Aug 26, 2010 2:19 PM by Melissa Canone
When Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed New Orleans and the
surrounding region five years ago, hundreds of thousands of lives
were changed forever, in myriad ways. Hundreds died, but even among
survivors, many lost all that was familiar. And recovery is a
process that still goes on day by day.
Here are three stories of survival and readjustment, by
Associated Press writers who tracked down individuals they had
first met in Katrina's chaotic wake.
The Thomas family: Evacuated from Katrina's floods, now rooted
in Arizona desert
Five years ago, the family had never seen a cactus up close.
Mexican food meant Taco Bell. And the phrase "dry heat" would
have been absurd. Back then, of course, they had never lived
anywhere but Louisiana.
Now cactus plants abound, and Mom knows how to make the
traditional Mexican dish menudo. And that dry heat helped salvage
the Disney movies retrieved from a flooded-out house in New
Orleans, the place Lois Thomas still can't help calling "home."
They arrived in Arizona a week after Hurricane Katrina struck,
one family among the thousands of storm evacuees flung across th
country in search of sanctuary. Thomas was 36 years old, with six
children and her longtime boyfriend, Doyle Smith, by her side, and
her mind revving with questions.
Where would they live and work? When, if ever, would they go
back home? What might they find when they did? Blank pages of a
life story that suddenly had to be rewritten.
Five years later, the family's story has new chapters - marked
by more loss but also many achievements, by tough times but also
the generosity of strangers.
"Katrina?" says Thomas. "I try to leave it in the recesses of
my mind. Way back there."
That didn't seem possible on Aug. 29, 2005, when the storm made
its way into New Orleans.
They survived by taking refuge in the attic of their
four-bedroom brick house: Thomas, Smith and all six children,
huddled together: Kayleigh, 15; Kourtney, 13; Larry, 12; Annalyce,
6; Andrew, 5; and 3-year-old Angela.
After 11 hours, Smi whheard a boat outside and used a hammer to
break through the roof. They eventually made their way to an
evacuation staging area and boarded a government plane out of town
- to where they didn't know until the pilot announced: "The
beautiful sun city of Phoenix, Ariz."
Their first accommodations were cots at Veterans Memorial
Coliseum near downtown - and that's where good fortune found them.
Jeff and Marie Whiting, a couple in Goodyear, Ariz., had a
second home they had decided to offer, rent-free, to Katrina
survivors. A volunteer at the coliseum saw their Internet posting
and, within days, Thomas, Smith and the kids had moved into the
five-bedroom home neighbors decorated and stocked.
They became the mini-celebrities of the neighborhood, with folks
coming over almost daily to introduce themselves and offer help.
Neighbors threw birthday parties for the children. Walmart provided
a credit account for shopping. A car dealership offered a Dodge
"We've really been blessed," Thomas said at the time. By
October, Thomas, a schoolteacher, had landed a job teaching reading
at an elementary school.
That same month, she and Smith traveled back to New Orleans to
see what was left of their home. One neighbor had already begun
gutting his house, but they heard horror stories about prices for
building supplies, about the hassle of getting building permits.
Thomas dreaded the idea of stuffing the children into a FEMA
So they decided Arizona would be home for the time-being, and
headed back with a couple of milk crates full of photo albums,
birth certificates and some Disney videotapes still damp with
mildew. (Set out in the dry Arizona heat, the movies were saved.)
It was just after their first Thanksgiving in Arizona, however,
that Smith decided to return to New Orleans to try to find work. In
time, he moved to Fayetteville, Ark., where he now works as a cook
at the University of Arkansas and has started a new family. He left
Thomas with Angela and Annalyce, his children from another
relationship and sisters to Kayleigh, their daughter together.
Thomas has since become their legal guardian.
"They tell me they're happy," Smith says in a telephone
interview, speaking of the girls.
They certainly seem to be. Five years after first arriving,
Thomas and all six children live now in a mobile home in Buckeye,
not far from the neighborhood in Goodyear where they spent that
first year. One recent evening, the three youngest crowded on the
couch giggling at "George Lopez," as Thomas reflected on how far
they'd all come. There were signs of that all around. A bookcase
displayed Kourtney's high school diploma and a photograph of
Kayleigh on the day she earned her medical assistant's certificate
at community college.
