New Life in a New City

Together in Houston: 'We're Going to Survive as a Family'

Ashley Garnett, from left, Crystal Garnett and Blaire Garnett have been at Drake Pack in Houston since fleeing New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. Their temporary jobs at the warehouse ended yesterday.
Ashley Garnett, from left, Crystal Garnett and Blaire Garnett have been at Drake Pack in Houston since fleeing New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. Their temporary jobs at the warehouse ended yesterday. (By Kim Christensen For The Washington Post)
By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 7, 2005

HOUSTON -- At first, it was almost like a family vacation. The boys brought their Microsoft Xbox and all the games with them to the hotel in Houston. The night the hurricane hit New Orleans, Blaire Garnett and her cousins went to a nightclub and partied hard.

Then the floodwaters began to rise, and by Tuesday, Garnett's family members were riveted to the televisions in their hotel rooms, watching their home town drown. At the nearby Astrodome, they found a cousin who had escaped the Louisiana Superdome. He joined them at the hotel, 35 members of the same clan crammed into four cramped rooms.

Later, a relative got through on a cell phone to tell them that Garnett's aunt, who was mentally disabled, had died on the Interstate 10 bridge in New Orleans, awaiting help. The mood turned to disbelief.

So much is gone, but one thing is intact: the family's will to stand together. They have gone hunting for jobs as a group and have rented six apartments in the same complex to house them all. If their life in New Orleans is gone, they will remake it in Houston.

"We came here as a family, and we're going to survive as a family," said Blaire's cousin Gregory Garnett, 20, an electrical engineering student at the University of New Orleans.

The Garnett family wasn't rich before the storm, but they were comfortable. Blaire Garnett, 21, lived with her mom, stepdad and sister in a three-bedroom house in a quiet neighborhood of rental homes in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Blaire, a third-year business administration student at the University of New Orleans, says she wants to be a lawyer.

To help pay the bills, Blaire worked in a factory that made conveyor belts. She liked the job because it paid well -- $12 an hour plus health benefits -- and because her mom, Lucille Garnett Wiggins; her sister, Crystal; and two of her cousins worked there.

"We all liked our jobs. It was a good company," she said. "They send conveyor belts around the world."

Blaire's stepdad, Chad Wiggins, worked in a plant mixing chemicals for $8 an hour. It was Wiggins who alerted the family that they might want to leave town to ride out the hurricane. When he went to cash his paycheck Friday night, he saw a long line of people who warned that the hurricane might be severe. The next morning, they headed to Houston because it looked to be outside the storm path.

The family had fled hurricanes before and thought they knew the drill. Blaire said her mom told them: "Throw some jeans and T-shirts in a bag. We'll be home by Tuesday."

That sense of optimism vanished after the family spent those first few days watching the suffering of the displaced people on television.

"These are not refugees; this is our country," Blaire said emotionally as she and her cousins discussed the evacuation in disbelief last week. They said they felt the federal government's response would have come more quickly for white people. "This is happening right here in our country, " Crystal said.


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