Life changes for Katrina evacuees

For one family airlifted from New Orleans to New England, decisions about starting over have shifted as the reality of their situation sinks in.

As hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans in August, Constance Essex helped transport prisoners to safer locations before she herself evacuated with co-workers to Houma, La.

She stayed for nearly three weeks before reuniting with her parents, brothers, and son at a military base in Bourne, Mass. Her family had been flown there earlier after being forced out of their New Orleans neighborhood.

After the reunion, it didn't take long for Ms. Essex to find a new gig in New England. By Oct. 3, she had started training for a job at the Barnstable County Correctional Facility, just outside the main gate of the base on Cape Cod. "Inmates are inmates, but here we're not understaffed, underpaid, underappreciated - and we won't be overworked," she says after a shift nearly two weeks into her training. "It's a chance to make a new group of close friends."

The Camp Edwards shelter where Essex and her family lived was closed on Monday. Of the 235 evacuees flown here, 100 have decided to remain in the state.

Essex is not sure how well her pay will stack up against the cost of living, but hurricane-relief funds will cover a year's worth of rent and utilities. She needs a car - but first she'll have to get a driver's license. In New Orleans, she never needed to drive.

The first priority is to create a "comfort zone" for her nearly 3-year-old son William, she says. Communal living at the base made it hard to establish a routine, although William has been attending a Head Start program. His main memory from the storm is being separated from mommy for weeks while she was "at work." Now that she's going back to work, he's having to adjust again, she says. "He cried for 30 minutes straight yesterday."

The rainy October weather in Massachusetts feels like January to her, but she's looking at the positives. "I'm waiting to learn to ice skate.... I want my son to go sledding on Christmas day."

Essex is focused on building a new life, but she also speaks eloquently about New Orleans: "I can actually feel the vibrations of the city. I can actually smell my city. The rain doesn't even smell the same up here."

The red carpet wears thin

Life at the base had its pleasant diversions for Essex's mother, Connie Jones - a bus ride to New York to see the New Orleans Saints play football; a free trip to a salon in Boston. But by the end of September, Ms. Jones's desire to resettle permanently in Massachusetts was waning. As a nurse in Louisiana, she could earn about $45,000, "and for a single woman, that's a good life," but here she'd have to work two jobs just to make ends meet.

Her family members also started to feel the strain. Garren Essex, Jones's 24-year-old son, was told by officials that he had to leave after several incidents. "There are rules people are asked to follow.... We did speak with him several times about behavior that was disruptive," says Richard O'Meara, director of human-services planning for the Massachusetts evacuees.

After leaving the base in early October, Garren said in a phone interview that he was unfairly accused. He was placed in Framingham, Mass., a suburb of Boston, but was insulted to find his room was in a boardinghouse primarily for recovering drug addicts and former prisoners. "I kind of feel like I've been abandoned here," he said. Garren still had access to all the benefits for evacuees, such as free train tickets so he could go to Boston to look for a better living situation. He was also hoping to attend the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts on a scholarship.

But he and his older brother, Ryan Essex, grew more cynical as officials at the base urged people to decide on their next steps by Oct. 21. "They're intimidating us... I feel they're trying to run me out of the state," Ryan said a week before the deadline.

The Rev. Jeffrey Brown, liaison between evacuees and state officials, tried his best at a "town meeting" to reassure people that no one would be pushed out before they found suitable living arrangements, but he also urged them to consider that the entertainment and services would be scaling back quickly, since many people had already left or made plans to move on.

A welcome sound: barking

Ryan and Garren's father, Charles Essex, said from the start that he'd return to New Orleans, but he was waiting for FEMA to answer his request for a trailer to live in on his property while he renovates his home.

One bright spot during his wait: The moment he heard one of his dogs barking over the telephone. During the evacuation, the family wasn't allowed to bring pets. For weeks, Ryan was despondent about his pitbull, left behind along with Charles's two dogs at Jones's house, where the family gathered during the storm. The first Monitor account of the family last month caught the eye of Jan Outcalt, of Cambridge, Mass., who saw it posted on an online forum about pets in the wake of Katrina. Yearning to help, she contacted the family, and then gave their address to someone checking houses in Jones's neighborhood. The next day, Charles got a call from that New Orleans good Samaritan, who held up the phone so he could hear the bark of a dog she'd found in the yard. Charles smiled, knowing it was his Duchess. Later, he would receive confirmation from Jones that both his dogs had survived, apparently fed by neighbors. No one in the family knows yet what happened to Ryan's dog.

Back to the Big (not so) Easy

Jones made her decision by early October. She'd get a free plane ticket from the Salvation Army and fly home to New Orleans. She saw her house on the evening of Oct. 12, exactly five weeks after she'd been forced out.

"I'm kind of relieved to be home," she said as she checked in with the Monitor on her cellphone the next morning. "When they were checking for bodies, they kicked my door in and did not secure my house. And believe it or not, everything was just like I left it."

The house wasn't flooded, but it needs cleaning - especially the refrigerator full of rotten food. The electricity, phone, and cable TV are all working.

Jones is staying in nearby Jefferson Parish with a friend, who took her on a short tour of New Orleans her first night back. On Tulane Avenue, near one of the courthouses, she said, "it's just dark. You can see cars on the street and you can tell they've been underwater cause they've got a lot of silt and sludge on 'em."

It's the absence of children that troubles her most. "Some parts of the city are bustling," she said, "but [this part of] New Orleans is dead."

When Jones calls her workplace, Lafon Nursing Home of the Holy Family, no one answers. It's one of several nursing homes under investigation for the deaths of patients who were not evacuated. But her pay from a month ago was recently electronically deposited to her bank.

"I'll get unemployment until I get the house in order, and then I'll take my pick of jobs," she said. "They need nurses everywhere."

Last-minute goodbyes

By Oct. 21, Charles, Ryan, and Garren had decided they'd relocate to another base serving evacuees in Alabama. From there, they'll be able to take a bus into New Orleans to check out their homes, Charles said.

Charles also persuaded Constance Essex that William would be better off with them in Alabama while she's getting settled into her new job and looking for housing here, and maybe next spring she can come get the boy.

It looks s if her dream of seeing William sled down a snowy slope may have to wait until next Christmas.

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