Desert Storm

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"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."

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Katy Reckdahl