Life since Katrina: Back home or resettled afar, 3 survivors reflect on post-hurricane journey

By Sharon Cohen, AP
Thursday, August 26, 2010

Life since Katrina: 3 stories of survival

When Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed New Orleans and the surrounding region five years ago, hundreds of thousands of lives were changed forever, in myriad ways. Hundreds died, but even among survivors, many lost all that was familiar. And recovery is a process that still goes on day by day.

Here are three stories of survival and readjustment, by Associated Press writers who tracked down individuals they had first met in Katrina’s chaotic wake.

The Thomas family: Evacuated from Katrina’s floods, now rooted in Arizona desert

Five years ago, the family had never seen a cactus up close. Mexican food meant Taco Bell. And the phrase “dry heat” would have been absurd. Back then, of course, they had never lived anywhere but Louisiana.

Now cactus plants abound, and Mom knows how to make the traditional Mexican dish menudo. And that dry heat helped salvage the Disney movies retrieved from a flooded-out house in New Orleans, the place Lois Thomas still can’t help calling “home.”

They arrived in Arizona a week after Hurricane Katrina struck, one family among the thousands of storm evacuees flung across the country in search of sanctuary. Thomas was 36 years old, with six children and her longtime boyfriend, Doyle Smith, by her side, and her mind revving with questions.

Where would they live and work? When, if ever, would they go back home? What might they find when they did? Blank pages of a life story that suddenly had to be rewritten.

Five years later, the family’s story has new chapters — marked by more loss but also many achievements, by tough times but also the generosity of strangers.

“Katrina?” says Thomas. “I try to leave it in the recesses of my mind. Way back there.”

That didn’t seem possible on Aug. 29, 2005, when the storm made its way into New Orleans.

They survived by taking refuge in the attic of their four-bedroom brick house: Thomas, Smith and all six children, huddled together: Kayleigh, 15; Kourtney, 13; Larry, 12; Annalyce, 6; Andrew, 5; and 3-year-old Angela.

After 11 hours, Smith heard a boat outside and used a hammer to break through the roof. They eventually made their way to an evacuation staging area and boarded a government plane out of town — to where they didn’t know until the pilot announced: “The beautiful sun city of Phoenix, Ariz.”

Their first accommodations were cots at Veterans Memorial Coliseum near downtown — and that’s where good fortune found them.

Jeff and Marie Whiting, a couple in Goodyear, Ariz., had a second home they had decided to offer, rent-free, to Katrina survivors. A volunteer at the coliseum saw their Internet posting and, within days, Thomas, Smith and the kids had moved into the five-bedroom home neighbors decorated and stocked.

They became the mini-celebrities of the neighborhood, with folks coming over almost daily to introduce themselves and offer help. Neighbors threw birthday parties for the children. Walmart provided a credit account for shopping. A car dealership offered a Dodge Caravan.

“We’ve really been blessed,” Thomas said at the time. By October, Thomas, a schoolteacher, had landed a job teaching reading at an elementary school.

That same month, she and Smith traveled back to New Orleans to see what was left of their home. One neighbor had already begun gutting his house, but they heard horror stories about prices for building supplies, about the hassle of getting building permits. Thomas dreaded the idea of stuffing the children into a FEMA trailer.

So they decided Arizona would be home for the time-being, and headed back with a couple of milk crates full of photo albums, birth certificates and some Disney videotapes still damp with mildew. (Set out in the dry Arizona heat, the movies were saved.)

It was just after their first Thanksgiving in Arizona, however, that Smith decided to return to New Orleans to try to find work. In time, he moved to Fayetteville, Ark., where he now works as a cook at the University of Arkansas and has started a new family. He left Thomas with Angela and Annalyce, his children from another relationship and sisters to Kayleigh, their daughter together. Thomas has since become their legal guardian.

“They tell me they’re happy,” Smith says in a telephone interview, speaking of the girls.

They certainly seem to be. Five years after first arriving, Thomas and all six children live now in a mobile home in Buckeye, not far from the neighborhood in Goodyear where they spent that first year. One recent evening, the three youngest crowded on the couch giggling at “George Lopez,” as Thomas reflected on how far they’d all come. There were signs of that all around. A bookcase displayed Kourtney’s high school diploma and a photograph of Kayleigh on the day she earned her medical assistant’s certificate at community college.

