The Survivors

Living Paycheck to Paycheck Made Leaving Impossible

Hurricane Katrina survivor Paul Metzler pulls his boat along Paris Street in Chalmette, about seven miles east of New Orleans. Rescuers have begun scouring the community for survivors.
Hurricane Katrina survivor Paul Metzler pulls his boat along Paris Street in Chalmette, about seven miles east of New Orleans. Rescuers have begun scouring the community for survivors. (By Jason Reed -- Reuters)

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By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 4, 2005

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 3 -- To those who wonder why so many stayed behind when push came to water's mighty shove here, those who were trapped have a simple explanation: Their nickels and dimes and dollar bills simply didn't add up to stage a quick evacuation mission.

"Me and my wife, we were living paycheck to paycheck, like most everybody else in New Orleans," Eric Dunbar, 54, said Saturday.

He was standing on wobbly, thin legs in the bowels of the semi-darkened Louis Armstrong Airport, where he had been delivered with many others after having been plucked by rescuers from a roadway.

He offered a mini-tutorial in the economic reality of his life.

"I don't own a car. Me and my wife, we travel by bus, public transportation. The most money I ever have on me is $400. And that goes to pay the rent. And that $400 is between me and my wife." Her name is Dorth Dunbar; she was trying to get some rest after days of peril.

Dunbar estimated his annual income to be about $20,000, which comes from doing graphic design work when he can get it. Before the storm, when he and his wife estimated how much money they needed to flee the city, he was saddened by the reality that he could not come up with anywhere near the several thousand dollars he might need for a rental car and airfare.

"If I took my wife out to dinner, it was once a month," he said, sounding as if even those modest good times had come to an abrupt end. "We'd go to Piccadilly's. Never any movies. Really, it's a simple life. I go to work, come home, talk to my wife, go to bed, then back to work again. A basic existence."

He was rolling two quarters around in his hand, short 50 cents to make a long-distance call to his son. As his eyes began to water, he repeated himself: "Just a basic existence."

The two smooth-faced boys on the floor, sitting on their backpacks, looked more energetic than most. Corey Wise, 17, and Jermaine Wise, 18, were once residents of New Orleans's 17th Ward.

"Our family was already in a financially depressive situation before the hurricane," Jermaine said.

He calculated where the family -- their mother, Marie, is divorced -- stood financially before the wind, water and destruction.

"We had $300 between us," he said, nodding toward his brother. "Mom had about $225 worth of savings. That was our emergency savings for anything. And that was a blessing."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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