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Katrina Evacuee Who Resettled In Dallas Won’t Let Coronavirus Steal Her Hope

Christiana Nielson
Elizabeth Todd and her husband Johnny Taylor, a barber, sit inside Studio Essence which is closed due to the coronavirus.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Elizabeth Todd lost almost everything. Her home in the 17th Ward was overtaken by the Gulf and soon the city turned off all water. She wanted to stay and help, but she had to evacuate.

“It was devastating, to say the least,” Todd said.

Like 26,000 others displaced by the storm, she and her then-husband, Vincent, made their way to Dallas. Along with a few church members, they made the drive over two days, without a map. 

Just four days after the hurricane, in early September, the couple settled into a bare-bones apartment off Northwest Highway in East Dallas that they found through connections from her New Orleans church. 

Some of her children and grandchildren came to Dallas briefly but made the choice to return to Louisiana to rebuild their lives. She and her husband were starting over, alone. 

Within weeks, Vincent got a job installing Maytag washing machines. Less than a year later, he died suddenly of a heart attack. Elizabeth Todd was on her own. 

Building A New Life In Dallas

Over the years, some times have been more emotionally and financially tough than others for Todd, who’s now 62. She has flare-ups of rheumatoid arthritis, making certain jobs difficult. But she’s built a community in Dallas and travels back to New Orleans as much as she can to see her family. She’s never been one to give in to negativity, a trait that led her to Johnny Taylor in 2015. 

“We actually stayed in complexes right behind each other,” Taylor said. “I was dealing with a lot then. I ran into her just passing ways, really.” 

At the time, Taylor’s wife was very ill and Todd encouraged him as a friend. After Taylor’s wife died of heart failure, the two grew closer. A year ago, they got married. 

The couple now lives in Garland, where Taylor is from. Todd has worked cleaning houses and schools, while Taylor has cut hair and driven trucks. When he was busy caring for his first wife during her sickness his barber license expired and he had to go through that process again. 

He worked at one shop off Ferguson Road in Far East Dallas before moving down the road to Studio Essence, where he had his own station. Last year at the old shop, all of his hair-cutting equipment was stolen — it was a major blow professionally and financially. 

A friend gave him new equipment to work with at Studio Essence, where he got back on his feet and was making enough to support his wife. Then coronavirus happened. 

Coronavirus Is "The World's Hurricane Katrina"

Credit Christiana Nielson / KERA News
Elizabeth Todd and husband Johnny Taylor stand in front of Studio Essence in Far East Dallas, where Taylor is a barber. He has faced financial struggles after the barbershop closed due to the coronavirus.

Last month, the hair studio was forced to close for the foreseeable future to stop the spread of COVID-19. Taylor has picked up odd jobs here and there and made house calls when possible, but the financial blow has been swift and cruel. 

He’s had no luck applying for unemployment. More than 760,000 Texans have requested benefits in the past month or so; that’s more than the total number who filed for unemployment in all of 2019. 

Food isn’t always easy to come by either, but Taylor has been putting his love of fishing to good use. 

“I can pay $3 for some minnows and catch 15 or 20 pounds of fish,” he said.

Their landlord and utility company in Garland have been helpful in giving month-long due date extensions. Metro PCS, their telephone company, has also given them flexibility with their bill. Taylor has health insurance through Parkland and Todd is covered by Medicare. Still, coronavirus continues to pose great challenges. It feels familiar.

“Because I was in Katrina, I say that this virus and what’s going on in the world is the world’s Hurricane Katrina,” Todd said. 

Her son works at a hospital in Georgia and her daughter-in-law’s aunt is currently on a ventilator in a New Orleans hospital, critically ill with COVID-19. 

“I have just programmed myself to stay healthy, to stay upbeat and to stay not really worrying or being anxious about anything,” she said. “Johnny also does take good care of me.” 

Holding On To Hope

Taylor isn’t sure when he’ll be able to reopen the studio and cut hair again. Even house calls are on hold with self-isolation measures in place. He was also in the process of renewing his truck-driving license, but his April training date was postponed indefinitely due to the virus. Despite all of this, he’s determined to keep going. He’s applied for work with a few companies including Kroger and Amazon. 

Even more than worrying for himself, Taylor said he’s worried for his children and grandchildren. But he has faith. 

“I might not have been through Katrina or anything like that, but I’ve gone through a lot in my life, and some things are just overwhelming. But I made it through,” he said. 

One of the most difficult challenges of the pandemic for Todd is that she can no longer travel to New Orleans — a coronavirus hotspot with close to 6,000 current cases — to check in on family. “I’ve been hearing a lot of horror stories out of New Orleans,” Todd said. “My grandkids are there. My kids are there. But I’m staying positive.” 

That optimism is what helped Todd connect with the man she loves. She hopes it will carry her forward now.

“I do know we’re gonna be better after this, we’re gonna be greater, we’re gonna be stronger,” Todd said. “We’re seeing what really matters, again.”

She weathered a devastating hurricane and is now living through a vicious virus. But she hasn’t lost everything. She hasn’t lost hope.