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Desert Storm

Sabrina Williams cringes as she opens her cupboard and pulls out her last pack of Camellia kidney beans, the only brand that cooks down into creamy and smooth New Orleans-style red beans — impossible to find in her adopted hometown, Glendale, Arizona. But Williams' timing is good. Her parents are...
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Sabrina Williams cringes as she opens her cupboard and pulls out her last pack of Camellia kidney beans, the only brand that cooks down into creamy and smooth New Orleans-style red beans — impossible to find in her adopted hometown, Glendale, Arizona. But Williams' timing is good. Her parents are currently in New Orleans, mucking out their house, and they will soon return to Phoenix, suitcases heavy with Camellia beans.

Twenty blocks to the west, another new Glendale resident isn't doing so well. Arlett Early's blood pressure has been up, leaving her flat on her back, waiting for her medicine to kick in. She is also still reeling from devastating news about her brother, Lloyd Coleman Jr., who had been missing since the hurricane. Red Cross workers told her that they'd seen cases of traumatic amnesia, so she held out hope that he was afflicted with something similar but was still alive. Then, several weeks ago, she was notified that her family's DNA samples matched a body in Louisiana's disaster-response morgue.

Ten minutes up the road to the north, yet another evacuee family is trying to get settled in Glendale. Nelda Millon (pronounced Mih-lawn), at age 58, is the baby sister of her immediate family and the ringleader of her extended family, the person everyone calls when something goes wrong. After the hurricane, Millon arrived here with three of her sisters and a bunch of nieces, nephews, in-laws and grandchildren. She's attending classes at Glendale Community College and has become fond of her surroundings.

"I like it here," she says in a big, enthusiastic voice — "I like the weather and the city. It's clean." Her older sister, Noela Millon, can't agree. She reaches down and scratches D-Man, the black-and-white Shih Tzu that accompanied them on their long drive to Phoenix. This hurricane has affected her, she says quietly.

"Every time I think it's over, it just comes back all over again."

The members of all three households fled to Phoenix after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans last August. They all live in Glendale, in zip code 85301, home to more evacuees than any other Arizona zip code, according to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) data.

Altogether, the Phoenix metro area is home to 1,919 evacuee households, which, according to FEMA estimates, could translate into as many as 6,000 people. Agencies that deal with evacuees put the number lower, maybe about half. But it's hard to know for sure.

"People are moving in and out," says Reverend Stephen Gardner, director at Project Restore, the first stop for Phoenix evacuees seeking assistance.

Among cities with evacuee households, Phoenix ranks far lower than Houston, which took in more than 300,000 households, but far above Albuquerque, which took in only 544. And now, 10 months after the disaster, it's a shock to many locals that thousands of Katrina evacuees now call Phoenix home.

"People say, 'I thought they were all gone,'" says Gardner. "They knew that thousands of evacuees came here right after Katrina, but then they didn't hear anything else." At Project Restore, Gardner sees hundreds of evacuees who have no plans to depart. "The truth is, many of them don't have any place to go back to," he says.

At the end of May, each of Phoenix's evacuee households received a postcard in the mail, with type screaming "Hurricane Evacuee," in big black letters. Underneath an image of an hourglass, red type spells out a clear message: "Time is running out — you must register with us by the deadline to receive assistance now or in the future."

Federal assistance is definitely drying up. One caseworker at Project Restore often greets new applicants with a booming pronouncement:

"To FEMA, Katrina is officially over," he says.

The question on many minds is, "It's been nearly a year since the hurricane. Can evacuees take care of themselves now?"

Most evacuees can survive on their own, given the right tools, says Debra Sheff, who oversees the local Katrina Aid Project, which is spearheaded by St. Vincent de Paul, Catholic Social Services, and Lutheran Social Ministry of the Southwest. The project helps each evacuee plan a path to self-sufficiency. That's not an easy task.

Many cities across the country are asking evacuees to create these long-range plans, says Bill Quigley, who heads up the Gillis Long Poverty Law Clinic at Loyola University in New Orleans. He thinks the cities are too ambitious.

"They're trying to get people to do life plans," he says, "but the ground is not solid for people to make plans."

People cannot keep a job if they don't have reliable childcare or access to medicine for chronic conditions, Quigley continues. And may not be able to work at all if they're elderly, disabled or depressed.

"The truth is, a lot of people needed help to survive in New Orleans," he concludes. "They probably need more help, not less, to survive in Phoenix."

In social-service speak, Phoenix has two groups of Katrina evacuees. There are the "self-evacuees" — people who got here on their own.

