After the Storm
Austin's Louisiana exiles remain suspended between before and after
Last October, when Christine Braud first went back to see the three-bedroom shotgun house she rented in New Orleans for 15 years, the bodies of two of her former neighbor's rottweilers were piled on top of each other near the curb. They stank from sitting out in the sun, but the city was so overwhelmed by garbage piled as high as 8 feet on curbs all over the place not to mention houses and cars in the middle of streets that the carcasses weren't going anywhere. She gathered up what she could inside and returned to Austin with her family. When she went back a month later with a U-Haul to see what she could salvage, the rottweilers were still rotting in the sunshine, but this time garbage was piled high on top of them. Her neighbors had heaped their pre-Katrina lives over the dogs in a desperate attempt to cover up the smell. Braud added her possessions to the dog pile.
"That's basically what the whole city looked like at that point," she said. "Just one big dumping ground."
The corpses are gone now, but as of mid-July, there was still some unsacked garbage heaped on the curb, the former house along with most of the others on Braud's block of Dumaine Street was deserted, and Braud still ached for the only home she ever knew before Austin. Since November, she's been living in the Towne Vista apartments at the corner of Montopolis and Riverside. Some days she wants to load her 6-year-old daughter Angel LaCour, 20-year-old son Alfonso LaCour Jr., and 62-year-old mother Carolyn into her Montero Sport and drive back to New Orleans for good. Other days, she's accepting of Austin as her new home.
"Ask me today, I'll tell you yes," said Braud about whether she'll stay in Austin. "Ask me tomorrow, I'll be in my hyperventilating phase, and I'll tell you I'm going back." Before the storm, Braud suffered from anxiety attacks that made her cough and gag. Now stress manifests itself at night. It's rare for her to get a solid night's sleep. "I'm jumping up gasping for air," waking up in sweats.
The Rip and the Run
Nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina ransacked the Big Easy and much of the Gulf Coast, hundreds of thousands of the region's former inhabitants are still scattered throughout the country. The vast majority of these evacuees are Louisianans, the largest concentration from Orleans Parish. At best, only skeletons remain of their old lives in New Orleans. According to the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, an Austin-based research and advocacy organization for affordable housing, evacuees have three options: "Return to the places where they originally lived; remain in the community they evacuated to; or permanently relocate to another community." Braud and her four siblings represent all three choices: Braud and a sister, Diana Wallace, are staying put in Austin for the time being; another sister, Jean Reed, moved back to Baton Rouge from Austin and is close to being a resident of New Orleans again; a fourth sister, Mary Crenshaw, moved from Austin to Memphis; and their brother, Thaddeus Braud Jr., evacuated to Houston and has recently moved to Denham Springs, La., about 86 miles from New Orleans. Braud and Wallace are also pretty typical of the estimated 251,000 Katrina evacuees that remained in Texas as of June, according to an August 17 report by the Financial Services Division of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which, among other things, finds that these evacuees are largely African-American women living in households with children.
On a recent Saturday night, Wallace sat with their mother and Angel for an interview on Braud's living room couch, which was pushed up against a sliding glass door to give Braud a false sense of security in her ground-floor unit. She said she has come to terms with Austin being her new home at least for now. "I think that I will eventually go back but [not] at least for two or three years," Wallace said.
At Braud's Dumaine Street home, it doesn't look like water rose above the four thick concrete steps leading up to the front porch. But the three-bedroom shotgun house Wallace rented in New Orleans' Seventh Ward just two miles away from Braud's place in the Sixth Ward was completely inundated. In mid-July, the front door was slightly ajar, revealing a living room full of grimy, moldy furniture covered with broken, scattered possessions. A wall covered with dark mold was a testament to the brown, stagnant water that sat in so many homes for weeks. On the wall amidst fuzzy blotches of mold hung a framed baby picture of Wallace's oldest granddaughter, Mya, a reminder of the close-knit family that lived there for 13 years. That's not the worst of it. The back of the house flooded even more severely because it was on a decline, Wallace said. "Things that were once in the kitchen were in my son's bedroom."
A "for sale" sign is stuck in the grass next to Wallace's former porch steps. Her landlord is asking $32,000 for the place, she said. That's $32,000 she doesn't have, but she wouldn't want to go back to her neighborhood now, anyway. A nearby Lowe's is open these days, but all the corner stores, and most of her old neighbors, are gone. "I would really be fearful if I had to live there."
Wallace, her husband, one of her daughters, and a granddaughter live in a three-bedroom apartment she rents for $750 at the Paradise Oaks complex just off of Riverside, not far from Braud's place. Unlike many Katrina evacuees, who initially wound up at the Austin Convention Center or the Toney Burger Center, this family's home base was Paradise Oaks from the start. That's because they're Rita evacuees, too. Braud, Wallace, Reed, Crenshaw, each of their families, and their mother, all came to Austin via Galveston, from where they had to flee Hurricane Rita. "It was just the rip and the run" that landed the family in Austin, said Braud of the chaotic double evacuation.
