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Point of no return

When are the people who left New Orleans in the wake of Katrina going back? For many, the storm was as good a reason as any to get out, and they don't plan to.

Published March 11, 2006


HOUSTON - On the last Tuesday in February, a day entwined with the identity of New Orleans like no other except perhaps the day six months earlier when Hurricane Katrina made landfall, a woman from the city care forgot dropped off her boyfriend at a hairdressing school in a strip mall a short drive from the apartment complex where they now lived.

Behind the painted windows of Trend Barber College, Warren Mitchell, 33, joined a group of mainly young black men, some of whom, like him, had been swept out of New Orleans by the storm. He sat at a child's desk and absorbed the teachings of a 25-year-old Mexico-born instructor, who had been in and out of jail since he was 9 and boasted of the three-minute fades he had bestowed, free of charge, on Katrina evacuees at Houston's Reliant Center.

Like most men in the class, Warren had cut hair before. His instructor, Renato Rodriguez, taught the techniques of barbering, but just as importantly, he felt a duty to help the men learn "how to be able to jump from what you know to things you don't know," a skill Warren was honing as he and his family embarked on a new life in Houston.

"I look at it like this: I was trying to get away anyway," Warren said.

In New Orleans, he had been a pipe fitter at a shipyard, and a few weeks before the storm, he had started drafting school. Yet Katrina had opened a door locked tight by circumstance, offering a way out of the neighborhood where Warren's 15-year-old brother attended a school that, Warren noted, "barely had books."

"Everything happens for a reason," Warren said. "Maybe I wasn't meant to be a draftsman."

He wasn't the only one who had been searching for an exit. His city of pretty shotgun houses and old trees draped with Spanish moss was also a place of persistent poverty, where drugs and crime marred lives. It was a city of violent grudges, where 265 people were murdered in 2004and it was likely that some were your neighbors.

In the Rama apartment complex in southwest Houston, where Warren lived with his girlfriend and the younger brother and sister he was raising, evacuees struggled beneath the weight of Katrina's gifts. The storm had taken much, but it also held forth the chance of a new start. The question now was, how would they use it?

The government money that found its way to the evacuees was both a needed benefit and an incitement to dubious choices. FEMA checks had paid for diapers and living room sets, but at the Popeye's a few blocks away, the men from New Orleans wore bright white Jordans, diamond-studded charms shaped like Louisiana, Girbaud jeans and pristine Timberlands.

"People gave us beaucoup money," said Thomas Poche, a 22-year-old who spent a week in the floodwater before being evacuated to Texas. "I bought a new car, put sound in that car, TV's in the house, new clothes. I bought a new dog."

In New Orleans, he had struggled.

"I became my own entrepreneur, selling weed and stuff. I had to pay my mama's bills, what else was I gonna do? Nineteen years old, just got out of jail. I wasn't trying to rob nobody, jack nobody up."

Police used to hassle him. But after the storm, the evacuees had police escorts everywhere, a point that thrilled him.

"In a sense, I'm kind of glad Katrina came," he said. "Because my life was totally turned around, totally changed."

Now he was living with his 19-year-old girlfriend, Daronca Edwards, a few doors down from Warren Mitchell's family. Like other evacuees, their rent was paid by FEMA, a benefit that would last a year.

"All we got to do is pay cable and the phone," Thomas said.

Daronca had worked at Wendy's in New Orleans before the storm, and in Houston after it. But she had quit her most recent job and was now "just kind of enjoying life." Together, they said they had received more than $20,000 from FEMA.

"Nobody's poor from New Orleans back here," Daronca said. "Everybody got something."

She shared Thomas' view of the opportunity before them, but unlike him, she was already looking to the future. She had left New Orleans with nothing, and said she used her FEMA money to buy furniture. She was considering nursing school.

Daronca and Thomas had found their way to the Rama apartments through one of Daronca's relatives, and like their Louisiana neighbors, they marveled at the diversity of their surroundings.