"They had at least some resources," says Anthony Cox, of the Arizona Division of Emergency Management.

Then there are the "FEMA evacuees," passengers from the two airplanes that FEMA flew into Phoenix after the hurricane. These are the evacuees people watched on the television news, the ones who stayed at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum at the state fairgrounds in downtown Phoenix. Some walked into the Coliseum hours after being plucked off rooftops in New Orleans.

"These people needed basic necessities. They didn't have clothes, food, or anything else," says Cox.

Widely broadcast reports of indiscriminate rapes and killings in New Orleans weren't proven false until a month later. So when the FEMA planes first arrived, critics across the country predicted that evacuees would trigger crime waves. That hasn't happened here. In fact, spokesmen for the Glendale and Phoenix police departments reported no problems with Katrina evacuees.

But ask people on the south side of town, and they'll tell you about "a little situation" at Tanner Manor. Yolanda McBride, manager at the senior-citizen facility located near 21st Street and Broadway Road, confirms that her complex took in three seniors — older men — after the storm. They helped to get the apartments furnished, and the men seemed happy to be there. Then came the rumors about the drugs, which neighbors said were purchased with FEMA money. So the undercover cops came in. They made no arrests, but the arrangement still didn't seem to be a good fit. After nearly five months, Tanner Manor asked the men to leave.

"It wasn't that bad, but their lifestyle was a little bit faster than the people here," says McBride.

Those few mischievous men aside, the best term to describe the FEMA evacuees in metro Phoenix may be "vulnerable," since a large number are disabled or elderly.

According to David Engelthaler, Arizona's state epidemiologist, of the evacuees who came through the clinic in the Coliseum, 23 percent suffered from hypertension, 9 percent from diabetes, and 7 percent from asthma. The mental-health needs were also high, nearing 10 percent. Those numbers are much higher than the norm, says Engelthaler, but he didn't find them surprising, because the evacuees came from poor — "underserved" — communities, where these chronic conditions are more common.

Most of the roughly 20 new households seeking Section 8 vouchers this month from the City of Phoenix's housing department are single and disabled or elderly, says Christine Chavira, an assistant housing supervisor for the department. They were all referred by Project Restore. Some have no income, a handful more have nothing to their name, Chavira says.

"Apparently, these are all folks that didn't do anything, who rode out the wave of benefits until they got to a big do-or-die date," she says. Are they the city's problem now? "We've got to do something with them," she adds with a sigh.

These applicants are running to Phoenix's housing department partly because Maricopa County's public-housing office no longer participates in the Disaster Voucher Program, which provides rental assistance for former public-housing residents displaced by the storm.

That was a judgment call by Alphonzo Patrick, head of the county's housing authority, who says that he cut off his organization's participation earlier this year, after most evacuees had found housing. Early on, he says, Maricopa County accepted 70 Katrina households in its Section 8 program and public-housing units. About half of them are still in the program.

Most are doing well, but a few are packing up and moving for the third or fourth time. Maybe the houses or the neighborhoods didn't feel right. Patrick doesn't know.

"I'm hoping they're not on tour," he quips.

Is there an ideal evacuee?

What is considered acceptable for an evacuee who is still receiving some assistance? Is he allowed to have a few too many drinks? What kind of jewelry can she wear? Can she decide to go to school, or does she have to get a job? On a special occasion, can an evacuee couple dress up and dine at a nice restaurant? Can an evacuee family rent an inflatable moonwalk for their child's birthday party?

That depends on the timing. Ten months ago, some extravagances may have seemed okay.

That's because, immediately after the hurricane, people viewed New Orleans evacuees as the "worthy poor," says Bill Quigley from the Gillis Long Poverty Law Clinic. In other words, the evacuees were needy, but it wasn't their fault, because they were victims of a natural disaster, he says. For a while, doors opened and contributions poured in.

"Now, in every place in this country, people from New Orleans are moving into the 'unworthy poor' category," he says.

Churches and sponsors were scrambling to help at first, says Jacquelyn Litt, the director of women's and gender studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia, who has been documenting the experiences of women evacuees. "Now the churches are out of money, and I don't know how many families are even in touch with their original 'friends,'" she says. "We're seeing this transition from a privileged status to 'you're just like everyone else who's poor.'"

Evacuees have not always been practical, says Debra Sheff from the Katrina Aid Project. For instance, she says, during the first few weeks after the hurricane, evacuee households in eight of the hardest-hit zip codes received two installments totaling $4,358 in FEMA money, earmarked as "expedited assistance" and "rental assistance" money.

