On the third floor of a dark brick apartment building in Fall River, Mass., in the one-bedroom unit where she lives by herself, Theresa Reed maintains the trappings of cozy home life: a photo of a granddaughter on Santa’s lap, a potted plant on the table, a computer on the desk.
But this is not her real home, certainly not the one she knew before Hurricane Katrina. The disaster drove her from Louisiana and led her north to this former mill city, where a year later her eyes still well with tears as she describes a solitary existence apart from family.
From inside her apartment, Reed, 59, reflects on the trauma of the last year, and plots a return south.
“Fall River’s nice, I like it here. But I have no family here. This is just so lonesome,” she said, then sniffled softly and dabbed her eyes.
One state away, in Middletown, R.I., Loucille Simmons lives with her teenage daughter and works part-time in the kitchen of a Head Start center. Up the highway, Daniel Dyer has resettled in Providence and passes time by playing the organ in his apartment building.
In the months after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, a year ago on Aug. 29, a few thousand evacuees arrived in Massachusetts and several hundred landed in Rhode Island, coming either on their own or on federally chartered airplanes, according to FEMA.
Many remain, taking new jobs and affordable apartments as they reassemble their lives in unfamiliar cities. And for some, hopes of one day returning home have been complicated by money woes and a queasy uncertainty over exactly where to go and what remains behind for them.
For Simmons, the transition is eased by her family’s presence. She lives with her 16-year-old daughter, Cherell, in a two-bedroom apartment in Middletown, R.I., up the street from the former Navy housing complex where she and scores of other evacuees stayed for months after Katrina.
Two other adult daughters, plus her two young grandsons, share an apartment in the same community. Simmons evacuated on her own, flying with her family to Rhode Island, where her son was already living, after her roof of her home in Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish was damaged.
“Sometimes I’ll go by their house and we may have a barbecue or something. I guess that’s why I’m not as lonely. I feel almost at home,” Simmons said.
Simmons loves Rhode Island’s scenery and finds the state safe and the people friendly. Though in no hurry herself to return, her daughters are increasingly eager to go home. She envisions remaining here for several years, enough time to bring in some extra income and flesh out a sensible plan for the future.
Though Simmons chose her destination, Dyer did not.
A chef whose New Orleans restaurant was devastated by flooding, Dyer, 61, was airlifted on a FEMA plane last September and didn’t know he was headed to Rhode Island until he was already on board. He lived with roommates in the Middletown complex before moving into a one-bedroom apartment in Providence.
Reed said she is grateful for the help she has received, especially from colleagues at Charlton Memorial Hospital in Fall River who have volunteered to drive her from work and spare her the cab fare. She works evenings as a “safety observation sitter” _ sitting with patients too ill to be left alone. She calls the job a blessing.
“When they find out where I’m from, the goodness comes out of most people,” Reed said.
Reed did not come to Fall River by accident, having visited the city once before to see a friend she met through the Internet.
The sewage backups and power outages that accompanied the flooding pushed Reed and her 12-year-old grandson from their home in Covington, La., about 40 miles north of New Orleans. They caught a ride to Florida, where the boy was reunited with his mother, and Reed’s friend from Fall River invited her north.
Reed stayed with her friend for a few months before moving into an apartment building geared toward the elderly and near the infamous Lizzie Borden house. She likes that southern New England is steeped in history. But having grown up in New Orleans, Reed yearns for Louisiana all the way down to its home-styled cuisine.
“I miss the food so much, oh my god,” Reed lamented. “The seafood up here is not the same. It is not the same.”
She is still haunted by the hurricane, haunted by the vision of how “pitiful” another of her grandsons must have looked as he waited with her diabetic ex-husband to be rescued together from the roof of their apartment building amid the rising floodwaters.
“Before Katrina hit, I had two-full time jobs,” Reed says. “Since Katrina hit, I can’t focus. I don’t have it in me. Just sitting through an eight-hour shift at the hospital wears me out.”
It’s hard to know exactly how many Katrina evacuees remain in the region. The Federal Emergency Management Agency still has Massachusetts addresses for about 1,430 Katrina households, plus another 268 from Rhode Island, said John Carleton, a regional FEMA official.
But those figures don’t necessarily reflect the actual number of evacuees since some may have left and not reported it. FEMA still provides rental assistance to evacuees who need it as well as other aid.
Simmons is trying to find a full-time job so that she and her family can return to the South. But the last she heard, her home was still boarded up, and she’s reluctant to impose on a sister and another of her daughters still down there.
“If I die, I don’t want to be buried up this far, I don’t,” she said, laughing aloud at the morbidity of her thought.
Dyer said his business partner returned to New Orleans and reported back a grisly situation.
“I’m not eager to go back down there and see the mess that he told me it was,” Dyer said. “I sure don’t want to see that.”
As for Reed, a week after she dabbed at her eyes with napkins and tearfully longed for home, she was in decidedly better spirits, having finally resolved to do something to quell her loneliness.
She says she will rent a U-Haul and drive to her brother’s home in Mississippi, away from the coastline, by the end of the month. From there, she’ll find a permanent place of her own.
“It’s different now because I’ve got something that I really, really want that I’m working toward.” Going back home.
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