Against a wall were piles of belongings - comforters, notebooks,
backpacks - ready to accompany both girls off to college. Kayleigh,
now 20, heads to Northern Arizona University this fall to study
psychiatric nursing. Kourtney, 18, won a scholarship to The
University of Arizona in Tucson.
On this night, however, the girls and Thomas' older son, Larry,
were off with friends - not wanting to have to talk "Katrina"
again. Larry, entering his last year of high school, rarely
mentions the storm or where they're from.
Every now and then, though, someone catches a hint of the South
in Thomas' voice. When she tells them "the story," their look
says, "Wow, you really went through all of that?"
She still has bad days, whenathe misses her house (which was
foreclosed upon) and the food and, even, the "stuff" she once
didn't think mattered. One holiday, making dinner, she asked the
girls to find one particular serving dish. For a moment, they stood
in the kitchen in silence. And then they reminded her: "We lost
that in the other house. Remember?"
"It's that kind of thing that sneaks up on me. I get a heart
pang," says Thomas. "But what do you do? Sit there and sulk and
wallow in it? No."
Instead the family has moved on, with strength and spirit, and
help from many: the acquaintance whose sister-in-law gave them the
mobile home, and allowed Thomas to assume the note (she'll own it
in three years); the school colleague who offered her old car when
Thomas' van broke down; and others.
Thomas was laid off in May. Instead of teaching, she's working
now at a warehouse, but even this she takes in stride. She plans to
begin taking online c Banes in medical sonography.
"I look at Lois as somebody who's escaped from a dark place and
been brought into a light place," says Marie Whiting, who still
talks to her former "tenant" now and then. A few weeks ago, they
ran into each other at a restaurant, hugged, caught up and made
plans to go to church together.
Thomas hasn't been back to New Orleans since 2008, when she and
the children attended a family reunion. She knows she's not likely
to ever live there again. But she'll always have reminders of home,
even a small atlas she purchased that day she boarded the plane for
Arizona, to see just how far they were going. On its mileage chart,
she drew a thin line connecting New Orleans and Phoenix.
But like the storm itself, she keeps this memento stored away, a
piece of yesterday now.
- By PAULINE ARRILLAGA, AP National Writer
The lawyer: Rick Teissier says New Orleans `grew up' after
What Rick Teissier remembers most about those early months after
Hurricane Katrina was the scene in his neighborhood pharmacy: a
long line of people with hollow stares and weary faces, all looking
Some, he says, were waiting for Xanax. Or Zoloft. Or Paxil. Or
other drugs that would ease the anxiety and shell shock of living
in a city still reeling from disaster. Everyone had prescriptions,
"Damned right, I did," he says.
Five years later, Rick Teissier, lawyer, agitator, passionate
booster of all things New Orleans, has rebounded from those
stressful days but it was a long, circuitous journey. He left his
beloved city for California, then returned. He gave up his
practice, then came back and started over. He sold his house in
Uptown, then bought another in the same neighborhood.
He vows he'll never, ever leave again.
"I'm going to stay ... true New Orleanians are the otss who
will turn off the lights," Teissier says. "I'm crazy enough to be
one of those people."
Teissier was lucky: He and his family fled to Las Vegas in one
of the last pre-Katrina flights out. Later, his wife and young
daughter temporarily relocated to Destin, Fla. He commuted there
regularly, while working sporadically as a criminal defense lawyer
amid the ruins of New Orleans.
Katrina had crippled the legal system, flooding the state
courthouse, destroying files and contaminating evidence. Teissier
also accepted appointment as a special master to get the city's
indigent defense program back on track. It wasn't his first
exposure to legal chaos. A decade earlier, when he was a public
defender, he had sued his own office, arguing he had too many
clients and not enough resources - and the state Supreme Court
agreed, mandating reforms.
But a year after Katrina, he and his wife, Nissa, decided New
Orleans was no place to raise a family. With a baby daughter and
another child on the way, he says, "You knew this was going to be
a very long battle and wear on you a great deal. You didn't think
things were EVER going to get back to normal."
Even so, driving out of town on Interstate 10, he recalls, was
like "leaving a lover you still loved."
Teissier recalls a judge who is an old friend warning him he'd
be miserable anyplace else and offering a prediction. "He said,
'You're from here. You're going to live here the rest of your life.