In southwest Houston, where most of the estimated 120,000 Louisiana evacuees in the city settled, placards for Tandoori King and Lo Nuestro Restaurant shared a strip mall marquee with Lucky Chan's Chinese Food and Payless ShoeSource. The streets were lined with apartment blocks advertising free cable and bearing signs that said "$49 Especial, $0 Deposito."

Here lay a less-noted side of the story that was continually being told about the evacuees in Houston. It was true that their arrival had caused friction. Their new clothes, the flashy rims on their pickups and the perfectly manicured hands of women surviving on government checks would have been enough to attract attention, even without the gang-style fights that had broken out between teens from New Orleans and their Houston classmates. The murder rate had also risen, and many blamed the evacuees.

But Houston was already working the powerful magic that America has always wrought on newcomers. New Orleans had been a city of distinctive but not ethnically diverse people, many of whom had spent their whole lives there. Evacuees in the Rama complex now had an Indian landlord and neighbors from Mexico and El Salvador. Like any immigrant community, the Louisiana evacuees were losing their definition in the roiling tide of the big city.

At the Houston Rodeo, an 18-year-old single mother who had been rescued from her 7th Ward home in a Coast Guard boat scooped ice cream for little girls in cowboy boots.

"We had country music in New Orleans, but I didn't listen to it," said Anthia Williams, as Trisha Yearwood belted out Georgia Rain on a stage below.

The line for ice cream was long at the stand where she worked, high above the dusty corral, where men bucked on bulls and teenagers from 4-H chased down and harnessed unwilling calves. When her shift ended, she and a friend walked to where their ride home waited, passing the Reliant Center and the Astrodome, where Anthia had sheltered with her mother, brothers and 5-month-old son after they were evacuated from the Superdome. They had slept among strangers and worn donated underwear from Wal-Mart.

"At first I was uncomfortable, and I just didn't like it," she said. "But I got to make the best of it, because this is where I got to be."

On Mardi Gras, as Warren Mitchell filled out the stack of forms that would make him feel, on his first day at Trend Barber College, as if he were joining the Navy all over again, Nicole Alexis, 26, fetched her 3-year-old daughter a honey bun from the pantry and planted the girl between her knees so she could twist her hair into fresh braids.

She had evacuated the day the storm struck, and now lived in a two-bedroom apartment with her three children. Jauney Wheeler, a nubile 20-year-old in a Chanel headscarf, was staying with them.

Nicole prayed over her red beans and rice at Popeye's, and had taken from her Louisiana home a small wooden Ten Commandments she'd made as a child. She believed that the book of Revelation was coming to pass, and the hurricane was an expression of God's will. But she had other reasons for not wanting to return.

"I wanted to leave New Orleans regardless," she said. "All the killing."

Southwest Houston was not known for its safety. From September through the end of 2005, 16 people had been murdered in the police district where Nicole lived, including an evacuee who was shot in a neighboring complex.

"They have shootings around here, but it's kind of quiet and everybody gets along," she said. "The Spanish people, we even speak to them, hello and whatever."

While some evacuees trudged toward what they hoped would be a brighter future, ceding Mardi Gras celebrations to memory, Nicole and her neighbors still had one foot in the city they had left behind. It was this uncertainty, in part, that made it difficult to shed old dependencies, even as the evacuees relished their escape from neighborhoods those dependencies had helped create.

By afternoon, the sun burned strong and steady over the apartment complex, and the smell of Glade air freshener masked the odor of marijuana in Nicole's apartment. Traviyan's face and hair shone, and she wore a clean, brightly striped sweater. Nicole dreamed of opening a soul food restaurant someday, but now she planned to cook a traditional New Orleans meal in a strange city.

On the way to Wal-Mart, they passed a mosque and a truck selling tacos. Inside, Jauney wondered at the food on the shelves: the giant taro root, rough-skinned and hairy, the dried chili peppers and lemon-flavored Lays.

"I wish they had crawfish," she said.

