BATON ROUGE, LA. — It was their dream home. What Cendy Crownover called her "little dollhouse."
But last weekend, she and her husband Kelly put away thoughts of their lovingly remodeled crown molding and oak flooring, now submerged, so they could start anew: with a realtor 80 miles away, in Baton Rouge.
"It's going to be a tough two years," says Ms. Crownover, estimating the time it might take to rebuild their house, which sat just 11 blocks from the breached levee in New Orleans's Lakeview district.
The Crownovers are joining a real estate frenzy that has hit Baton Rouge and beyond - a flurry of down payments, all-cash home sales, and contracts signed before the house is seen. Yet in many ways, these are the lucky ones. More than 100,000 evacuees are still displaced in shelters throughout the region. Others are crowding in with families and strangers, some sharing one bathroom with 20 others.
As rescuers remove the last stranded Katrina victims, and federal and private groups begin recovery efforts for America's worst natural disaster in a century, evacuees who have lost everything are scrambling for a place to call home - for a few months, a few years, or forever. FEMA has estimated there may be as many as 1 million displaced people from Katrina.
"The complexity is an order of magnitude greater [than any past disasters], simply because we're looking at a regional catastropohe," says Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder, noting that many victims have been moved hundreds or thousands of miles away.
"It is far far worse than 9/11 was, and the challenges are unprecedented owing both to the scope and the complexity of this particular event. We don't have a historic example that would give us the answers to what ought to be done," she added.
Governments, nonprofits, and private citizens are working to find solutions to the housing issue. FEMA has contracted three luxury cruise ships, which can each house several thousand people, and has placed rush orders for tens of thousands of trailers and mobile homes. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has asked lenders to provide foreclosure relief to affected families and is working to identify available housing stock and accelerate various grants and housing-assistance programs.
As of Monday, the Red Cross was caring for more than 135,000 people in shelters in 12 states. Habitat for Humanity unveiled a plan to deliver pre-assembled "homes in a box" to hurricane victims. And thousands of private citizens offered evacuees free rooms - and often job opportunities or airfare - on websites like hurricanehousing.org, katrinahousing.org, and craigslist.org.
Still, the scope of the problem is enormous. No one knows for sure how many houses were destroyed by Katrina in New Orleans and along the coast, but officials have estimated that it may be many months before residents are allowed back. While many buildings in New Orleans suffered only minor damage from the hurricane itself, prolonged flooding by contaminated waters means a high likelihood of serious structural damage to more than 200,000 New Orleans homes.
By comparison, Hurricane Andrew destroyed just under 30,000 homes, as did the combined forces of four 2004 hurricanes according to the National Association of Home Builders.
In Baton Rouge, at least, it wasn't long before those evacuees who could took housing matters into their own hands.
"The phone starting to ring [last] Tuesday," says Connie Kyle, a residential sales manager at CJ Brown Realtors in Baton Rouge. "By Wednesday everything that could be rented was rented."
Now she says that a house listed in the morning is gone by the afternoon, a process that previously took 45 to 60 days.
Surrounding cities have braced for the migration of humanity from storm-ravished areas.
Like the Crownovers, many headed to Louisiana's capital, which suddenly found itself the state's most populous city.
Officials say the population may double, a trend that could continue for years. The impact of the displaced was also felt further away, in Houston, Jackson, and Memphis.
After receiving more than 200,000 Katrina evacuees, mainly in the Houston area, Texas officials declared their state "full" over the weekend and urged federal officials to divertvictims to other states - including Utah, Illinois, West Virginia, Wyoming and New Mexico - that have offered to take them in.
And many who lacked the means, or desire, to leave their homes behind remain in devastated areas. Along the Mississippi coast, in places where winds and water flattened entire towns to just inches off the ground, stoic residents set up tents and tarps where their homes once stood.
At Baton Rouge's River Center, which is housing over 5,000 evacuees, kids passed the time making sleds out of cardboard boxes and sliding down a grassy hill.
Over the weekend, hundreds of evacuees with insurance lined up to collect a $2,000 emergency spending check from Allstate Insurance Company. Carmen Larsen and her daughter Nicole, who come from badly battered Slidell, La., stood in line for over four hours.
Like families throughout the region, they have stuck together in a pack: eight people and pets. But that has meant changing hotels and homes, sometimes on a nightly basis, with little assurance that they'll find shelter the following night.
"We are thinking of pitching in and buying a house," says Nicole. "There is nowhere else to go."
That's because those who could afford it have already snapped up any available real estate. Many of the first buyers purchased with cash; their papers were gone and they didn't want to wait to go through the loan process, says Ms. Kyle, with the realtor firm. Now the foot traffic in her office is unprecedented. New Orleans companies that have relocated to Baton Rouge are especially well-represented. But until more construction is completed, offerings are limited.
"We have had companies calling saying, 'I'll buy 100 apartments, I'll buy an apartment complex,' " says Kyle. "We don't have it."
Amid the real estate deals, cramped space, and makeshift homes is the sense that it's not only homes that have been lost, but the rituals of living within a personal space. And some say the massive relocationsrepresent a diaspora - and some large-scale shifts in social geography.
Sophie Warny-Bart cared little that over 20 members of her extended familymilled around her two-bedroom home last week, but as they began to disperse - some found rentals, others more temporary arrangements - she realized more permanent changes could be at hand.
The clan often congregated in New Orleans for weekend meals; during Mardi Gras they dressed up in identical costumes. But now her in-laws, the heads of the family, say they might stay put in their current stop, Atlanta. Another relative was en route to Pennsylvania when the hurricane hit and says she might consider relocating there. "It's splitting families," Ms. Warny-Bart says. "All that culture is gone."
The Crownovers say they never thought they'd see their house and city under water. That's why, like so many others, they brought only a couple day's worth of clothes with them. But they are certain that with fortitude and optimism their lives, and their city, will be rebuilt.
For the time being, they'll take whatever they can find. As she inspected a suburban backyard in a new subdividision, one of several they are considering on Baton Rouge's southeast side - closest to New Orleans - Ms. Crownover expressed the sentiment thousands are starting to voice: "I guess this is home for now."