You're going to die here. You may not know that now, but you'll
realize it someday."'
"I knew," Teissier now says, "he was a wise man."
At the time, though, California seemed a logical place for a new
beginning. His in-laws lived there, and he and his family moved in
with them. With its sunny skies, palm trees anilyodachrome vistas,
what's not to like? Plenty, as it turned out. "Plastically clean
and plastically pretty," Teissier says dismissively. "No soul."
His wife concurred.
He recalls her complaint: "I can't stand the cleanliness
anymore. It's really messing with my head. Give me garbage and
They both wanted to go home.
Teissier longed for the intoxicating scents of jasmine flowers
and ligustrum trees, the taste of fresh oysters, even the feel of
the humidity on his skin. What really cinched his decision, though,
was something far more practical: He failed the California bar
exam. Weeks before, he says, he developed an eye infection, forcing
him to wear a patch and making it hard to study.
He learned the exam's results, coincidentally, while in New
Orleans to deal with a prospective buyer for his house. He
remembers being at Cooter Brown's tavern, downing some oysters and
beer, he says, when his ng e handed him an envelope that included
the announcement he'd failed, just narrowly.
Teissier knew he could take the exam again, but he saw the
results as a sign "the spirit of New Orleans didn't want me to
Returning in 2007, he bunked with a friend for seven months
before finding a house that's now home for his family, which
includes daughters Grace, 6, and Addy, 4, who was born in
Back then, though, it still was hard to get anything
accomplished with limited city services and exasperating red tape.
"I think everybody in the U.S. should go through something like
this," he says, "to show how ineffectual ... the federal
Teissier moved fast to re-establish his law practice. "Everyone
thought I was washed up," he says. "It took four or five trials
to hear on the street that I was back."
He says he quickly realized the city had developed something of
a new attitude.EST "Before we were crazy, party crazy," Teissier says. "We'd
celebrate anything - 'It's Monday? Let's go out and drink.' ...
Before, New Orleans was like a teenage city. I think Katrina made
us like people in their 40s who start to think about bigger issues
... The 'city that care forgot' started to think about caring. It
made us a more grown-up place, more mature, with a conscience."
Teissier and his wife became more politically active; they
recently hosted a musical fundraiser at their house that he says
raised $20,000 to help clean up the Gulf oil spill.
At the fifth Katrina anniversary, Teissier, now 48, has no sense
of dread, just an acceptance that another monster storm could
"I think people have resigned themselves that if they want to
live here, there's a distinct possibility it could happen again,
and it's not going to affect us the way it did the first time. We
don't sit around and fear."
's convinced surviving Katrina has made him stronger and
"You have to accept bad things are going to happen. How you
react to them will make the biggest difference," Teissier says.
"In a way, Katrina was the worst thing to ever happen to me, and
in another way, it was the best thing. .. it made me more
understanding about the fragile nature of life."
- By SHARON COHEN, AP National Writer
Gussie and Osa: Recalling convention center chaos with dog,
still waiting to reclaim home
Gussie Glapion's path through New Orleans often takes her past
the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, the new sea-blue carpet and
a Starbucks visible through the blocks-long wall of glass and metal
stretching along the Mississippi River waterfront.
"They've done a remarkable job with it," she says of the
gleaming 3 million-square foot building not far from the French
Quarter. "Sometimes, I don't even think about it. Maybe it's
buried in my subconscious."
"It" is the hellish four-day period Glapion spent in and
around the exhibition hall five Augusts ago, when it was one of the
most infamous shelters in the flooded city - when its meeting rooms
became open toilets, and its loading docks and lawns served as
Five years and a $60 million renovation have erased all traces
of the storm from the convention hall. But like the rest of her
city, the 51-year-old Glapion is still rebuilding, still
Glapion was one of thousands who ignored Mayor Ray Nagin's pleas
to evacuate the low-lying city as Katrina, a Category 5 hurricane,
approached. She was raised in the little "double shotgun" house
at 2101 2nd Street that her mother had purchased from a minister in
the city's Uptown neighborhood, and it had never flooded.
Once the storm had passed, Glapion went outside to assess the
damage: just some missing roof tiles and pieces of aluminum siding.
But then the water began to rise, and soon it was several feet
deep inside her home.
