Cover Story

You can't go home again

Katrina evacuees find new life in Texas, one step at a time, as flood waters recede

Issue: "New Orleans: Starting over," Sept. 24, 2005

AUSTIN -- It's been two weeks since Tyris and Kenyatta Williams left their Slidell, La., home. At the time, they were bound for Austin, Texas, fleeing the approaching Hurricane Katrina with their two children. They made no parting speeches that Sunday or long goodbyes to neighbors. But now it's clear they won't return. It's a decision, Mrs. Williams says, that was made "as tears rolled down my face."

In New Orleans the couple lived a comfortable middle-class life. Mrs. Williams taught eighth-grade math at Gregory Junior High in New Orleans. Mr. Williams served as the assistant director of engineering at the prestigious Astor Crowne Plaza hotel on Canal Street.

Their home is in shambles and both their jobs have vanished in the flood. With few ties to the area left, the couple, their 12-year-old son Jordan, and 7-year-old daughter Tyra have decided to make the Austin suburb of Pflugerville home. "Tyris' parents live here and we figured we would be moving here eventually," Mrs. Williams said. The couple planned to move to Texas in five years. Katrina just sped up the plan. "We just don't know how long it's going to be before things are normal-if ever," Mr. Williams said. "We made the decision that we can't wait."

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Like 240,000 others, the Williams family took refuge in Texas. As many Katrina evacuees cross the one-month threshold of homelessness, former New Orleans residents agonize over whether to start over elsewhere, while cities like Austin are struggling to manage the thousands of new residents suddenly flung on their doorsteps.

Compounding the uncertainty for evacuees is slow but surprising progress in New Orleans. Some of the city's logistical nightmares are improving more easily than expected. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials, who once claimed it could take several months to drain the city of floodwater, now say the job may be mostly accomplished in a month. The first flight back into the city's Louis Armstrong International Airport arrived Sept. 13, carrying two dozen passengers, mostly relief workers. The Port of New Orleans is once again receiving shipments. And New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said he may allow residents in dry parts of New Orleans-the French Quarter, Algiers, and Uptown-to return to the city as early as Sept. 19.

Not that any of this matters to the Williams family. They are focusing their own rebuilding efforts elsewhere. The family has managed to lease a house in Pflugerville. "I'm a homeowner, so we have the insurance to cover us," Mr. Williams said. Insurance modeler Risk Management Solutions estimates that insurance claims for Katrina will reach $60 billion and could end up quite possibly at $125 billion. That price tag would exceed the combined costs related to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the previous California earthquake, and Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

The couple placed Jordan and Tyra in Pflugerville public schools. State officials in Texas say 33,000 evacuated children have enrolled in Texas schools, though the number could eventually hit 60,000. Mississippi officials say nearly 125,000 schoolchildren have been displaced, and officials estimate more than 247,000 schoolchildren have been displaced by Katrina altogether. In all, 489 schools in Louisiana, including the one where Mrs. Williams taught, have been closed.

With the details of housing and schools in place, the Williamses are picking up other pieces of their lives. What they need right now is jobs. They went to Austin's job fair last week for Hurricane Katrina survivors to find some.

The one-day event was held at the Austin Convention Center, still a temporary shelter to more than 1,000 Katrina survivors. It has become a virtual city. Hundreds of wristband-wearing evacuees wait in lines to work through Social Security paperwork or to talk to a FEMA representative. At one station, evacuees could sign up for a free bus ride to Reunion Arena in Dallas, another temporary shelter.

The Austin chapter of the Texas Workforce Commission, the job fair sponsor, drew participation from 127 employers who set up tables in the convention center mezzanine. The Williamses were among more than 700 evacuees looking for jobs. Temp agencies took over one corner of the area, while employers for local or state governments set up along one wall. The job opportunities varied from retail positions with American Eagle Outfitters to tow truck drivers with Austin's Star Rite Towing. Whataburger gave out free cookies and water bottles to applicants.

Giving away party-sized Butterfingers and Baby Ruths, Patti Tatum with the Institute of Child Care Excellence said she was successful finding folks to take a certification course to become childcare workers. Evacuees with previous childcare experience needed only eight hours of training to become certified. Ms. Tatum's group helps train and place childcare workers in jobs. "We've got more job openings right now than applicants," she said. "Right now, it's all about location. A lot of them don't have good transportation-just the bus."

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