October 22, 2005

WHY GO BACK?

Evacuees Begin to Put Down Roots: New Schools, Jobs Lessen Pull Back Home to New Orleans (John Pomfret, October 22, 2005, Washington Post)

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 shelter 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, including the Smith brothers, 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.

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's 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 African Americans 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."

In New Orleans, Tyler and Deron Smith attended an all-black elementary school attached to St. Peter Claver Church. Two weeks ago, the family used FEMA aid to rent a three-bedroom apartment in northeastern Austin two blocks from Cook Elementary. There, two-thirds of the student body is Hispanic, 23 percent black and 10 percent white. More than half of the boys' classmates do not speak English at home.

Deron said he likes that it's mixed, and so does his father.

"It gives the boys a chance to see how other people live," their father, Ryan Smith, said. "No matter how you look at it, this has been a broadening experience for my boys." Being from a Katrina-affected zone has made Deron a bit of a celebrity in school.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 22, 2005 8:01 AM
Comments

Travis County's unemployment rate for September was 4.9 percent, which is .8 percent below the statewide average for last month. So there are definitely jobs to be had there, though given the system in New Orleans the Katrina refugees had to grow up and live in, the available jobs may not match their current training level (though Lord knows any one of them could do a more competent job as Travis County District Attorney than the office's current occupant).

Posted by: John at October 22, 2005 11:16 AM

There's a Steve Harris featured in the story. Is there a course they teach in J-School on finding the one person who experiences are outside the norm and can cast a story in the worst possible light, in using statistical outliers to make a story appear worse than it is?

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at October 22, 2005 12:59 PM

Didn't Barbara Bush get in trouble for saying what Principal Fabelo said?

Posted by: Jim Miller at October 22, 2005 12:59 PM

Jim Miller:

Partly a problem of timing.

Barbara Bush said it too soon.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 22, 2005 1:55 PM

It seems to me that the Smiths would be much better off at home. Not just for themselves, but for the people who rely on Mrs. Smith's wisdom. An 120-year-old family history should not be flung away to live in a state with poor education, low wages and a history of discrimination against nonwhites like Texas.

Posted by: June Gordon at October 22, 2005 3:10 PM

June Gordon:

Really ?

Are you offering to pay the Smiths to live in New Orleans ?

Because otherwise, all you're saying is that YOU wouldn't want to live in Texas, (and you've obviously never bothered to check the accuracy of the bad info that you've accumulated), and that YOU would like to see the Smiths suffer a lower standard of living by forcibly shipping them back, for the benefit of those who used to live around them in N.O.

Quite the humanitarian, you are, right up there with Mao, Pol Pot, and Stalin.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 22, 2005 3:59 PM

Gee, June, isn't it, like, up to the Smiths where the Smiths live? If not, why not?

Posted by: Mike Morley at October 22, 2005 8:36 PM

I suppose that for folks like Ms. Gordon, it's always easier to condemn people to miserable living conditions in order to further their political agendas so long as these people are poor and black, as opposed to college-educated and white, which is what I suspect Ms. Gordon's neighbors look like.

Posted by: Matt Thullen at October 22, 2005 11:25 PM

a state with poor education, low wages and a history of discrimination against nonwhites"

Isn't that a fairly accurate representation of Lousiana, especially when you include "corrupt political culture", which, except in Travis County, Texas doesn't have in the same degree?

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at October 23, 2005 3:15 PM

Texas has the same minimum wage as Louisiana, and the same level of unemployment. It actually graduates fewer black and Hispanic children from high school than Louisiana. There is really no rational reason for the Smiths to remain there. Their dispersal from Louisiana might benefit Republicans by diluting minority voting strength there, but it doesn't benefit them.

Posted by: June Gordon at October 24, 2005 8:33 PM
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