Desert Storm

Page 6 of 7

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.

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Katy Reckdahl