Desert Storm

Thousands of Katrina evacuees landed in Phoenix. How long should they get assistance?

"My memory is what I operate on," says Webb. "If I saw them last week, I say, 'I can't help you for a few weeks.'"

Before Katrina, Webb had retired, but the Salvation Army called her back to work after the hurricane. She's got four file boxes full of manila files, each one representing a local Katrina household that she's assisted. Since September, she's had 2,055 visits from evacuees.

Webb does no long-term assistance or case management. She's strictly about emergency needs, mostly food and gasoline cards these days. She used to buy clothes, but now only foots the bill if an evacuee gets a new job.

Young Min-Moon
Cousins Tikishia Lumar, left, and Sabrina Williams, right, with baby, struggle to herd a total of eight children into two cars after summer camp at Marshall Ranch Elementary School in Glendale.
Peter Scanlon
Cousins Tikishia Lumar, left, and Sabrina Williams, right, with baby, struggle to herd a total of eight children into two cars after summer camp at Marshall Ranch Elementary School in Glendale.

Right away, she helped in any way she could. She bought tools for tree-trimmers, carpenters, and welders. Paid for dentures, eyeglasses, emergency tooth extractions. Even shipped a deceased evacuee back to New Orleans for his funeral. Early on, she often wrote checks for rent and utility bills, but she's doing less of that now.

And she won't pay a penny for people who are on her list.

The list is something of legend within the evacuee community. Webb says it's about 100 names long.

"They're people who've taken advantage of the system," she says. She looks at the amount of money she's spent, whether she's paid rent and utilities, and whether "they've made the effort to find a job." If she's given them "second, third, fourth, and fifth chances," she adds them to her list.

On that list are a few people who fooled Webb once, who got airfare or bus tickets to "go back to New Orleans for good," but then ended up back here a few weeks later. "They just went for a trip," she says.

The phone rings, and Webb picks it up. A caseworker gives her a name. Webb repeats the name as she looks it up on her computer.

"She's been to see us twice, has five people in her family," says Webb, tapping the down-arrow on her computer keyboard. "We've paid rent once, so we won't pay it again. But we have some leeway with food and gas." Webb's standard handouts these days are food boxes or gift cards for gas and groceries. If an evacuee needs something else specific, she can also come up with Target gift cards.

Once people are sitting in her office, Webb says, it's difficult to say, "All we can give you today is a food box." But she does it. "We only have so much," she says. "Every bucket has a bottom."

Phyllis Millon has been silent for nearly two hours.

In an easy chair just a few feet away, her baby sister Nelda has been talking and telling stories. A nephew walked through the living room of the family's Glendale home, on his way to catch a bus. The little dog D-Man has been rolling on his back and begging for affection.

Everything stops as Phyllis leans forward and speaks. "I think about New Orleans every day," she says, moving slowly in her rocking chair. "I think about my neighbors asking me, 'How you doing?' or 'How you feeling today?'"

Phyllis, who's 70, lived across from a playground, so she always had people around, says Nelda. "Plus she always cooked, always made Sunday dinner. So everybody always went by her house to eat. If she didn't have something, she'd fix something."

Phoenix grew by 27 people when the Millon family drove into town, in a caravan of around 10 cars that arrived not long after the hurricane. They had evacuated to Houston before the hurricane and then decided to leave, because the city was overrun with evacuees. After arriving here, they first stayed with friends, relatives, and even in local college dorm rooms. Now they all live in Section 8 houses in Glendale.

In New Orleans, the Millon family has a sort of royal status, because their late brother was Big Chief Jake Millon, a highly respected leader of the White Eagles, a Mardi Gras Indian gang. (For more than a century, New Orleans' black Mardi Gras Indians have used beads and bright feathers to construct intricate new suits that they debut each year on Mardi Gras morning.)

On Sundays, it's traditional for many New Orleans families to spend all afternoon eating and talking. In the city's historically black neighborhoods, Sunday is also second-line day, when social-and-pleasure clubs dressed in bright new suits with matching shoes and hats lead four-hour parades complete with brass bands and hundreds of followers.

Here in Glendale, the Millon family often spends Sundays cooking and eating, with brass-band music blaring from the stereo. When evacuees get together, they often commiserate about the same three topics: how people don't say hello here, how all the drivers are in a hurry, and how the supermarkets don't carry favorite foods.

In New Orleans, they say, people always greet you on the street, with at least a "Good morning" or "Good evening." In New Orleans, no one honks his car horn unless he sees a friend and wants to get his attention. In New Orleans, no supermarket can be taken seriously without fresh shrimp and crabs, Patton hot sausage, Camellia beans, Crystal hot sauce, and Blue Plate mayonnaise.

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