With resignation, anger or stoicism, thousands of former New Orleanians forced out by Hurricane Katrina are settling in across the Gulf Coast, breaking their ties with the damaged city for which they still yearn.
They now cast their votes in small Louisiana towns and in big cities of neighboring states. They have found new jobs and bought new houses. They have forsaken their favorite foods and cherished pastors. But they do not for a moment miss the crime, the chaos and the bad memories they left behind in New Orleans.
This vast diaspora — largely black, often poor, sometimes struggling — stretches across the country but is concentrated in cities near the coast, like this one, or Atlanta or Baton Rouge or Houston, places where the newcomers are still reaching for accommodation.
The break came fairly recently. Sometime between the New Orleans mayor’s race in spring 2006, when thousands of displaced citizens voted absentee or drove in to cast a ballot, and the city election this fall, when thousands did not — resulting in a sharply diminished electorate and a white-majority City Council — the decision was made: there was no going back. Life in New Orleans was over.
Now, they are adjusting to places where the pace is slower, restaurants are fewer, existence is centered on the home, and streets are lonely and deserted after 5 p.m., as in this city in southwest Louisiana. These exiles, still in semi-limbo and barely established in a routine, describe their new lives less in terms of what it now consists of than of what they left behind.
“I told them, ‘I love turtle soup.’ People here go, ‘What’s that?’ ” said Pauline Hurst, a former therapy technician at a New Orleans hospital who settled here after her home was destroyed in the post-hurricane flood.
Dreadlocks, accepted in New Orleans, might mean a reservation at a fancy restaurant is suddenly “lost,” as in the telling of one exile here. A burst of gunfire might mean an instant police response rather than none at all, as in New Orleans, in the amazed recounting of another. Late-night cravings mean the IHOP rather than the famous Camellia Grill; going to work means hourlong trips on country roads, rather than, say, a 10-minute hop across the Industrial Canal from the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans.
Warily, they praise the quiet, the friendliness and the absence of crime.
“It’s the country, but it’s — lovely,” said Barbara Shanklin, a retired city bus driver who has settled 50 miles to the southwest of New Orleans in a Terrebonne Parish hamlet, Gray. Still, Ms. Shanklin added quickly, “I miss New Orleans.”
The precise calculus that went into these painful choices was complex, a mix of emotion and reason, in the telling of former New Orleanians. They voted in 2006 clinging to a hope of return, and in some cases a desire to protect decades of black political gains by returning an African-American, C. Ray Nagin, to the mayor’s office. But while 113,000 voted in May 2006, only 53,000 did last October. The mirage of the old, comfortable life in a city of densely woven neighborhoods, beguiling if sometimes dangerous street life, and inviting po’ boy sandwich shops contrasted too sharply with the grimmer present-day reality of New Orleans for these exiles.
The old house was gone. The neighborhood was empty. The friends were missing. The job had vanished. Rents were high, when you could find them. Murder had returned (with about 200 victims so far this year), even if many of their friends had not.
And the city seemed frozen in its half-ruined state, strangely alien and unfamiliar. The current population remains stuck at somewhere between 200,000 and 280,000, far below the pre-hurricane level of 450,000. These exiles do not see the New Orleans that has picked itself up; instead, they see the one that remains largely destroyed.
Away from the city, a less threatening existence awaited: blander and demanding adjustment, yet less oppressive. The quiet of languid country-town streets was deemed preferable to the absolute silence of whole abandoned blocks. Outside New Orleans, it was easier to deal with the still-fresh trauma of being homeless and losing “everything,” as several put it.
“In the beginning, I thought I might go back,” said Ms. Hurst, who came here with her sister and 88-year-old mother, also chased out by the hurricane, and lived with them for five months in a single large room at St. Mary’s Missionary Baptist Church. They now work at the church, which has become a regional relief center for storm evacuees.
The 2005 flood, Ms. Hurst said, turned everything in her home at the edge of the Broadmoor section of New Orleans “black, purple and green,” as though somebody had “just put everything in a blender.” Yet the city had not relinquished its grip on her, and she voted in the 2006 New Orleans election, at a special polling place in the white-columned Calcasieu Parish courthouse here.
Voting for the familiar New Orleans candidates was an act of normalcy. But that election, once over, did not magically conjure up the old New Orleans. Going back was a jolt.
“Everything was gone,” Ms. Hurst said. “All that was gone — community, friends — scattered. You feel like, when you go there, you’re walking into a strange country. It’s just totally different. It just feels like you’re in outer space.”
Each return visit to New Orleans brings sharp reminders of what was lost. “It hurts me, every time I go back,” said Ms. Hurst’s sister, Cynthia Jones.
Others spoke of being alienated from their old surroundings.
“There is nothing to go back to,” said Renee Roussell, whose husband found a job as a manager at a casino restaurant in Lake Charles.
Sylvia Young, a former public school teacher in the Lower Ninth Ward, now works as a mental health counselor in La Place, just up the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Her old school and job are gone.
“I go, and I get depressed,” Ms. Young said.
She drove to New Orleans to vote in 2006 — “I thought for a minute I could possibly move back,” she said — but not this year.
“When I go to Gentilly,” Ms. Young said, “and I see my son’s school is not back, and the house we lived in is gone, and the house next door to Tammy and them is gone. Everything is just gone. It’s either torn down or partially being rebuilt or just nothing done to it at all.”
But, in the accounts from people who left New Orleans after the storm, the missing or ruined physical landscape is barely half of it. Even more absent now is the human landscape — the network of friends, relations and acquaintances that often, in New Orleans, helps compensate for fragmentary families and neighborhoods that can be dangerous. Life in the city takes place outside the home as much as inside; now, that would not be possible.
“It’s not New Orleans to me,” said Ms. Shanklin, the retired bus driver in Terrebonne Parish. “And I find myself asking, Where are all the people? I see all the empty houses, and I knew once there was people in all those houses.”
“Where are the people, you know? Where are the people?” Ms. Shanklin said. “It’s like somebody threw a bomb on it.”
Now, she lives in a trim little house that Habitat for Humanity built in a curving subdivision of similar dwellings definitely unlike New Orleans. The town of Houma is nearby, but there are fields all around, and it is quiet enough to hear birds. New Orleans noises — police sirens, traffic, honking car horns, children, hip-hop music — can be conjured only with difficulty. At night, Ms. Shanklin boasted, she opens her window and listens to the cows in the pasture.
But a year ago, she had a nervous breakdown and spent 10 days in the hospital. She missed New Orleans.
Ms. Roussell, in Lake Charles, said, “If anybody asks me where I’m from, I say New Orleans. It’s not easy to let go. But why go back home, when nothing is what it used to be?”
Tuesday, December 18, 2007