Into the cart went a bag of Tyson frozen chicken wings, shredded cheese, eggs and a half-gallon of milk. At the register, Jauney paid the $71.64 with a food stamp card.

A short drive from the Rama apartments, Warren Mitchell slept in his Suburban in the parking lot outside the tax preparer's office where his girlfriend worked. He had been too anxious to sleep the night before, with his first day of school looming.

His girlfriend, Andrea Scott, sat in front of a computer inside Jackson Hewitt, sifting through a pile of envelopes and entering clients' names into the box on her screen. Most evenings, Andrea worked alone, and Warren often went along to watch over her. Tonight, his 16-year-old sister Deshawn was there too, playing Keyshia Cole's I Should Have Cheated on a small portable stereo.

Warren had been raising Deshawn and her 15-year-old brother Steven for almost five years, since, he said, their mother decided she no longer wanted the responsibility. On weekday afternoons, their apartment smelled of fresh laundry. Christmas stockings still hung around the fireplace, and Warren's chess set rested on the coffee table. They had chosen Houston because Andrea's mother lived there, and they planned to stay.

"I always told them I wanted to move, and it just so happened the hurricane came and we come here," Andrea said. "I guess that was our chance."

They suffered bouts of homesickness. Warren missed Bourbon Street and Lake Pontchartrain on Sundays. In the convenience stores, he had given up searching for Big Shot soda, a New Orleans staple. He said even the Popeye's tasted different in Texas.

Deshawn was convinced that even if they went back, New Orleans wouldn't be the same.

"They said the projects ain't projects anymore," she confided. "They're all fixed up apartments, and the people who stayed there before can't go back."

In school, her favorite subject was geometry, and her new teachers impressed her because "here they help you. You can ask questions if you don't understand." In New Orleans, she said, "If you don't do your work, they'd just say, "Well, see you next year.' "

Warren and Andrea wanted the teenagers safe, and while much in Houston was imperfect, they were comforted at least by the fact that Deshawn and Steven weren't, as they put it, "on the corner."

Warren knew the dangers of the corner. When he was 11 or 12 and living in California with his father, he had walked out of tae kwon do class one afternoon when a gunman sped past and put a bullet in his friend's head. He joined the Crips for revenge, and the lessons of the street stuck.

"I stole cars, snatched purses, slashed people, fought people," he said.

When he joined the Navy at 18, he promised his grandmother he would stay out of trouble, and he said he had, except for a parking ticket here and there or a small charge like disturbing the peace.

So it was with tentative gravity, as if he were handling a newborn baby, that he took his seat the morning after Mardi Gras in the classroom at Trend Barber College, behind a McDonald's where someone had written "N.O." on the bathroom door in a burst of hometown pride.

He sat near the front, wearing an oversize black T-shirt with a picture of Al Pacino from Scarface. Don't outdress your clients, the teacher, Renato Rodriguez, told them. Don't lose your temper when it's your fault you didn't get a tip. Every guy knows how to "run game," and the same skills are required to "conversate" with the man in the chair. When he mentioned the Small Business Administration, Warren already knew where it was. He rattled off the address.

"At the very end of everything, it comes down to what you know," Renato told them. "You can have all that determination in you, but if you don't see someone do it, you don't have the confidence."

He wrote on the blackboard: "The biggest risk you can ever take is to never take a risk."

After class, the men put on smocks and walked to the hairdressing booths, where students offered cuts for $4 apiece. There was something called a South Side fade, which they didn't have in New Orleans. Warren watched the school's owner, a Nigeria-born man in blue slacks and a striped tie, wash a fellow student's hair.

One day, he hoped to open his own shop, but for the moment he was still fighting a powerful urge to bring his gun to school. He was used to taking it everywhere for protection. On Mardi Gras, he had almost stuck it in the holster at his waist, but Andrea had advised him not to, and he had managed to leave it behind.

[Last modified March 11, 2006, 18:38:56]

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