The Katrina diaspora: Survivors' stories

The disaster in New Orleans scattered thousands of people across the US - and beyond. Andrew Buncombe caught up with some of the refugees
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They were hiding from the burning Gulf Coast sun beneath a white awning they had commandeered from among the Superdome's filth and chaos. They had found some seats which they had turned inwards - their backs to the madness around them - and they were sitting things out with their scant supplies, their bottled water and, most importantly, each other.

It was Friday evening, 2 Sept-ember 2005, when The Independent encountered the group of eight who, along with up to 20,000 other desperate people, had sought refuge from Hurricane Katrina in the stadium that was home to New Orleans' American football team. Some had been there since the previous Sunday afternoon - before the storm had struck - and for the previous four days there had been no running water, no working toilets, no air conditioning, no reliable information and increasingly little hope. The place was remarkably vile.

A year after Katrina, the stories of those eight people provide a remarkable insight into the ongoing impact of the hurricane on the lives of countless thousands of people across the US. That group of eight - young and old, black and white, a grandmother who had just retired and two teenagers expecting a child - are a microcosm of Katrina's diaspora, people who are still scattered as a result of the storm. Tellingly, of that group - four long-term residents of New Orleans, two who had just moved there and two tourists - none are still living in the city. Some have started new lives in new locations, others have returned home and are still traumatised by what they experienced. For each of the eight, their memories of Katrina and the time they spent in the Superdome shift from the surreal to the all too real.

Edith Hill, 63, and her daughter Jennifer, 32, are not planning to return to New Orleans anytime soon. Along with the rest of the eight, they were evacuated by military plane to West Virginia, where the Red Cross and local people took care of them. Jennifer remembers feeling that the military plane that flew them to New Orleans' chaotic airport was stuck in a holding pattern for what seemed like hours before it landed in West Virginia. But she was more concerned about her mother, who suffers from diabetes and who had been without her medicine for three days. She was eventually required to spend a week in hospital.

"My sister died - she was in [the Gentilly district of New Orleans], and my nephew who was with her. I have still not heard from my brother, who was living in the Lower Ninth. I lost all my family. I'm very angry," says Mrs Hill, who has now set up in home in Huntington, West Virginia.

And yet Mrs Hill and her daughter, along with her son Jonathan, who had become separated from them and was first evacuated to Dallas, have plenty of good things to say about West Virginia. The African-American family say they have been welcomed in their overwhelmingly white community, and Jennifer and Jonathan are set to attend college.

"I was born and raised in New Orleans - 200 years our family had been there - but there were never that many opportunities," said Jennifer, 32, who spent two years at Yale but dropped out to care for her sick mother. "I went back there [to New Orleans] earlier this year to collect some things. [I was struck] by the depression of friends who went back ... at the way the city was."

It is hard to describe the horror that existed inside the Superdome during those fraught days. Rubbish and filth were lying everywhere, the all-weather pitch was ankle-deep in discarded food, soiled nappies and rainwater.

People were forced to find makeshift lavatories wherever they could - sometimes just feet away from where others were stretched out. When one walked inside the stadium building the stench caused an involuntary vomiting reflex, while the acidic atmosphere made one's eyes sting and water.

Amid this horror, Linda Veches was trying to look out for others as well as for herself. She and her teenage daughter, Nicole Kruger, had come to New Orleans for a holiday. When the storm struck, their hotel sent them to the Superdome. Mrs Veches, 53, who suffers from a heart condition, was the one who found the tent and rallied the spirits of the others who took refuge beneath it.

It was not easy; one night a man who had allegedly attacked a woman and her child was beaten to death by a mob just yards from where the group was sitting. Mrs Veches had helplessly watched it happen. Days later the man's blood was still vivid on the concourse floor.

Back home in Minneapolis, Mrs Veches, a property investor, now tries to look at her experience with a broader perspective. "One has to make the best of a bad situation. You have to survive," she says, matter-of-factly. "There was lots of crazy stuff. You saw the worst of things and the best. Everybody has focused on the bad things but I keep reminding them that there was [also] good."