Against a wall were piles of belongings — comforters, notebooks, backpacks — ready to accompany both girls off to college. Kayleigh, now 20, heads to Northern Arizona University this fall to study psychiatric nursing. Kourtney, 18, won a scholarship to The University of Arizona in Tucson.

On this night, however, the girls and Thomas’ older son, Larry, were off with friends — not wanting to have to talk “Katrina” again. Larry, entering his last year of high school, rarely mentions the storm or where they’re from.

Every now and then, though, someone catches a hint of the South in Thomas’ voice. When she tells them “the story,” their look says, “Wow, you really went through all of that?”

She still has bad days, when she misses her house (which was foreclosed upon) and the food and, even, the “stuff” she once didn’t think mattered. One holiday, making dinner, she asked the girls to find one particular serving dish. For a moment, they stood in the kitchen in silence. And then they reminded her: “We lost that in the other house. Remember?”

“It’s that kind of thing that sneaks up on me. I get a heart pang,” says Thomas. “But what do you do? Sit there and sulk and wallow in it? No.”

Instead the family has moved on, with strength and spirit, and help from many: the acquaintance whose sister-in-law gave them the mobile home, and allowed Thomas to assume the note (she’ll own it in three years); the school colleague who offered her old car when Thomas’ van broke down; and others.

Thomas was laid off in May. Instead of teaching, she’s working now at a warehouse, but even this she takes in stride. She plans to begin taking online classes in medical sonography.

“I look at Lois as somebody who’s escaped from a dark place and been brought into a light place,” says Marie Whiting, who still talks to her former “tenant” now and then. A few weeks ago, they ran into each other at a restaurant, hugged, caught up and made plans to go to church together.

Thomas hasn’t been back to New Orleans since 2008, when she and the children attended a family reunion. She knows she’s not likely to ever live there again. But she’ll always have reminders of home, even a small atlas she purchased that day she boarded the plane for Arizona, to see just how far they were going. On its mileage chart, she drew a thin line connecting New Orleans and Phoenix.

But like the storm itself, she keeps this memento stored away, a piece of yesterday now.

— By PAULINE ARRILLAGA, AP National Writer

The lawyer: Rick Teissier says New Orleans ‘grew up’ after Katrina

What Rick Teissier remembers most about those early months after Hurricane Katrina was the scene in his neighborhood pharmacy: a long line of people with hollow stares and weary faces, all looking for relief.

Some, he says, were waiting for Xanax. Or Zoloft. Or Paxil. Or other drugs that would ease the anxiety and shell shock of living in a city still reeling from disaster. Everyone had prescriptions, Teissier included.

“Damned right, I did,” he says.

Five years later, Rick Teissier, lawyer, agitator, passionate booster of all things New Orleans, has rebounded from those stressful days but it was a long, circuitous journey. He left his beloved city for California, then returned. He gave up his practice, then came back and started over. He sold his house in Uptown, then bought another in the same neighborhood.

He vows he’ll never, ever leave again.

“I’m going to stay … true New Orleanians are the ones who will turn off the lights,” Teissier says. “I’m crazy enough to be one of those people.”

Teissier was lucky: He and his family fled to Las Vegas in one of the last pre-Katrina flights out. Later, his wife and young daughter temporarily relocated to Destin, Fla. He commuted there regularly, while working sporadically as a criminal defense lawyer amid the ruins of New Orleans.

Katrina had crippled the legal system, flooding the state courthouse, destroying files and contaminating evidence. Teissier also accepted appointment as a special master to get the city’s indigent defense program back on track. It wasn’t his first exposure to legal chaos. A decade earlier, when he was a public defender, he had sued his own office, arguing he had too many clients and not enough resources — and the state Supreme Court agreed, mandating reforms.

But a year after Katrina, he and his wife, Nissa, decided New Orleans was no place to raise a family. With a baby daughter and another child on the way, he says, “You knew this was going to be a very long battle and wear on you a great deal. You didn’t think things were EVER going to get back to normal.”

Even so, driving out of town on Interstate 10, he recalls, was like “leaving a lover you still loved.”

Teissier recalls a judge who is an old friend warning him he’d be miserable anyplace else and offering a prediction. “He said, ‘You’re from here. You’re going to live here the rest of your life. You’re going to die here. You may not know that now, but you’ll realize it someday.’”