Somehow, her phone line still worked, letting her keep in
regular touch with her daughter, Quianna, a teacher in Houston. By
Wednesday, though, Quianna told her she needed to get out.
"Mom, I just heard on the news," Glapion recalls her daughter
saying. "They said go to the convention center. They got buses
down there waiting to pick you all up."
Glapion grabbed a bag of snacks and her 11-
Osa, and trudged through the flooded streets toward the river. But
when she arrived at the convention center, there were no buses,
As many as 20,000 people had gathered there - residents,
stranded tourists, even some fleeing the squalor and chaos of the
shelter in the nearby Superdome. Not only were there no buses, but
there was no food or water or sanitary facilities for the masses
who thought this would be their salvation.
At a side entrance, one corpse sat in a wheelchair while another
lay on the ground beside it, wrapped in a sheet. On the grassy
median of Convention Center Boulevard, an old man lay dead in a
Hearing rumors of rapes, killings and armed gangs roaming the
building's fetid innards, Glapion decided to sleep outside on a
stiff chair scavenged from an exhibition hall. During the day, she
wandered the streets or sat on a bench down the street, to get aifi
- and to pray.
People ate whatever they could scrounge up. One day, there were
frozen treats from a ransacked Blue Bell ice cream truck; on
another, Glapion ate cookies liberated from an abandoned bakery
Always at her side, Osa was subsisting on Slim Jims and bits of
granola bar until, miraculously, a bag of Kibbles 'n Bits appeared.
"I couldn't tell you where it came from," Glapion says. "Let's
just say from God."
When the National Guard swept in on Friday, she had bottled
water and MRE's - meals ready to eat.
Throughout the week, Glapion would borrow a reporter's cell
phone to check in with her daughter in Houston, to let Quianna know
she and Osa were still alive. Glapion tried to sound upbeat, but by
Friday she could no longer suppress her sobs.
"Osa is dying," she cried. "I need to get out of here."
The next day, a fleet of plush, air-conditioned motor coaches
and simple yellow school2), es finally arrived. A school bus
ferried Glapion and her dog to the Louis Armstrong International
Airport, where they boarded a plane to Austin, Texas. Osa slept in
When they landed, Quianna was waiting with her arms open and
tears streaming down her face.
By December, just four months later, Glapion was back in New
Orleans, living with other Loyola employees in a FEMA trailer park
set up on university property.
Some elderly women from a church helped remove a shed and cut
down a dead tree in Glapion's back yard. Then came a group of
Loyola students, whose professor offered them course credit for
helping gut people's homes. Finally, another church group helped
board up Glapion's house.
And then another chapter ended: At midnight on May 31, 2006, Osa
As she grieved - she still kisses the dog's photo every day -
she also searched for rental housing that she could afford on an
administrattre assistant's salary, eventually leaving the temporary
trailer for an 800-square-foot apartment across the river in
A white microwave was the most substantial item Glapion was able
to salvage from her home, but a housekeeper at Loyola told her that
a group called Volunteers of America was giving out furniture
vouchers, and Glapion put in her name.
"I did like Job in the Bible - I waited," she says. "I
waited, and lo and behold, I got a call that said come pick out
She got full living room, kitchen and bedroom sets, she says,
"And don't owe NO furniture store a copper cent."
But what she really wants is to go home.
Five years after the storm, Glapion's house remains boarded up.
Vines hang from the gutters; where the siding was torn away,
weathered clapboards dangle at odd angles; a blue tarpaulin on the
roof is the only thing keeping out rain.
Glapion has applied vsLouisiana's Road Home grant program,
designed to help storm victims get back into their homes, but old
tax issues complicate the processing. Of the nearly 230,000
applications received, just over half have been approved and paid,
with disbursements totaling nearly $8.6 billion.
In late July, Glapion says a Road Home worker called seeking a
copy of her pre-Katrina driver's license.
"Are you kidding me?" she asked the woman. Meanwhile, Glapion
is challenging a $500 fine recently levied under the city's
blighted property ordinance.
Still, when she sees the restored convention center and
Superdome, she has faith that things will work out.
"They've turned these things around into doing a lot of
positive things," says Glapion, who is applying for a
higher-paying job. "And so that's my goal, too. To keep