One New Orleans family's new life far away
A family evacuated to a Cape Cod military base is relieved and grateful, but also angry and unsettled.
BOURNE, MASS. — A storm like Katrina can thrust families together as quickly as it can scatter them apart.
For one New Orleans family - six people spanning three generations - life in an evacuation center in Massachusetts is requiring some renegotiation of their relationships. As they absorb the shock of displacement, they also have to weather the tension between dual desires - to do their own thing and to look out for one another in a crisis.
It's a foggy Friday morning, eight days after they arrived, and Ryan Essex, 32, is losing patience with having to share a room in the barracks with his brother, Garren, eight years his junior.
After the flooding that followed the storm, just over 200 people who had been rescued or were waiting it out at their homes were flown to Camp Edwards, a training center within a huge military reservation on Cape Cod. "It's all good," Ryan says periodically in his New Orleans drawl. But he's also angry and distraught about the 5-month-old pit bull terrier he was forced to leave behind.
Connie Jones, their mother, is busy trying to determine how quickly she can transfer her nursing license to Massachusetts. Welcoming the cool weather, and not afraid of cold winters, she and Garren say they'll stay in the state.
Charles Essex, who is Ryan and Garren's father, is jovial this morning, but his jokes often center on how worn out he is from caring for his grandson, William, a soon-to-be 3-year-old whose playful innocence has charmed dozens of volunteers and fellow "guests."
Charles is eagerly anticipating a break. The boy's mother, Constance Essex, is due to arrive that afternoon. A guard at a New Orleans jail, she was evacuated to Houma, La. Once she got her paycheck and found out her family had been sent to Massachusetts, she bought a plane ticket here.
Despite the stress, life at Camp Edwards is giving people plenty to be grateful for. Donations and doting volunteers have poured in, almost to the point of excess. "I'm being pampered," Garren says. "I was washing my clothes and someone said, 'Oh, you rest. Let me do that.' " He declined. "I fold my own drawers."
As a way of saying thank you, Garren is in the kitchen, tending giant pots of steaming gumbo. A student at the Culinary Institute of New Orleans, he says the first few meals here didn't suit New Orleanians too well. The rice was the wrong kind, and "the chicken looked like it was pickled."
Katrina has given him a "much needed transition," Garren says, because cooking jobs are so competitive in New Orleans. He's already made a connection with a local restaurant and hopes to start a job there soon. If he can get a scholarship, he'd love to continue his education. "If you live in New Orleans, you can live anywhere," he insists.
In the morning, before the 10 o'clock opening of the day-care room, Charles and little William hop on a shuttle bus - past the base post office, movie theater, and gym - to a warehouse set up as a free clothing store. Charles is seeking some warmer layers for the cold weather he keeps hearing is on its way.
As they wait their turn, William careens around a patch of lawn while his grandfather sits in a chair and breaks out before-and-after photos of his home in New Orleans' Uptown neighborhood. They show his sodden record collection and his furniture - some of it new - floating in water nearly four feet deep.
Just after the storm, Charles was outside cleaning up and saw water going into street drains. Only later, when the water began to creep back up, did he use his flatboat to shuttle between his house and Connie's, which stayed dry.
"Mom's house was home base. When stuff like this happens, we're going to be there," Ryan says. And they were prepared - with 200 gallons of gas, a generator, food, and Ryan's experience as a former Navy man. "We were cooking pancakes and sausage," he says with a husky laugh. The phone didn't even go out.
He admits to taking a few necessities from a store. But he was dismayed to see guys hauling out huge TVs and appliances on mattresses. "It was funny, but it was also a shame, 'cause you can't eat that."
The part that got to Connie was the heat. She makes a face as if she's still sweltering. "That made me cry," she says.
Still, that was nothing compared with the indignity of the forced evacuation. A week after the storm, a state trooper told them to prepare to leave Thursday morning. But on Wednesday, another law-enforcement officer appeared and said they had to leave in five minutes. No time to put away the boat. No bringing the three dogs. "It was horrible," Connie says with a steely look in her eyes. "I don't want to go back to New Orleans. They're never prepared for nothing.... And I was so callously removed from my home."
They were bused from the convention center to an airplane Sept. 8. They were informed of their destination after takeoff.
If for no other reason, Ryan is glad for his nephew William's sake that they're here where he can play safely. "Life here is fine," he says. But then he slumps his head onto his arm on the table. "I'm mad about my dog. They made me leave my dog, but then I get to the airport and it looks like a dog show.... I cried the whole night."
At Camp Edwards, one barracks is set up for evacuees with pets - a reminder of his loss. Counselors are on call 24 hours a day, but Ryan doesn't say if he's taken advantage of that service. He's searched eight Internet sites for information about his dog, which wasn't wearing tags.
"I should sue them," he says - meaning the city, the state, FEMA.
Charles and son Ryan want to go back. Charles is an electrician, and Ryan has a landscaping business with a partner who sat out the storm in Florida. His goal is to help rebuild the city - and be paid well for it.
Ryan describes his family as working-class, but says he grew up in "the ghetto" before getting his GED at 15, taking some college classes, and then enlisting in the Navy. He's convinced that "a lot of the poor people are not going back. It was such a horrible place to live if you were poor." He imagines white people from the suburbs flocking back to the city when it's rebuilt. "But the heart of it will be gone," he laments. "The heart of it is the poor people."
At first Ryan thought he'd return as soon as the city allowed it, but now he's planning to do landscaping at a golf course on Cape Cod for a while. "I need a little more time to make sure my Mom is OK. This experience has put her health down a notch."
"I cry out of frustration," Connie says later. "I'm used to being in control of my own life. I appreciate everything, but I want to get back to some kind of normalcy."
Connie had her first child at age 17. For 30 years she centered her life on her children. Five years ago, she went to nursing school. "I wanted to take care of me," she says. The Saturday before the storm, she treated herself to a $230 shopping spree at a specialty clothing shop ("but I saved $179," she's quick to add).
She sits up straight. "I'm a survivor. I can adapt," she says. It's starting to dawn on her that she probably can't afford to live on the Cape. But she hopes she and Garren and Constance can stay in Massachusetts.
A survey of 135 adult evacuees here last weekend by the Boston Globe found that 82 planned to leave the state. Several dozen have already left. Thirty said they expected to stay in the state more than a year.
"People say they want to stay, thinking this is how it's going to be," says volunteer Diana Robinson, noting the generosity and caring pouring out to the guests at Camp Edwards. "I tell them honestly, 'This is for now. We have problems here, too.' "
For those who decide to stay, a vast network of housing agencies, churches, and individuals is mobilizing to help them.
At 5 p.m., Connie gets word on her cellphone that Constance is here. After a few hugs when they find each other in the bustling cafeteria, Connie heads to the barracks to get William.
While she waits, Constance says she wants to resettle with her mom, although it's hard to imagine starting over in Massachusetts. "I've never been here," she says. "I never thought nature would do that to you."
Then she spots her son, wrapped in a yellow rain jacket. "Mama!" he calls with a giggle, and she scoops him up, laughing as he kisses her face.
Charles lets out a relieved "Thank God she's back!" as they all stand in the food line. They greet Garren, who's serving two kinds of gumbo and soon joins them at the table. Ryan saunters over, too. For a few minutes, they eat and chat as if there's nothing strange about their situation.
But soon they go their separate ways. Ryan is irritated about something and leaves abruptly. Constance takes William to an information area in the corner, where someone tells her about the services here.
Connie heads to her room to rest. Whatever their disagreements, the people she had dinner with are her only immediate family. "I just feel a sense of relief now," she says.