Longform

Desert Storm

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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.

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Katy Reckdahl