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On a recent Sunday, Nelda dances a few quick steps as she hands out candy and toys to the kids. Outside, a group of her nephews, uncles, and grandsons plays basketball at a hoop they rolled out into the street. Inside, her family is dishing out plates of today's spread: ham, roast, mac and cheese, candied yams, seafood stuffing, and stuffed green peppers. Nelda pours herself a glass of pink zinfandel. "It's the only way we keep our sanity," she says. "We party."
But she can't keep everyone happy all the time. Her sister Noela missed today's gathering because her spirits were low.
Noela also seemed sad during an earlier interview. She had pulled out the photos of her flooded house, the house where she lived with their mother until she passed away at age 94 two years ago. Every evacuee with a destroyed house has photos that look almost exactly like this. (Insurance companies require them as evidence of damage.) Noela's photos start with pictures of her living room, dingy and grayish-brown, with large couches and chests sitting on end and at odd angles, as if the whole house had been put through a spin cycle.
"That water it's mean, it's mean, it's mean," she says.
The official Millon family jobs report, given by the aunts, is mixed. One nephew and his son got good-paying jobs that they wouldn't have gotten in New Orleans, they say; another nephew tried working construction what he'd done at home but quit because he found that the construction sites were often so far-flung that he couldn't make it to work without a car. A niece can't work because all the preschool slots are filled and so she is staying home with her 4-year-old. One son landed a job, and now his daughter can't be covered under AHCCCS any longer. A daughter started a job and found that "it was too soon"; she couldn't emotionally handle it yet.
A few are living on unemployment and trying to determine what to do next. Like Nelda, for instance, who worked for the City of New Orleans for 27 years but will soon be taking a self-employment class, with hopes of opening up her own New Orleans-style mom-and-pop restaurant. "That way we can stay together, keep our heads on right."
Her sister Phyllis wishes she could do small things on her own, like walk down the street to run an errand. "If there was a corner store nearby," she says, "I'd go every day."
This family is not accustomed to waiting for someone else to do something for them, says Nelda. They're used to being on their own. She describes a recent visit to a local agency, where the caseworker seemed irked to see her and her family.
"She said, 'You again?' and looked at us funny," Nelda says. "I told her, 'Do you think we want to come here? We don't want to be standing here waiting for you to hand us a little Safeway card, a gas card, and a Target card.'"
She believes the woman had pigeonholed her and her family as people content to wait for handouts. But she was looking at the Millon family, Nelda told her.
"When we lived in New Orleans, we had houses and jobs. We took care of ourselves."