- Image 1 of 3
- Image 2 of 3
- Image 3 of 3
HOUSTON – Bunk beds dominate the narrow living room of Chevelle Washington's modest three-bedroom brick townhouse apartment. A large box in the corner is piled high with kids' shoes. The 51-year-old is raising six of her grandchildren. Her home is a refuge, a haven.
It was that way back in her native New Orleans, too — never so much as on Aug. 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck.
"I had 21 people at my house," she says of that horrible night. "They came to my house for shelter, because I had an up- and downstairs."
The water rushing through the city's breached floodwalls climbed all 17 of those front stairs, stopping just below the porch. It had receded to the 11th step by the following day, when a uniformed man appeared in a motorized flatboat.
As their anonymous savior steered the craft into the lake that the Upper Ninth Ward had become, Washington burst into tears.
"My beautiful house," she cried. "It ain't never going to be the same no more."
Her youngest son, Steven, remembers how the man at the helm tried to comfort his mother. "You're moving on to something better," he said.
An estimated 1.5 million Gulf Coast residents fled Katrina, scattering like wind-tossed seeds to all 50 states. Many thousands of them, like Chevelle Washington, have taken root where they landed.
A decade after the storm, she cannot quite bring herself to call Houston "home." Still, with two sisters living just a couple of miles away, and the occasional New Orleans-style "po boy" from her resettled brother's nearby sandwich shop, it's as close to it as she can imagine.
But for son Steven, the pull of home, of New Orleans, was too strong.
A few months after Katrina, he returned to his ruined city, hoping to recapture that sense of belonging he couldn't find in Texas.
Standing on that 11th step recently, his mind wandered back to the day he and his family climbed into that boat. He was never really sure what the man meant by "something better." A short-term shelter? A bigger house? A safer city?
Like so many families splintered by the storm, the Washingtons are still searching.
The storm did not "drown" New Orleans. But there's no denying it is a changed city.
Although today's population of 384,000 represents about 84 percent of the pre-Katrina level, many of those residents are new.
Then-Mayor Ray Nagin famously vowed that New Orleans would once again be the "chocolate city" it had been before the storm. Convicted of corruption, Nagin now sits in a federal prison cell; his city's complexion is a bit milkier than he'd hoped.
The black population has dropped from nearly 67 percent in 2000 to 59 percent today; whites, once about one-quarter of residents, now account for nearly a third.
This is "the new New Orleans," says University of South Carolina psychologist Lynn Weber.
"The people who have not returned have been disproportionately African-American, renters, low-income, single mothers and persons with disabilities," says Lori Peek, an associate professor of sociology at Colorado State University and co-editor, with Weber, of the book, "Displaced: Life in the Katrina Diaspora."
Since the storm, rents in the Crescent City have skyrocketed — up 33 percent for a one-bedroom apartment and 41 percent for a two-bedroom.
Following Katrina, officials demolished four of the city's notorious projects, vowing to replace them with modern, mixed-income developments. Despite much progress, there are still about 3,200 fewer low-income, public housing apartments than before the storm, and more than half of the completed units are priced too high for pre-Katrina occupants, says Bill Quigley, director of the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at the city's Loyola University.
Most of those residents were black.
One was Linda Nellum. Revitalization had already pushed Nellum out of the murder-plagued Magnolia projects. Living in temporary Section 8 housing when Katrina hit, Nellum was evacuated to Houston.
From Texas, she applied for return and was put on a waiting list. She's still waiting.
"Every now and then, you think about going home," the 43-year-old says, a tear trickling down her cheek. She feels "trapped" in Houston.
Mtangulizi Sanyika has chosen not to see it that way. When the Dillard University professor and his wife boarded up their home in New Orleans East and climbed into their crammed car, he assumed he'd be back in three days.
"A three-day odyssey has become 10 years," he says.
The city of Houston offered the couple free housing for a year. Around the time that was set to expire, Sanyika's wife found a great job.
Now 72, Sanyika is at the age where he is increasingly dependent on the health care system, which he believes is better in Houston.
"I've not given up the thought of perhaps one day going back, but right now, that's not pragmatic," he says. "But do I feel like I'm in exile? No."
When the floodwaters had been drained, community organizer Barbara Major located buses to bring displaced black residents back to New Orleans. She says the city and state have made it difficult for many to return.
"Everything demonstrates that you're not welcome here anymore," says Major, who says her own insurance has ballooned. "The people who were here pre-Katrina have been invisibilized."
Earlier this month, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu traveled to Atlanta and then Houston — to thank the people "for their generosity and open arms," but also to encourage members of his city's diaspora to "come back home."
Chevelle Washington says the New Orleans she knew no longer exists.
Growing up, sisters Chevelle and Champernell Washington never saw any reason to fear the landscape around them. And later, Chevelle's home on Lesseps Street was near one of the many pumping stations built to handle any storm water that got through or over the levees.
"We never ran nowhere," she says. "Cover up the windows. Cover up the mirrors. And we just ride 'em out."
But there was something different about that mid-summer's day 10 years ago, says Champernell.
"You could just about smell it in the air," she says. "You knew that you would have to brace for something."
Chevelle, recovering from gallbladder surgery days earlier, couldn't sleep as the house shook and rain pelted the windows.
Finally, when the skies began to clear, she thought all was well — until she opened the door to the garage below. A refrigerator and her grandson's basinet swirled up toward her, "like trying to see who was going to get up the stairs first."
Steven, then 16, waded down the front steps and stared as shrimp and crawfish skipped past. Later, he and older brother, Jeffery, swam to a nearby store, returning with a cooler full of soda, potato chips and bread.