“I knew,” Teissier now says, “he was a wise man.”

At the time, though, California seemed a logical place for a new beginning. His in-laws lived there, and he and his family moved in with them. With its sunny skies, palm trees and Kodachrome vistas, what’s not to like? Plenty, as it turned out. “Plastically clean and plastically pretty,” Teissier says dismissively. “No soul.” His wife concurred.

He recalls her complaint: “I can’t stand the cleanliness anymore. It’s really messing with my head. Give me garbage and funky smells.”

They both wanted to go home.

Teissier longed for the intoxicating scents of jasmine flowers and ligustrum trees, the taste of fresh oysters, even the feel of the humidity on his skin. What really cinched his decision, though, was something far more practical: He failed the California bar exam. Weeks before, he says, he developed an eye infection, forcing him to wear a patch and making it hard to study.

He learned the exam’s results, coincidentally, while in New Orleans to deal with a prospective buyer for his house. He remembers being at Cooter Brown’s tavern, downing some oysters and beer, he says, when his wife handed him an envelope that included the announcement he’d failed, just narrowly.

Teissier knew he could take the exam again, but he saw the results as a sign “the spirit of New Orleans didn’t want me to leave.”

Returning in 2007, he bunked with a friend for seven months before finding a house that’s now home for his family, which includes daughters Grace, 6, and Addy, 4, who was born in California.

Back then, though, it still was hard to get anything accomplished with limited city services and exasperating red tape. “I think everybody in the U.S. should go through something like this,” he says, “to show how ineffectual … the federal government is.”

Teissier moved fast to re-establish his law practice. “Everyone thought I was washed up,” he says. “It took four or five trials to hear on the street that I was back.”

He says he quickly realized the city had developed something of a new attitude.

“Before we were crazy, party crazy,” Teissier says. “We’d celebrate anything — ‘It’s Monday? Let’s go out and drink.’ … Before, New Orleans was like a teenage city. I think Katrina made us like people in their 40s who start to think about bigger issues … The ‘city that care forgot’ started to think about caring. It made us a more grown-up place, more mature, with a conscience.”

Teissier and his wife became more politically active; they recently hosted a musical fundraiser at their house that he says raised $20,000 to help clean up the Gulf oil spill.

At the fifth Katrina anniversary, Teissier, now 48, has no sense of dread, just an acceptance that another monster storm could strike.

“I think people have resigned themselves that if they want to live here, there’s a distinct possibility it could happen again, and it’s not going to affect us the way it did the first time. We don’t sit around and fear.”

He’s convinced surviving Katrina has made him stronger and better prepared.

“You have to accept bad things are going to happen. How you react to them will make the biggest difference,” Teissier says. “In a way, Katrina was the worst thing to ever happen to me, and in another way, it was the best thing. .. it made me more understanding about the fragile nature of life.”

— By SHARON COHEN, AP National Writer

Gussie and Osa: Recalling convention center chaos with dog, still waiting to reclaim home

Gussie Glapion’s path through New Orleans often takes her past the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, the new sea-blue carpet and a Starbucks visible through the blocks-long wall of glass and metal stretching along the Mississippi River waterfront.

“They’ve done a remarkable job with it,” she says of the gleaming 3 million-square foot building not far from the French Quarter. “Sometimes, I don’t even think about it. Maybe it’s buried in my subconscious.”

“It” is the hellish four-day period Glapion spent in and around the exhibition hall five Augusts ago, when it was one of the most infamous shelters in the flooded city — when its meeting rooms became open toilets, and its loading docks and lawns served as makeshift morgues.

Five years and a $60 million renovation have erased all traces of the storm from the convention hall. But like the rest of her city, the 51-year-old Glapion is still rebuilding, still recovering.

Glapion was one of thousands who ignored Mayor Ray Nagin’s pleas to evacuate the low-lying city as Katrina, a Category 5 hurricane, approached. She was raised in the little “double shotgun” house at 2101 2nd Street that her mother had purchased from a minister in the city’s Uptown neighborhood, and it had never flooded.

Once the storm had passed, Glapion went outside to assess the damage: just some missing roof tiles and pieces of aluminum siding.

But then the water began to rise, and soon it was several feet deep inside her home.

Somehow, her phone line still worked, letting her keep in regular touch with her daughter, Quianna, a teacher in Houston. By Wednesday, though, Quianna told her she needed to get out.