Up until Galveston, the 39 family members and friends who had evacuated together in a caravan of nine cars had stuck together from a rest stop in Vidor to a rest stop in Beaumont to a shelter in nearby Orange, then to a hotel in Galveston. Wallace's son and his girlfriend had found an apartment in Austin, so that's how a chunk of the group wound up here. Reed, who has six children, promptly rented a four-bedroom at Paradise Oaks, and "everyone just piled up in the two apartments and stayed there," said Braud, who camped out on an air mattress in Wallace's family's apartment for two months longer than anyone because she insisted she was going back home.
"It was not until November that I realized that it was time for me to get my own [apartment]," Braud said. "I realized that there is no home for me to go back to in New Orleans now."
Reed, who at 38 is the youngest of the four sisters, stayed in Austin until June 3, when she and her brood left for Baton Rouge in a U-Haul with their Dodge Caravan hitched to the back. They're staying with a cousin in Baton Rouge, but Reed, who is a widow, makes the hour-and-15-minute trip to New Orleans daily to work on her Seventh Ward home, which she owns. "With my eyes closed, my car knows which way to go." She's determined to move back to New Orleans so determined that she's enrolled all of her children in school there instead of in Baton Rouge. She'd be making the commute daily anyway. In addition to working on her house, which suffered floor and wall damage from settled water, she started back at her old job at Sam's Club earlier this month.
The fact that Reed was able to line up a job isn't that surprising, at least according to Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers. "Blacks who have returned to the city are working: Their employment rate was 60% last quarter, about the same as the national average for black workers," notes Jared Bernstein, a senior economist at the labor-focused Economic Policy Institute, in a recent data analysis. On the other hand, African-Americans from New Orleans who were living in other cities didn't fare nearly as well: According to BLS data from the same period, April through June, only a third of Katrina evacuees from New Orleans were working. White evacuees, however, haven't had the same difficulty assimilating into their new employment markets for one reason or another, Bernstein also notes. "About 60% ... are working, regardless of whether they stayed in the communities where they ended up or returned home."
Braud and her siblings have had a range of employment experiences. Braud, who worked for Dillard's for 15 years back in New Orleans, isn't working and isn't actively seeking employment right now, largely because her mother is sick with diabetes and a heart condition. "It's just really about family time right now. I'm just taking care of my mama," said Braud, who refers to herself as a former workaholic and halfheartedly jokes, "If one good thing came out of Hurricane Katrina, I'm a cook now."
Wallace and her husband are both disabled she has a heart condition and is obese, and he suffers from kidney failure so the work they can do is limited. They both collect disability, but all four of their children have found work in the Austin area.
Crenshaw, the fourth sister, was able to land a job with Sam's Club, her employer back in New Orleans, but the position was in Memphis. That's why she moved there from Austin. Their brother Thaddeus is in Denham Springs because he couldn't find employment in Houston, where he initially evacuated from Galveston. He told Wallace that he's contemplating commuting to New Orleans for employemt, as his old boss told him there's a job waiting for him if he wants one.
Hoping that one day all five siblings and their families will be able to return to New Orleans, Braud and Wallace hold a certain admiration for their sister, trying to make a go of life back in Louisiana; they see her as the anchor of the family, which goes back at least six or seven generations in the city. Reed, however, doesn't view her family role these days as anything remarkable. "I just see myself as a single parent trying to get home and make a living."
What's remarkable about Reed's situation in Louisiana is that she has a long-term affordable housing plan: living with her cousin and then in her house. It isn't coincidental that Reed is the only homeowner of her five siblings and also the only one returning to New Orleans. If you think affordable housing is scarce in the Austin area where, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, fair market rent for fiscal year 2006 is $658 for a one-bedroom apartment, $804 for two bedrooms, and $1,093 for three bedrooms consider New Orleans. According to a monthly economic index compiled by the Brookings Institution from HUD data, rents in New Orleans have risen nearly 40% over the past year. "A one-bedroom apartment now rents for about $803, up from $578 last year. Similarly, a three-bedroom unit rents for $1,206, a 39% increase from last year's rent level of $868. In short, these numbers show the great demand for rental housing and affordable housing in a very tight rental market, as former renters try to find a foothold in the city, new workers try to secure short-term housing, or former homeowners find homeownership no longer a feasible option," the index reads.
According to the Advancement Project, a D.C.-based civil rights group, New Orleans has lost roughly half of its rental housing due to Katrina. The group filed a lawsuit in late June against HUD and the Housing Authority of New Orleans, which HUD oversees, on behalf of residents of four damaged public housing complexes about 4,500 units altogether, according to HUD that the federal government plans to demolish and, according to HUD spokeswoman Donna White, eventually replace with mixed-income housing. "By failing to reopen housing units that were undamaged by Hurricane Katrina, failing to repair other units, and declaring that most of the existing public housing stock in New Orleans will be destroyed, HANO and HUD are shirking their obligation to provide safe, affordable housing for low-income families and access to housing free from discrimination," says Bill Quigley, lawsuit counsel and a Loyola University law professor, in an Advancement Project press release, which notes that, prior to Katrina, about 5,100 New Orleans residents, largely African-American, lived in public housing. Another 9,000 families held federal Section 8 vouchers, according to HUD.