When the rescue boat arrived the next day, Chevelle Washington was reluctant to get in, not wanting to split up the family. Her children convinced her to go. Her sister and others would later be picked up by helicopters.
The boatman dropped them on a nearby street where, hours later, a military truck took them to the Superdome.
The Washingtons managed to find space in the hometown Saints' end zone. Steven says he was standing beside the goalpost the next day when he was nearly trampled by armed soldiers in pursuit of a fleeing man. Surely, this dangerous, leaky-roofed open latrine was not the "something better" they'd been promised.
After a few days, the refugee family escaped New Orleans. They were all soon reunited in Atlanta — but not to stay.
Champernell had once lived in Houston. She'd loved the schools there, and there always seemed to be plenty of work.
And so, she, Chevelle and other family members resettled in Texas.
In southwest Houston, far from Galveston Bay and flood-prone Buffalo Bayou, the Washington clan has created a little slice of New Orleans.
Chevelle, raising the grandchildren, lives just a couple of miles from Champernell and her two girls. About a 10-minute drive east, in a strip mall, brother Rene's restaurant, Sleepy's Po Boys, offers fellow Katrina refugees a taste of home, right down to the French loaves from Leidenheimer's Bakery in New Orleans.
On a recent blistering hot day as the kids watched TV inside, the sisters sipped ice water in the shade of Champernell's patio and took stock.
Each has been back to New Orleans numerous times. Despite obvious progress, "It's still that sense of death in the air," said Champernell, 45, night manager at a hotel. "Everything is just scattered, you know?"
Chevelle talked of a friend who moved her family back — only to have three of her boys killed in a drive-by shooting, victims of apparent mistaken identity.
"I'm raising six — four boys and two girls," said the former hotel maid, who now makes do largely on disability benefits for one of the children. "I'm not ready to bury none of my kids."
Much as she loves her hometown, it's not worth the risk. Besides, it's not the same city.
"It would never be home again," she said as he sister nodded. "The way they're rebuilding it, they're trying to rebuild it to something else."
Other transplants have reached the same conclusion — including Christine Slack, waiting on a bench one recent sultry night for the Megabus' midnight run to New Orleans.
For many of the displaced, the five-times daily route has become a lifeline. (Sanyika, the retired professor, credits Megabus with allowing him to maintain his status as what he calls "a Houstorleanian.")
But this night, Slack is making the journey to settle her affairs in New Orleans so she can leave for good.
The 51-year-old evacuated to Arkansas, but returned to the city in February 2006. She sensed then that the "Mardi Gras City" would never be the same, but a sick mother and daughter kept her there. Now that both have passed, Slack is moving to Houston to be near her other daughter.
Her old city is for tourists and the wealthy, not the elderly or infirm or poor, she said. "New Orleans got washed away."
Cane in hand, Slack climbed aboard the double-decker and settled in for the ride. As usual, every seat was filled.
Six hours later, the bus rolled past the Superdome and the rows of massive steel pipes built to suck floodwaters from the low-lying city. Just before dawn, the driver opened the doors on Elysian Fields Avenue.
A couple of miles away, in a one-story apartment complex halfway between Treasure and Abundance streets, Chevelle Washington's son Steven is about to wake to another day in the Big Easy.
It's not that life in Houston was horrible, Steven says.
His new high school made room on the football team for the running back from New Orleans. But off the field, it seemed he was forever trying to dodge tensions — like the taunt "N-O!" that the Houston kids would shout whenever New Orleans refugees passed in the hallways. Bottom line, he was homesick.
"I just couldn't really do Houston," he says.
After an uncle moved back to New Orleans to supervise cleanup crews for the Army Corps of Engineers, Steven joined him. They lived in Algiers, across the river. Steven ended up in a different school from the one he'd left.
"It was a ghost town," he says.
After graduation, he found jobs — from meat counter employee to security guard.
Like his Uncle "Sleepy," he's also worked in the city's vibrant restaurant industry. He's currently a prep cook at a French Quarter restaurant.
He says his mom and Auntie Champernell are judging things by what they see during brief visits and on the news. Living it every day has given him a different perspective.
Yes, there are a lot of killings. Most of the time, he says, the name or face is familiar to him. Just as often, he thinks the victim contributed to his own demise.
"He probably did something he had no business doing ...," he says. "Mind your business. That's basically what this is. Just mind your business, go to work, have a family."
He tries to do as he did in Houston — avoid trouble. He plays basketball on the blacktop court behind Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, and works out at Planet Fitness.
At 26, he still nurses an old dream — of playing professional football. He reminds a visitor that Michael Lewis was a couple of years older and driving a beer truck when the Saints gave him a shot.
But 10 years after climbing into that boat, he admits that he's not satisfied with where he is in life.
"Just making it," he says. "And just trying to hang in there."
While working at the meat counter, he met Sidreaka Bell, a fellow returnee. Last year, they had a baby girl, My'chel Marie. Steven sent her to live with his mother in Houston.
Where will he end up himself?
Between shifts, he's found time to take computer and business courses at Southern University New Orleans. His uncle has been talking about expanding, and Steven thinks he could run a restaurant — maybe even open one of his own. He talks of buying a cheap, storm-damaged house and fixing it up. Not for himself, but as a rental.
More and more, he's thinking he'll have to leave New Orleans. During a visit to Miami, far from the safest city, he marveled at how peaceful it was.
"Too many of the wrong young people are coming back," he said.
Recently, Steven went back to the old duplex on Lesseps. It was only the second time since the storm. The new occupants have enclosed the garage. But the steps and porch still bear the marks of water damage.
He says he has no regrets about coming back to New Orleans. His advice to other young people: Unless you're returning for a good job or to study, stay where you are.