The $2,000 in expedited disaster assistance came first and was intended for immediate needs like food and clothing. Next came $2,358, an amount carefully chosen to provide evacuees with three months of rental assistance at $786 a pop, according to FEMA spokesman James McIntyre. This was explained to some evacuees in person, says McIntyre. For evacuees who had the money direct-deposited into bank accounts, the parameters were outlined after the fact, through an affidavit sent by U.S. mail.

It's clear that many evacuees had no idea that the $2,358 was for rent. For some, it may have paid a deposit and first month's rent. For others, drinks flowed, people paid bills, bought computers and clothes-shopped at the mall; and kids finally got PlayStations.

"If it eased my situation, FEMA should be okay with it," says one evacuee who bought groceries but also a new laptop to communicate with her scattered family.

Seeing New Orleans had been traumatic for her children, says one Phoenix evacuee. So she felt good buying them big-ticket toys and some nice clothes.

"They felt like it was Christmas," she says. For years, she explains, she has put her kids' Christmas presents on layaway starting in July and then made payments each month. This time, the money came easier. But in December, the children's presents were small, about $20 each, she estimates. All future Christmases may be small now, she says, because she's making monthly payments to replace everything she had owned — it was all ruined in eight feet of water.

An audit released in early June by the U.S. Government Accountability Office made big headlines because it found that some FEMA registrants used expedited assistance to purchase diamond jewelry, a Caribbean vacation, pro football season tickets, Girls Gone Wild videos, and the services of a divorce lawyer.

Arizona evacuees may have been part of the GAO's random sample. But none of the fraudulent or improper purchases cited by the GAO happened in Phoenix.

Sheff says it's clear that money was spent unwisely here. Those same evacuees then required help from local agencies in order to pay their rent, she says.

"They were given money [from FEMA] when they first came and they didn't know to use it for rent or utilities, so they spent that first or second allotment from FEMA incorrectly — they'd never been taught how to use it," she says.

On Sunday, August 28, 2005, the day before the hurricane, Sabrina Williams carried her 3-day-old son, Blake, out of Touro Infirmary in New Orleans and hopped into a car with her fiancé, city bus driver Paul Miles, and their 6-year-old son Tyrus. They evacuated to an aunt's house about 200 miles away.

"We thought we'd be back home in two or three days, like all of the other times we'd left," Williams says. So they didn't think twice about leaving behind their family photos and all the gifts she'd received at her baby shower. They also left Miles' truck, parked in their driveway.

Neighbors who stayed through the hurricane looked out their windows and timed how long it took the floodwater to completely cover Miles' truck — seven minutes, they said. For a few weeks, Williams asked about her block; she asked soldiers who'd been stationed there and anyone else who had gotten into the city. Then she picked up the newspaper and saw a familiar photo on its front page.

"It was the corner store down the block from us, and it had water up to its roof," she says. "And this was two weeks after the hurricane hit."

At that point, in mid-September, Williams couldn't even mourn her apartment, which took in 20 feet of water. She had much bigger worries: Her parents and uncle had stayed in New Orleans, and no one had heard from them since the day before the storm. "They're older, and a lot of old people didn't want to leave out," Williams says.

As it turns out, Williams' parents and uncle climbed to their attic to escape the rising water and ended up getting a ride to Mississippi on a truck bed. But no one could reach them, and they couldn't reach anyone, because New Orleans' area code — 504 — was jammed for weeks. (It's still not uncommon to dial a 504 number and receive the message "all circuits are busy now.")

Once family members reunited, they headed to Phoenix, now home to Williams, her parents, and "about nine carloads" of her family. The 32 evacuees had first landed in other places, but they headed here because of cousin Natasha Williams, a New Orleans native who was already living here, managing Paradise Vista apartments near 43rd Avenue and Glendale.

Sociologists are now trying to track these "chain migrations," says the University of Missouri's Jacquelyn Litt. "People think that evacuees moved once. A lot of people did. But some people moved two and three times, and they're still moving."

These moves may increase as outside assistance diminishes, says Quigley, from the Gillis Long Poverty Law Clinic. "Every time the government or private organizations fail, people go back to their most basic community — family and friends," he says. Despite the fact that some evacuees have left to go home or to another city, the overall number of FEMA-registered people in the Phoenix area has actually increased by 113 households during the past few months. Social-service workers say that the newcomers they see now are traveling to Phoenix to meet up with other family members.