“Mom, I just heard on the news,” Glapion recalls her daughter saying. “They said go to the convention center. They got buses down there waiting to pick you all up.”

Glapion grabbed a bag of snacks and her 11-year-old Pomeranian, Osa, and trudged through the flooded streets toward the river. But when she arrived at the convention center, there were no buses, just pandemonium.

As many as 20,000 people had gathered there — residents, stranded tourists, even some fleeing the squalor and chaos of the shelter in the nearby Superdome. Not only were there no buses, but there was no food or water or sanitary facilities for the masses who thought this would be their salvation.

At a side entrance, one corpse sat in a wheelchair while another lay on the ground beside it, wrapped in a sheet. On the grassy median of Convention Center Boulevard, an old man lay dead in a chaise longue.

Hearing rumors of rapes, killings and armed gangs roaming the building’s fetid innards, Glapion decided to sleep outside on a stiff chair scavenged from an exhibition hall. During the day, she wandered the streets or sat on a bench down the street, to get away — and to pray.

People ate whatever they could scrounge up. One day, there were frozen treats from a ransacked Blue Bell ice cream truck; on another, Glapion ate cookies liberated from an abandoned bakery van.

Always at her side, Osa was subsisting on Slim Jims and bits of granola bar until, miraculously, a bag of Kibbles ‘n Bits appeared. “I couldn’t tell you where it came from,” Glapion says. “Let’s just say from God.”

When the National Guard swept in on Friday, she had bottled water and MRE’s — meals ready to eat.

Throughout the week, Glapion would borrow a reporter’s cell phone to check in with her daughter in Houston, to let Quianna know she and Osa were still alive. Glapion tried to sound upbeat, but by Friday she could no longer suppress her sobs.

“Osa is dying,” she cried. “I need to get out of here.”

The next day, a fleet of plush, air-conditioned motor coaches and simple yellow school buses finally arrived. A school bus ferried Glapion and her dog to the Louis Armstrong International Airport, where they boarded a plane to Austin, Texas. Osa slept in Glapion’s lap.

When they landed, Quianna was waiting with her arms open and tears streaming down her face.

By December, just four months later, Glapion was back in New Orleans, living with other Loyola employees in a FEMA trailer park set up on university property.

Some elderly women from a church helped remove a shed and cut down a dead tree in Glapion’s back yard. Then came a group of Loyola students, whose professor offered them course credit for helping gut people’s homes. Finally, another church group helped board up Glapion’s house.

And then another chapter ended: At midnight on May 31, 2006, Osa died.

As she grieved — she still kisses the dog’s photo every day — she also searched for rental housing that she could afford on an administrative assistant’s salary, eventually leaving the temporary trailer for an 800-square-foot apartment across the river in Jefferson Parish.

A white microwave was the most substantial item Glapion was able to salvage from her home, but a housekeeper at Loyola told her that a group called Volunteers of America was giving out furniture vouchers, and Glapion put in her name.

“I did like Job in the Bible — I waited,” she says. “I waited, and lo and behold, I got a call that said come pick out your furniture.”

She got full living room, kitchen and bedroom sets, she says, “And don’t owe NO furniture store a copper cent.”

But what she really wants is to go home.

Five years after the storm, Glapion’s house remains boarded up. Vines hang from the gutters; where the siding was torn away, weathered clapboards dangle at odd angles; a blue tarpaulin on the roof is the only thing keeping out rain.

Glapion has applied to Louisiana’s Road Home grant program, designed to help storm victims get back into their homes, but old tax issues complicate the processing. Of the nearly 230,000 applications received, just over half have been approved and paid, with disbursements totaling nearly $8.6 billion.

In late July, Glapion says a Road Home worker called seeking a copy of her pre-Katrina driver’s license.

“Are you kidding me?” she asked the woman. Meanwhile, Glapion is challenging a $500 fine recently levied under the city’s blighted property ordinance.

Still, when she sees the restored convention center and Superdome, she has faith that things will work out.

“They’ve turned these things around into doing a lot of positive things,” says Glapion, who is applying for a higher-paying job. “And so that’s my goal, too. To keep climbing.”

— By ALLEN G. BREED, AP National Writer

Pauline Arrillaga, Sharon Cohen and Allen G. Breed, national writers for the Associated Press, can be reached at features(at)

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