News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Survivors and non-profits feel Katrina's effects a year later

By Catherine Cuellar, KERA 90.1 Reporter

Dallas, TX –

Catherine Cuellar, 90.1 reporter: At a job fair for displaced Louisiana residents last September, mechanic David Sterling said he wanted to give his sons, then 8 and 14 years old, a sense of normalcy in the wake of Katrina.

[archive] David Sterling: As of yesterday I signed them up in school. I think I'm going to stay. And I expect to have my own vehicle soon because I had one down in the flood so I've got to work on getting another one.

Cuellar: Within three weeks of his arrival from New Orleans, Sterling found a job at SMU, where he still works. His sons just started their second year in Dallas public schools. But they're still using DART to get around.

Sterling: My car got drowned. I had insurance. The insurance company said they wasn't paying for it. They say you got to find where the car went. I don't know. The car is gone.

Cuellar: It's one of many issues still unresolved a year after Sterling and his family lost everything. During his third trip back to New Orleans this July, he learned his landlord passed away last year. Because he can't determine who now owns his former home, he is ineligible for FEMA assistance to replace lost belongings.

Sterling: They told me since the man died go to city hall and get the obituary to prove the guy died. City Hall is not here no more. City hall is gone. That kind of upset me for them to tell me.

Cuellar: Sterling started writing down his experiences during the bus ride between his apartment in Oak Cliff and his job in University Park. He still hasn't located all his extended family members, and several friends and relatives who survived the flooding, the Superdome, and the evacuation have passed away recently. He reads from his journal.

Sterling: Now a lot of people are dying because not from the affiliation of pain - in other words, their sicknesses and stuff that they have - but from the missing the love of things they were used to doing.

Cuellar: Michael Johnson, a New Orleans native and social worker, identified the loss of community as a major issue a few months ago when he served on the Dallas County Mental Health Task Force on Hurricane Katrina Evacuees.

[archive] Michael Johnson, social worker: One of the things that's important to understand about the demographics of New Orleans, it's a great city and a city that consists of a lot of small and close-knit communities and those community depended largely on their social resources more so than their economic resources.

Cuellar: The federal government offered funds, but most evacuees were dumped without anything in Texas' largest cities - Houston and Dallas. Local county and city officials opened emergency shelters, enrolled children in public schools, provided temporary mailing addresses and Internet access, and held job fairs. But new challenges continued to emerge, according to Johnson.

Johnson: Poor nutrition, not able to concentrate in school for kids who don't have the proper nutrition. Esteem issues for both the parents as well as the children but not having what they need. Transient issues as it relates to homelessness or having to live from place to place just to have shelter. So there are a number of issues, not to mention even crime.

Cuellar: Johnson says that now, economic opportunity is critical to whether or not survivors will assimilate or become a burden on society.

Johnson: It is somewhere in the ballpark of 1200 families in the Dallas area who are ineligible for further rental assistance from FEMA. And that means if those individuals are not employed that they stand a strong chance of being in the ranks of the homeless.

Cuellar: Personally, Johnson and his family decided to stay in Dallas, but it's not easy.

Johnson: I was born and raised in New Orleans but I've been back about six times since Katrina and [chokes up] as a father and a husband it would not be the best thing for me to do right now. I have issues in terms of the capability of hospitals and the capacity of fire stations and the police department to respond, to do what they do, with the educational system.

Cuellar: While New Orleans still lacks the infrastructure for evacuees to return, in north Texas schools, health care providers, emergency responders, and non-profits have also been stretched by the influx of hurricane survivors. The Foundation for Community Empowerment has studied the response to Katrina, and president and CEO Cecilia Edwards various groups were forced to collaborate in unprecedented ways.

Cecilia Edwards, President & CEO, Foundation for Community Empowerment: Just because you're operating in a bureaucracy that gives you lots of challenges in how you're going to operate your daily business doesn't necessarily mean you don't have a heart and don't care I think you saw some pretty miraculous things where people really were operating out of their own hearts to do whatever it took, and the bureaucracies and governments and donors and all that surrounded them really gave our non-profit community the support that they needed during that time of crisis.

Cuellar: In addition to government aid from FEMA and assistance from the two largest non-profits designated to aid survivors - the American Red Cross and Salvation Army - smaller faith-based non-profits banded together to cover many unmet needs. Project Exodus, led by T.D. Jakes of the Potter's House, in partnership with mayors Laura Miller and Ray Nagin, helped evacuees move from temporary convention center shelter to 1,000 apartment homes. And there were far more successful initiatives among religious groups and individuals that got less attention, according to Edwards.

Edwards: When the private sector doesn't do it, when government doesn't do it, the groups that stand in the gap are the non-profits and they're going to need the resources and support from the other sectors. When I think of the non-profits that we work with, they're not making tons of distinctions between these are people from New Orleans and these are people from Dallas. They're there to serve the low-income populations, period, and when they had an influx, they rose to the occasion to try and meet whatever need was there.

Cuellar: Edwards says it remains to be seen whether or not small, local, and faith-based non-profits will survive the disaster.

Edwards: You're going to see some organizations that just have to close their doors because the better organizations that have more support, better visibility, they're going to get access to the resources, and the quiet ones that are plodding away, meeting needs, getting it done quietly but may not have the connections, they're going to run out of resources, and things are going to get tougher and tougher for non-profits in order to compete for those resources.

Cuellar: The anniversary of Katrina also signals another cutoff for emergency funding. North Texas service providers are better prepared than they were a year ago. But Dallas is the sixth-poorest community in the United States. Another disaster - natural or manmade - would put those in north Texas who are already struggling to rebuild their lives, and the non-profits who attempt to serve them, in peril.
For KERA 90.1, I'm Catherine Cuellar.

More on-air and online hurricane anniversary coverage from KERA

Mental health resources for displaced families

How KERA helped North Texas weather the storms

Contact KERA's News and Public Affairs staff about this story