But her daughter Nicole, now 17, is still struggling to cope with the experience. Nightmares and anxiety have troubled her since she and her mother returned to Minneapolis, having also first been evacuated to West Virginia. She is seeing a therapist and takes tablets to help her sleep at night. "I have had post-traumatic stress disorder," she says.

"I get flashbacks to the Superdome, of being there, of seeing somebody get killed. [But] things are going well. I am working through it. This year I will be starting my senior year in high school. My friends have been supportive. First of all they were kind of interested, but now they don't talk about it because they know it stresses me."

Another of the eight still unable to sleep properly is Otto Ukele. He and his then girlfriend, Kim Wilson, had come to New Orleans with plans of starting a new life together. They appeared terribly young and playful as they sat in the Superdome with the six others and a stray dog they had found. Ms Wilson was recently pregnant. The couple had driven from Tennessee but they had barely been in New Orleans when the storm struck and they were forced to head for the Superdome.

In the aftermath the couple spent two months together in West Virginia, where Ms Wilson said she miscarried. The couple have since split up, and Mr Ukele returned to be near his family in Hill City, Tennessee, while Ms Wilson decided to stay in West Virginia.

By Mr Ukele's own admission, the past 12 months have not been easy. He has struggled to find work and to deal with what he experienced in New Orleans. Perhaps worst of all, he finds it hard to talk to anyone about it.

"[It destroyed] the relationship. It put too much stress on both of us," said Mr Ukele, 20, who is now working part-time and is expecting a child with a new partner. "[Looking back] everything is a blur. I can't sleep very well, with everything I remember and everything that happened. It's hard now because nobody in Tennessee went through that. When I am here I have to be quiet because nobody wants to talk about it."

Ms Wilson, who works at a McDonald's restaurant in the West Virginia town of Bluefield, also has a new partner. Like many forced to relocate by Katrina, she says she has been struck by the generosity of the people in her new community. She is determined to look to the future, and says she and Otto "have both moved on with our lives".

Though she believes the city's preparations for the storm were inadequate, Ms Wilson has praise for the response of the nation in the aftermath.

"I think the way our country acted and helped ... that shows a lot," she says, her opinion in stark contrast to that of many who felt abandoned after the storm struck. "The people in West Virginia and the Red Cross did not have to help. They did it out of the goodness of their hearts."

In contrast, Francette Izard, 52, still rages when she recalls what happened and the "incredible" way she and others were treated. A resident of New Orleans for more than 20 years, Ms Izard has since returned to her native France while she considers her future. She has a partner in New Orleans and has visited three times since the storm struck.

Speaking from La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast, she said: "It's terrible, terrible. It's unbelievable that after a year ... you would imagine some things would be done, and they're not. [Looking back] feels unreal, it has something of a bad movie about it. Some things are like a nightmare, but at the same time it has a reality if I think about it. I still get very enraged about the government, about the way they did not act to get people out. It is a mixture of unreality and feeling very angry, in the way that it was so unnecessary."

Ms Izard's friend, Stephanie Fontenot, 66, has also not moved back to the city in which she spent her life and raised three children. On that Friday evening a year ago, Mrs Fontenot spoke of the kindness that the others in the group had shown her, how Mrs Veches had almost magically conjured up some soap and water with which she could wash. She also spoke of the horrors of the Superdome. At times she wondered whether she would survive the ordeal.

"It's bad enough during the day, but with the arrival of nightfall it's pandemonium," she had said at the time.

Ironically, Mrs Fontenot probably had no need to go to the Superdome. She had ensured that her flat on the edge of the French Quarter was adequately supplied with food and plenty of water and, as it transpired, that part of the city did not flood when the city's levees were overcome. By contrast, inside the Superdome "it was despair everywhere".

Mrs Fontenot has since relocated to a place by the ocean at St Augustine, Florida. She returned to New Orleans in the spring to collect belongings, but has no plans to return permanently. She believes it would be too hard to find somewhere safe to live. In addition, she likes the people in St Augustine.

Like the other people she met in the Superdome that week a year ago - strangers who became good friends and who looked after one another when adversity struck - she is adjusting to her new life and to life after Hurricane Katrina.

"I have friends in Florida and I have met some really nice people," she says cheerfully. "There are so many of us scattered."

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