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."
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."
Brianna Madruga from The Crossings, a wellness spa just northwest of Austin, said she came hoping to find a diamond in the rough to fill job openings in the spa's kitchen. "I was hoping to find, you know, a chef or line cook from one of the nice restaurants in New Orleans," she said. So far, she's had little luck and only three applicants. "I don't know where they are, but I'd like to find them."
While Mr. Williams talked to the Four Seasons Hotel about job opportunities, Mrs. Williams worked out an application to teach in Texas. "They're only hiring on a temporary basis right now," the junior-high math teacher said. Of the 700 evacuees searching for jobs at the one-day job fair, the Texas Workforce Commission said 102 were hired on the spot. More than 400 more jobs are pending drug tests or second interviews.
Austin's Democratic mayor Will Wynn said he'd like his temporary guests to become permanent residents. "I've worked hard to make Austin attractive," he said. Besides feeding and clothing their guests, Austin residents, he noted, are in effect making a sales pitch to displaced families. "There are a lot of good people here and I welcome them to stay."
Texas cities like Austin, Dallas, and Houston have struggled to cope with the tens of thousands of evacuees who poured into shelters as big as the Astrodome in Houston or as simple as a relative's home. Mr. Wynn said his city had 24 hours' notice to prepare the convention center as a shelter. The city put up banners welcoming evacuees to town and he met all the evacuees as they stepped off buses. Each child was given a teddy bear. But the mayor said he wanted to do more. "We wanted to treat them as our honored guests," he said. City leaders called on Austin residents to donate supplies. Quickly the response packed out a 400,000-square-foot warehouse nearly to the ceiling with donations.
Austin's citizen and government response stands in contrast to the federal response as portrayed in the mainstream press. If FEMA's response was slow at first, it's been steady since. And media fanaticism about death counts-mirroring Iraq war storylines-now seems panicky. Networks and newspapers latched onto New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's gloomy projections of perhaps 10,000 dead and the state's order of 25,000 body bags.
But as the water recedes in the city, fewer bodies than expected are being found. By Sept. 13, the Louisiana death toll from Katrina and city flooding stood at 423-higher than any storm since the Great Hurricane of 1938 caused nearly 600 deaths but well below what many predict.
Whatever the final death toll, uncovering the evidence is both tragic and incriminating work. A husband-and-wife pair of nursing home owners was charged with negligent homicide after police say the couple abandoned their nursing home during the storm, leaving patients to fend for themselves. In all, 34 residents died as floodwaters rose in the facility.
But at least in Austin, some things are going right. In the days after evacuees poured into Austin, 4,200 people camped in the exhibit hall of the Austin Convention Center. "Last night, it was 1,400," Mr. Wynn said, and those who are left appreciate what they have. "I usually can't walk through here without getting hugged around the neck."