The same day he announced the housing complex demolitions, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson said that by August the department would reopen 1,000 public housing units in other locations. As of mid-August, about half of the promised units were almost ready to open "pending an environmental review and a final walk-through," White said. Not all of the promised units are ready yet, she said, because two weeks after the mid-June announcement, "thieves broke into the CJ Peete [public housing] development and stole hundreds of thousands of dollars of building materials before we secured the site. They took everything from copper roofing to the copper wires inside transformers. The scope of this has forced us to look at alternative sites to rehabilitate ... Despite the setback at CJ Peete, we still hope to get to the 1,000 if not, very close to it."
In short, affordable housing is an oxymoron in New Orleans and will be for a while.
Anybody who knows anything about the aftermath of Katrina is aware that hundreds of thousands of hurricane survivors around the country have been receiving federal rent assistance since shortly after the storm. Last fall the government was paying for the hotel rooms of more than 200,000 men, women, and children throughout the U.S., 125,000 of whom were in Texas, according to Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates. FEMA recently pushed back the end-of-July application deadline for the agency's 408 Individual Assistance [Housing] Program to Oct. 31. Qualifying evacuees have been gradually transitioning from the agency's emergency sheltering program to individual assistance since, after multiple postponements, emergency sheltering is slated to end at the end of August for most evacuees. If an evacuee qualifies for individual assistance, it buys him or her a little more time, as the program is presently slated to end in February.
Braud says she applied for individual assistance in late June. As of late August, she hadn't heard from FEMA whether she was eligible or ineligible for the program. She says she has enough cash to cover a month's worth of rent and bills, but that she's uncertain beyond that. Wallace said this week that FEMA recently sent her a letter asking for details about her future housing plans; having a long-term housing plan is one of the requirements for qualifying for individual assistance.
Well aware that her mother's monthly disability check won't sustain the family for long, Braud went to the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex in July and signed up for Section 8 housing when the Housing Authority of the City of Austin opened up its waiting list for three days. More than 6,600 other people also signed up, said Lisa Garcia, HACA's vice-president of assisted housing, who added that there's no way of knowing how many of the people on the waiting list are hurricane evacuees. Based on program turnover, Garcia estimated the housing authority will issue about 40 to 50 vouchers a month. The average waiting time for a voucher in Austin is four years, she said. According to the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, an apartment hunter in the Austin-Round Rock area has to earn $32,160 a year $15.46 an hour for a 40-hour week to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment and not spend more than 30% of his or her income on housing, the amount recommended by the federal government. Needless to say, the clock is ticking for Austin's evacuee population.
Nightmares and Dreams
Braud and her three sisters talk to each other on the phone almost daily. They had been spoiled with companionship, as almost the entire immediate family lived within a couple of miles of one another in New Orleans' Sixth and Seventh Wards. Thaddeus, who lived in New Orleans East, about a 20-minute drive away, was the only sibling who lived in a different part of town. Each sibling had his or her own family; needless to say, they were a big group. While sitting in Braud's living room, both Braud and Wallace reminisced about frequent picnics and barbecues in Diana and Jean's back yards, the smell of ribs, fried chicken, crawfish, jambalaya, red beans and rice, and other favorites wafting through the humid New Orleans air. "You just assumed that on the weekend you would be at somebody's house doing something," Wallace recalled.
On special occasions, the festivities moved to a park on nearby Lake Pontchartrain since more extended family and friends would come along. Imagine that whole clan fleeing Katrina at the same time, each with a couple of day's worth of clothes and other necessities crammed in the cars, as that's how long they thought they were going to be gone. Christine said that when she left work early to get ready to get out of town, she and her co-workers all told each other, "See you Monday."
By the time Katrina hit August 29, they were at the rest stop in Vidor. The normally four-hour trip took 16. Braud said one of her cousins who stayed behind was giving the group updates about the hurricane's approach and development, "and then the next thing you know his cell phone went out."
After putting her name on the Section 8 waiting list at the Millennium Complex, Braud got lost trying to get back to her apartment. "Just [got] turned around, got distracted, and went the wrong direction," she said. She eventually found her way back home but not before wandering down a street where she didn't want to be where, as she put it, somebody was shooting a gun at somebody. She got the hell out of there at least physically.
"It's like a nightmare that won't ever end," she said, and it's clear she's talking about much more than getting lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Before Katrina, none of the five siblings had ever left Louisiana. Now, uneasy wanderers, not only have they sojourned in other cities, they even have a new great-nephew who's a Texan. Wallace's daughter, Sharon, gave birth to a baby boy a little more than a month after the family arrived here. His name is Austin.