He didn't choose to leave New Orleans; Katrina (search) came through and wrecked Jerry Hymel's native city, driving him away. And now he does not know what to do.
He is asking the same questions posed by thousands of others who fled the storm and its aftermath: Should he and his wife rebuild, a long and arduous process? Or should the retired utility worker pick up stakes, making a fresh start in a new place at age 62?
"I can't answer that right now," he said.
Maybe, he said at the hotel where they've taken refuge, they'll put down roots in this pleasant Alabama college town. He thinks his home near Lake Pontchartrain (search) will be salvageable, but that there will be more storms to flee.
"To live with this every year — and it keeps getting worse," he said. "We don't have enough protection there."
Like other coastal residents who escaped Hurricane Katrina, the Hymels grasped the overwhelming scope of the destruction slowly, while coming to grips with their own losses. Now the evacuees are grimly searching for hope in two equally difficult choices.
Deron Green, 21, has already decided. A casino bartender and parking manager in New Orleans, he had no apartment insurance and lost everything except the jeans and shirt he had on. Now he has taken a warehouse job in Houston.
"I'm never going back," Green said of the city where he's lived all his life. "I feel like the city will take years to rebuild. I believe it will be impossible to find a job. I was working in the tourism industry, and that won't happen for a long time."
His cousin, Blaire Garnett, isn't so sure, even though she believes everything in her rented home has been lost.
"I really want go back. Two years, five years, I can't say for certain until I see how things work out," said Garnett, who worked at a conveyor belt manufacturer while studying business administration at the University of New Orleans (search).
Although buoyed by Houston's hospitality, "I don't feel comfortable here," she said. "I mean, there's no place like home."
Green and Garnett got their Houston jobs through the employment placement company Randstad North America (search). Spokeswoman Cindi Kurczewski said branches in Atlanta, Dallas, Memphis and Houston have been busy with evacuees looking for at least temporary work. Schools in the region also are enrolling evacuee children, since much or all of the school year could be gone in their hometowns.
The Fayette County, Ga., school district enrolled seven evacuee students last week and is ready for more. "We are expecting we might have these kids for awhile," said spokeswoman Melinda Berry-Driesbach.
Many evacuees have already returned to see the damage firsthand and start making assessments.
Buzz Largilliere, 46, spent the past two years restoring the Pascagoula, Miss., house that's been in his family since Civil War times. All that's left is the upper floor, supported by a pile of splintered lumber and two overturned pickup trucks. The ground floor was obliterated.
Yet there's too much sentimental value to give up.
"I'm going to rebuild. There's no question," said Largilliere, an engineer. "It's been in my family since it was built."
But Parker Smith is ready to bulldoze what's left of his home and rental properties and move away. He lost all but three of the 22 waterfront apartments he owns. Katrina's storm surge punched large holes through his one-story home near the beach, submerging everything under seven feet of water.
After watching his property menaced repeatedly by hurricanes over the last two years, "I have no desire to rebuild," said Smith, a contractor. He plans to live in a trailer on his property while he cleans up the mess, then move his family away, to somewhere.
The Rev. Earl Williams, a Methodist minister in New Orleans, said his home was swamped, but he's eager to rebuild and see the inner-city youths he works with.
"A lot of people are depressed, but hopefully, with an infusion of federal dollars, the city can be rebuilt," Williams said. "Hopefully, when they starting seeing positive rays of hope, that feeling will change."