Longform

Desert Storm

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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.

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Katy Reckdahl