complex. “Houston has really showed us a lot more love than New Orleans did my whole life being there.”
After they escaped the flood, a stranger in a Dodge Ram gave Davis and her extended family a ride west _ 23 women and children plus Foucha and the driver, all piled into the truck with their bags and Pampers, like some modern-day Joads. The stranger delivered them to Houston’s Shrine of the Black Madonna Pan-African Orthodox Christian Church, which has its own residential community on Martin Luther King Boulevard.
“They gave us an apartment right away,” Davis says.
The community is gated, peaceful and safe. A church van takes the children to and from school. The teacher sends home a progress report every day. There is a dining hall for communal meals.
Vincent Trotter and his wife also landed at the Shrine of the Black Madonna, where he now plays saxophone on Sundays, never mind that Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries, the church he played for in New Orleans, holds services a few miles away at Houston’s Brentwood Baptist.
Trotter was a jailer with the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff’s Office. Standing 5-foot-4, he helped keep charge of the prisoners as the water rose to 41/2 feet. He says he would return to New Orleans only to visit. He is looking for a job, and his wife, who worked for Sears, was hired here.
Because of their work schedules back in New Orleans, their 8-year-old son lived with Trotter’s mother, and still does, in an apartment elsewhere in Houston. But Trotter’s mother, a teacher for 33 years, is desperate to return to work in New Orleans, afraid of losing her retirement benefits.
“That’s the one thing that has her in limbo,” Trotter says.
Indeed, families are fractured, flung far and wide.
Back in New Orleans, everything was a “hop, skip and jump,” says Gary Mack, the family life pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. To go anywhere in Houston, “you’ve got to pack a lunch.” Mack’s wife is one of seven sisters who all lived close by in New Orleans. Now two are in Houston, two in Pensacola, Fla., and one each in Dallas, Atlanta and Chicago.
In New Orleans, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church _ FABC _ had more than 7,000 members. Thanks to a Web site Mack created (nawlinsconnect.com), the church has accounted for some 3,000 of them, about a third in the Houston area. Mack’s FABC baseball cap elicits a call and response whenever a member spots it. “If you say, “F.A.,” then I say, “B.C.,” he explains.
New Orleanians are, on the whole, pretty easy to spot. With their distinctive patois and palate, they are identifiable by what comes out of their mouths and what they put into them. They are at once intensely provincial and culturally complex. No black community is more deeply rooted in place, and none is imbued with a richer melange of influences.
Houston can prove puzzling. “They work, they eat, they shop, oh and they go to church, but I’m not sure what the culture is,” says Tom Watson, the charismatic pastor of Watson Teaching Ministries. Watson is planning a “listening tour” of the diaspora in various cities. He has, he says, been called the “mayor in exile.”
Outside Watson’s service at Brentwood Baptist, Le-Roy Smallwood waits for his sister in his new black pin-stripe zoot suit, black fedora and trademark single sideburn. He looks like something out of “Guys and Dolls.” In fact, he says, he played one of the Navy Seabees in his high school production of “South Pacific,” reprising the role when Robert Goulet brought a touring company to New Orleans a few years ago.
Smallwood, a large man with diabetes, waded out of New Orleans in chest-high water, wearing a T-shirt with his high school picture on it. He now lives by himself in a small apartment, mostly bare except for a slim bottle of Louisiana Hot Sauce on his kitchen table. Its name notwithstanding, Smallwood says it is not authentic.
“There is something missing,” he says.
Smallwood is at peace with his fate. “I took it as an adventure.”
As for New Orleans, he advises: “Give it one more good jazz funeral, and call it quits. I’d go just to kiss it goodbye.”
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin named community organizer Barbara Major to co-chair his Bring New Orleans Back Commission. One week she’s at the White House meeting with President Bush, the next she’s at Houston’s cavernous Disaster Recovery Center, lining up for housing help.
“I’m supposed to be rebuilding New Orleans and I can’t rebuild my own damn life,” Major says.
Still, she says, it is probably better to be in Houston thinking about her city’s future; the morbid stillness of her hometown is too much to bear. She understands why some are so ready to deliver that goodbye kiss.
“For a lot of people, New Orleans was never very good to them,” she says. “There are more reasons at this point for them not to come back than to come back. We need to create more reasons for people to want to come back.”
In New Orleans, Vincent Wilson owned his home in the Lower Ninth Ward and rehabbed houses for a living. Now he works for the community group ACORN in Houston, visiting places where his kinsmen have resettled, helping to organize a Hurricane Survivors Association.
“They don’t want us back, so that’s what we’re trying to fight, to have our right to come back secure,” Wilson tells Melvin and Samantha Johnson on the stairwell outside their temporary home.
“We don’t know if we’re going to stay in Houston, but we’re not going back to New Orleans,” Melvin Johnson says. They will soon move a few miles away to a brand-new apartment better than this one, with its feel of the projects.
Wilson tries to coax Samantha Johnson into joining the Survivors Association, to march on Washington. But she says she is on a stress leave from her job as a Wal-Mart cashier, and on antidepressants. When she tries to recount how she got her family to Houston intact, she chokes to a halt.
“We need that emotion; we need that anger,” Wilson tells her. “You’ve got to vent that. If you hold it in, you’re going to crack. I ain’t no psychologist or psychiatrist or nothing, but you got to let it out.”
The next night, he hosts a housewarming at the place he and his wife lease on the outskirts of town. The drab complex is transported on the wafting aroma of ribs, chicken, red beans and rice, and a big pot of turkey necks, potatoes and corn.
Wilson says he would never sell his land in the Lower Ninth, but that does not mean he would live there again. “I don’t want to wake up one morning with my nose touching the ceiling because I’m floating in water.”
If he does move back, he says, he’ll keep an “evacuation home” in Houston. In the meantime, “I am laying temporary roots in very light soil.”