Last fall, Williams and Miles lived in Paradise Vista for a few months, then moved 20 blocks west to a Section 8 apartment in Glendale. They're in good company, according to the City of Glendale's housing department, which reports that nearly 10 percent of its 1,054 Section 8 vouchers now go to Katrina evacuees. (The city received an increased number of federally funded vouchers to handle them, so the evacuees are not taking vouchers meant for Glendale residents, says city spokeswoman Diana Whittle.)

Since the hurricane, every day brings new hurdles. There's the Louisiana unemployment office and its always-busy phone line — one week, after a delay in her claim, Williams hit redial hundreds of times, her cell phone in one hand and the house phone in the other. Williams has also spent months trying to get Blake a birth certificate (the Louisiana Office of Vital Statistics hasn't issued any since the storm).

Now the couple's children have been kicked off AHCCCS, Arizona's low-income health plan, because Miles' increased income, from his new job as an airport-shuttle supervisor, was said to exceed the program's limits. That doesn't make sense to Williams; she says Miles' new wages don't seem to exceed AHCCCS' published income ceiling. But she hasn't gotten anyone to reverse that decision yet.

Williams hasn't begun working in Phoenix, because she lacks trusted day care for Blake and for Tyrus, who attends half-day kindergarten. Had she been back home, Blake would've been in day care in January and she would have returned to her job in accounts receivable at the Hilton Garden Hotel.

"I had everything down pat in New Orleans," she says.

As anyone who has searched for day care knows, parents often have to wait months, even years, for slots for their children. Spaces for infants like Blake are even more sought after. Without childcare, no mother can move to "self-sufficient" status, says the University of Missouri's Jacquelyn Litt. "Day care is one of the big, big problems for evacuees," she says. "I don't know that it was ever addressed."

Lori Peek, a sociologist at Colorado State University, specializes in "social vulnerability and social inequality" in disasters.

"We view disasters as acts of God that affect people equally," she says. "But the poorest people tend to live in the most dangerous spots."

Without money, poor people can't adequately prepare for disaster. Without resources, they tend to be the slowest to recover.

Hurricane Katrina was especially cruel to the disadvantaged. The storm struck three of the poorest states in the country — Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. The Congressional Research Service found that half of the people displaced by Katrina came from the city of New Orleans. So, any snapshot of evacuees reflects New Orleans' dismal economy: half come from poor or near-poor homes, one-quarter of adults lack a high school diploma.

Peek is interviewing evacuees in Denver, which took in about the same number of evacuees as Phoenix. Typically, she says, depression and PTSD won't surface until six months after a disaster.

Caseworkers did begin to see depression and PTSD cases at the six-month mark. But new cases still surface every week, and they're largely untreated. The level of physical disability is also shocking to Peek — people who are blind, confined to wheelchairs, and suffering severely from chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and asthma.

"This is like nothing we've seen before," she says.

This level of disability is common among people who live in chronic poverty, the kind that spans generations. For years, New Orleans and the state of Louisiana as a whole have consistently ranked worst in the nation for poor health, child poverty, violent neighborhoods, and failing schools.

In both Denver and Phoenix, there is concern that people are not getting jobs as fast as hoped. Nationwide, one-quarter of Katrina evacuees who had not returned home were unemployed in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Peek says that illness and mental-health conditions complicate job searches, as does lack of transportation.

"In Denver, like Phoenix, people are meant to have cars. But many evacuees were accustomed to using public transportation or walking anywhere they went. They don't have driver's licenses or automobiles."

What evacuees share is a sense of "disorientation," says Peek. "Everything seems strange. Everyone seems strange." New Orleans is a city with many long-term residents, and that's apparent, she says. About half the evacuees in Denver had never left New Orleans' city limits.

At first, even evacuees who had lived in New Orleans all their lives told Peek that they were going to make the best of their situations. "They would say, 'This is an act of God and I am meant to be here. I was meant to be on the airplane to Denver.'" Now, she says, that optimism has dwindled. "Here's where people are right now: They're figuring out, essentially, how to survive," says Peek. "How to survive having lost everything."

It's a little after 3, on a June afternoon, and Major Dee Webb is expecting two more Katrina evacuees before she closes the doors at the Salvation Army at 4 sharp. They had called ahead, she says, and it seems urgent — "a 'no food for tonight' sort of thing."

Webb is 70, with white hair pulled tightly back into a bun and a crisp Salvation Army shirt with little ornamentation except maroon epaulets at the shoulders. She looks grandmotherly and calls people "dear," but evacuees say not to be fooled, that she's tough.

One skinny man standing outside waiting for a friend says that he had gotten some food cards from Webb and sold them.

"She figured me out," he says, then admits that her keen detective work probably was due to the fact that he showed up a few days later asking for more cards.

"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.

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.

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."

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