Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Evacuees' Lives Still Upended Seven Months After Hurricane

The New York Times
Evacuees' Lives Still Upended Seven Months After Hurricane

Nearly seven months after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans and forced out hundreds of thousands of residents, most evacuees say they have not found a permanent place to live, have depleted their savings and consider their life worse than before the hurricane, according to interviews with more than 300 evacuees conducted by The New York Times.

The interviews suggested that while blacks and whites suffered similar rates of emotional trauma, blacks bore a heavier economic and social burden. And even as both groups flounder, most said they believed that the rest of the nation, and politicians in Washington, have moved on.

"I don't think anybody cares, really," said Robert Rodrigue, a semiretired computer programmer who has returned to his home in the suburb of Metairie. "New Orleans is kind of like at the bottom of the country, and they just forget about us."

The Times study is the first major effort to examine the lives and attitudes of those displaced by the storm's devastation at the six-month point, a moment when many must decide whether to establish a life in a new place or return home.

Fewer than a quarter of the participants in the study have returned to the same house they were living in before the hurricane, while about two-thirds said their previous home was unlivable. A fifth said their house or apartment had been destroyed. Many have not found work and remain separated from family members.

Still, most of those interviewed favor returning to the city, expressing a sense of optimism about the recovery process or, more often, a fierce yearning for home, as if staying away from New Orleans were like trying to breathe air through gills.

The 337 respondents were chosen randomly from a Web database of more than 160,000 evacuees, sponsored by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which was set up to help victims of the disaster reunite with their families. The interviews were conducted by telephone.

The Times used standard survey methods in asking the questions and recording the answers, but the interview project differs from a scientific poll. For one thing, the demographic characteristics of the full evacuee population cannot be determined, so the group cannot be sampled with the statistical precision of a poll. For that reason, no margin of sampling error could be calculated for the study, which was conducted from Feb. 16 to March 3.

Although the interviewees do not constitute a statistical sample, the racial makeup of the group, two-thirds black, was similar to that of the pre-hurricane population of the city. Those interviewed tended to be older and more predominantly female than the population as a whole.

The blacks interviewed were more likely to have had their homes destroyed or to have lost a close friend or relative. Although a majority of both blacks and whites left their homes before Hurricane Katrina hit, blacks were more likely to have been separated from family members.

And while a majority of whites and blacks reported that they had depleted their savings since the storm, blacks were more likely to have done so, and more likely to have been forced to borrow money. Whites were more likely to have kept their jobs or found similar or better employment, and were also more likely, by a wide margin, to have already returned to the New Orleans area.

A central question for New Orleans has been how much of its population would return, and 4 in 10 of those interviewed said they definitely or probably would. Another fourth were already back.

"New Orleans is in my blood; it's in my genes," said Jacob Mitchell, 67, a hospital maintenance man who is living for the time being with his daughter in Slidell, La. "It's like I'm married to New Orleans."

Of the rest of his family, scattered to four cities in three states, Mr. Mitchell said, "If they had a house to come back to, they'd be packing up tonight."

Tayari Kwa Salaam, 56, a consultant for several nonprofit groups, is back even though her paying clients are not. "For me, this is the most Afrocentric city in the United States," she said. "There's a way that we talk and way that we be that's just home."

Ms. Salaam, who describes herself as "one level above poverty," said that although she fretted over the city's future, she immediately began looking for ways to return after evacuating to her daughter's home in Baltimore. "Once we felt that chill in the air and it wasn't even autumn yet — and just the people there," she said. "It was generally cold."

Another quarter of those interviewed said they did not plan to return. The most common reason cited was fear of a repeat of last year's disaster.

A smaller group said they had settled in and were happy in their new location.

Those age 40 and older were almost twice as likely as the rest of the respondents to have already returned, and people in their 20's and 30's were more likely to say they were not going back.

Denise Debouchel, 46, said that her husband was living in a trailer in St. Bernard Parish, which is just east of the city and suffered some of the worst destruction, and that she was still at her sister's home in North Carolina. Ms. Debouchel believes the levees will never be high enough to prevent another flood of Hurricane Katrina proportions.

"I just can't fathom going through this again," she said. "It could be the end of my marriage."

Other families cited financial considerations and stability for their children. Deadra Ellis, 40, said she had found a job in San Antonio, her husband's job had transferred there, too, and the elder of her two children was settling into her new high school. The family would like to hold onto its house in eastern New Orleans, Ms. Ellis said, but insurance costs might prove too high.

"We are all kind of homesick," she said. "But I've been scanning the real estate listings — nothing is there."

Some of the poorest people in New Orleans were not included in the project, in part because they did not have access to the database or posted the telephone numbers of emergency shelters where they left no forwarding information. Only about a third of the people who participated in the study spent any time in emergency shelters, and even fewer sought refuge at the Superdome or the convention center.

More than one in 10 of the respondents said they were homeless or needed a permanent place to live. Although three out of five said they were depressed, and many reported symptoms like trouble sleeping or edginess, only one in five said they had talked to a therapist or counselor since the hurricane.

Nearly half were living in a house or apartment rented after the hurricane, while about a fifth were living in the same home as before the storm. Almost another fifth were living in someone else's home.

Attitudes about how the city should be rebuilt were complex, with many who want to return saying they would prefer a different neighborhood to the one they left. Nearly 9 out of 10 said protecting the city from flooding was worth a significant outlay of federal money, with almost as many saying that even low-lying areas should be rebuilt along with an improved levee system.

But asked if people should be able to live in those areas, 3 in 10 said the land should instead be returned to marsh.

As with race, income levels seemed to be a determining factor in how people fared. Those with household incomes over $30,000 a year were more likely to have evacuated before the hurricane as those who made less. They were also more likely to have stayed in a hotel or motel.

About 7 out of 10 respondents rated the Red Cross and FEMA as very or somewhat helpful, but the respondents were overwhelmingly critical of the local, state and federal government's response to the hurricane.

More than two-thirds disapprove of how President Bush and Congress are handling the response to Hurricane Katrina. Almost as many are critical of Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco's response, and more than half disapprove of Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who is up for re-election in April. But among Mr. Bush, Ms. Blanco and Mr. Nagin, more people approved of Mr. Nagin's response, by a wide margin.

Some shared the opinion of Reuben Friedman, 59, a retired lawyer who said that officials did the best they could in an unparalleled disaster.

"I'm not so much critical of their post-Katrina conduct as I am the failure to properly design and maintain the levees, which I think led directly to the loss of life and property," Mr. Friedman said.

Many of the black evacuees said the poor response was at least in part due to race. About half called race a major factor in the government's slow response. By contrast, almost three-quarters of the white evacuees said race was not a factor at all.

In follow-up interviews, some evacuees said the city had the potential to be better than it was before the storm, but others worried about the city's unique culture because the poor black residents who are a crucial part of it were having the most difficulty returning. Many expressed frustration about what they perceived as a lack of clear instructions about where or whether they could rebuild.

"We're kind of left in limbo," Mr. Rodrigue said. "So we can't move forward and we can't move back."

Brenda Goodman contributed reporting from Atlanta for this article, and Marina Stefan from New York.