The Culture of Family

Many Displaced by Katrina Turn to Relatives for Shelter

By Blaine Harden and Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 8, 2005

LAFAYETTE, La., Sept. 7 -- Owing to stealthy acts of hospitality that are largely invisible to government, aid agencies and the news media, hundreds of thousands of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina seem to be disappearing -- into the embrace of their extended families.

It is hard to see and harder to quantify, but kinfolk from Louisiana -- a state that has the most sedentary family structure in the country, with 79 percent of its current residents born here -- are quietly sponging up the bulk of the people whose homes have been destroyed in and around New Orleans, according to Red Cross officials, local politicians and longtime students of Louisiana hurricanes.

"This is certainly the most hospitable place that I have ever worked in," said Teresa Ellis, manager for shelters and feeding for the American Red Cross here in Lafayette, where local officials guess that about 40,000 evacuees have flooded into a city of 110,000. Most of the displaced are now believed to be living with kin.

Ellis, who lives in Indiana and has worked with the Red Cross after four hurricanes in Florida, said the willingness of people in Louisiana to provide housing, food and clothing to large numbers of relatives and family friends is unique in her experience.

A measure of that hospitality can be found at Lafayette's Cajundome, a sports center-turned-shelter. In the past eight days it has received 7,200 people made homeless by the hurricane, but only 1,600 are still there. Relatives arrived to pick up most of the displaced, Ellis said.

"There is no question that family has and will dwarf any other kind of assistance in this disaster," said Carl A. Brasseaux, a professor of history here at the University of Louisiana and director of its Center for Louisiana Studies. "Family ties are still stronger and more viable here than anywhere else in the United States."

Brasseaux, who has written several books on Louisiana's family structure and culture, said that "if family structures in Louisiana had eroded to the point they have in many parts of the country, many refugees here would face a very long and bleak road ahead."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army all said they have no precise numbers on how many people displaced by the hurricane are staying with family or friends or in hotels. The numbers are more precise for those in shelters -- 182,000 people, said Butch Kinerney, a spokesman for FEMA.

But estimates of the total number of evacuees in the Gulf Coast states are dramatically higher than that.

Louisiana officials have said there were more than 1 million evacuees from that state alone, and Mississippi officials have said the total number of people displaced there could be several hundred thousand.

"Without families, we would have a major, major disaster in this part of Louisiana," said Walter Guillory, director of the Lafayette Housing Authority.

Since Katrina struck, the population of Irwin and Mary Thomas's house here in Lafayette has jumped from two to 10. All four bedrooms are full of kin and friends of kin, and a first cousin is sleeping on a folding bed in the parlor.

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