Isaac caught up to those who fled Katrina

New Orleans, in those anguished days just after Hurricane Katrina, felt like a storm-cursed city to Frank Williams, a place to escape for good.

The house he and his wife owned in Gentilly Terrace, an oak-shaded enclave of middle- and upper-middle-class African Americans, was ruined. They needed to start anew. They looked west, jumping to buy a comfortable rancher in LaPlace, a quiet community 25 miles outside New Orleans that bills itself as the Andouille sausage capital of the world.

But on Thursday, the house they bought — the place they’d lovingly spruced up with new carpets and a fresh paint job — rotted in mucky water that climbed 31 / 2 feet up the walls. They had escaped one flood zone and found another, exactly seven years to the day that Katrina chased them from New Orleans. “This is like deja vu,” said Williams’s wife, Cynthia Thibodeaux.

For Williams and Thibodeaux, and others like them, the suburban flooding triggered Wednesday and Thursday by Hurricane Isaac — which was weakening as it moved north to less-than-tropical-storm strength — carried with it a special cruelty. What they had fled seven years ago came looking for them again.

It found Patrick and Detria Hutchinson, too. They had escaped in another direction, packing what little was left after their Upper Ninth Ward house in New Orleans was destroyed and trekking to the northeast, across Lake Pontchartrain to the city of Slidell. On Thursday, 60 miles away and at opposite ends of Lake Pontchartrain, the Hutchinsons were faced with the same crisis as Thibodeaux and Williams: a house they needed to flee.

“We weren’t expecting this — not out here,” Patrick Hutchinson said Thursday after an armored personnel carrier plowed through flooded streets to evacuate him and his wife from their home.

The flooding in LaPlace and Slidell was all the more mind-bending for so many here because New Orleans was barely touched by Isaac, except for a smattering of downed trees and streetlights. Huge new floodgates, super-sized levees and powerful pumps did exactly what they were supposed to do — they kept the city from turning into a lake. But in these other cities, these places that once seemed like such refuges, the water rose. And rose. And rose.

A flash flood sent water pulsing into Slidell’s streets, forcing rapid-fire evacuations of dozens of residents, one of the more startling developments on a day when tens of thousands of residents in Tangipahoa Parish were ordered to leave because of fears that a dam might fail. A sneakier, slower-moving flood plagued LaPlace, pushing more than 2,000 people from their homes. Army National Guard troops loaded hundreds of residents onto buses outside a church-turned-shelter Thursday. The crush of people — far more than were expected — was too great. The facility inadequate. The buses bound for far-off places — Alexandria and Shreveport. It was an exodus that brought back uncomfortable memories of Katrina.

The New Orleanians who found homes in suburbs such as LaPlace and Slidell were supposed to be the lucky ones. They weren’t part of the great post-Katrina diaspora that flung thousands of the city’s residents — most of them African Americans — around the country never to return. Old neighbors of Williams and Thibodeaux now call Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Portland home. And the couple misses them.

But Williams, a self-employed real estate broker, and Thibodeaux, a state social worker, were firm. They were staying. This region, they decided, was not just their lifelong home, it had whittled into their soul. LaPlace, though it lacked the hip urban vibe and culture of New Orleans, seemed like an acceptable alternative. They celebrated their new life by buying Thibodeaux her dream car, a snazzy charcoal gray Range Rover with gray leather seats. Now the Range Rover’s interior looks more like a swimming pool — ruined, she’s sure.

The Hutchinsons couldn’t envision a life away from this place either. Safe, or so they thought, in Slidell, their thoughts were more focused on their big plans to host a barbecue for the New Orleans Saints’ season opener. Patrick was fixating on the menu — fried chicken, ribs, “the works” — not escape routes. Isaac just didn’t seem as if it could touch him. And he was spreading a new coat of paint on the walls. As he worked, he often thought to himself how much he loved it here.

The 48-year-old disabled former Pillsbury plant worker lost a pickup truck, a Jeep and a car to Isaac’s storm surge. But his two dogs — a mutt named Muffin and his pit bull Jada — were by his side, safe in traveling kennels that police officers helped him lift into an armored personnel carrier.

Now both couples will have to decide what to do next. The Hutchinsons hope to return to Slidell — the water wasn’t rising enough to destroy their home. But Williams and Thibodeaux were contemplating another move, something they discussed with their neighbors as they waited for a relative to pick them up. Everyone wanted out of LaPlace, Williams said. “They think it will happen again — and I know it’s going to happen again,” he said.

Then the conversation turned to all that new infrastructure work in New Orleans — the levees and floodwalls and the like. That storm-cursed city was looking as if it may gradually become blessed.

Williams looked at his wife, and she looked back at him. There was no doubt in their minds, not one little bit of hesitation. As soon as they can, they’re moving. Moving back to New Orleans.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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