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Katrina Evacuees: There's Still No Place Like Home

Eight years ago this month, Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed New Orleans. Commentator Rosalyn Story recently returned with friends to find a city vibrant, and full of energy. But she says some who settled in North Texas have no desire to live in New Orleans again.

The tourist haunts were thriving, and there were more restaurants than ever before. In fact, Forbes magazine has called New Orleans the fast growing city in America.

But venture off the well-traveled tourists’ paths. The wealthy high-ground is thriving but lower lying, working-class neighborhoods are struggling. Rebuilding in the Lower Ninth Ward, for example, continues at a fraction of the pace of the rest of the city. Between the census reports of 2000 and 2010, the Lower Ninth Ward population went from 14,000 to less than 3,000.

More than 100,000 citizens have not returned to New Orleans. They boarded buses, and piled into cars, heading for destinations as far away as Ohio, and Colorado. While some 66,000 initially landed in north Texas, most estimates claim that thousands still remain.

Michelle Gibson, a dancer/choreographer for the South Dallas Cultural Center and an adjunct professor at Brookhaven and Mountain View Community Colleges, left New Orleans before the flood, pregnant, and with a four-year-old in tow. Weeks later, Gibson found her home ruined, her city in shambles. “I realized I could not bring my children back to live here,” she said. In Dallas, she found extended hands and open hearts, no questions asked.

“People left with no ID’s, she said, “yet Dallas took a chance and believed people were who they said they were.”

On her one-year wedding anniversary, Samara Dusset-Young left New Orleans and a newly decorated home that would be submerged in water. After a brief stint in Little Rock, she settled in Dallas. Her sturdy New Orleans house was still standing, but plagued by memories, the loss of relatives and friends, Dusset-Young chose to stay here. She was given use of a vacant Highland Park house, found work as a physical therapist, and eventually bought a house in McKinney. Again, the kindness of strangers helped smooth the rough edges of upheaval.

Some evacuees, like Jacob Watson, returned to New Orleans. The flood after Katrina forced the retired medical technologist to swim from his Eighth Ward house. After the horror of the Superdome, a bus ride around Texas in search of accommodations - first to Houston, then Corpus Christi, then Dallas – ended in Tyler.

But Watson’s heart was in New Orleans. He’s back now, enjoying retirement in the only home he’s ever known.

For those who chose to stay in Texas, the adjustment has not been without pain.

“My life is better here,” Dusset-Young says, but she remembers sleeping on a mattress for months, crying herself to sleep, and suffering panic attacks. In eight years, she has only returned to New Orleans twice.

Gibson returns home often, but has accepted her new life here, where the dance educator has found work, and good schools for her children. She brings a bit of New Orleans to Dallas, educating Texans about aspects of New Orleans culture, such as the “second line,” the rhythmic step behind the mourners in a traditional jazz funeral procession. She’s grateful, and happy to be rebuilding her life. But the upheaval, the devastation, the loss of a whole way of life have breached her spirit.

“You can rebuild a house, a city,” she says. “But people’s souls are still broken, and need rebuilding.”

And that, she says, will take some time.

Rosalyn Story is a writer from Dallas and a violinist with the Fort Worth Symphony.