Some of the Uprooted Won't Go Home Again

By Richard Morin and Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 16, 2005

HOUSTON, Sept. 15 -- Fewer than half of all New Orleans evacuees living in emergency shelters here said they will move back home, while two-thirds of those who want to relocate planned to settle permanently in the Houston area, according to a survey by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health.

The wide-ranging poll found that these survivors of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath remain physically and emotionally battered but unbroken. They praised God and the U.S. Coast Guard for saving them, but two weeks after the storm, nearly half still sought word about missing loved ones or close friends who may not have been as lucky.

Most already know they have no home left to return to. The overwhelming majority lack insurance to cover their losses. Few have bank checking accounts, savings accounts or credit cards that work. Still, nearly nine in 10 said they were "hopeful" about the future. And while half said they felt depressed about what lies ahead, just a third said they were afraid.

"I'm setting goals for myself, and I'm ready to conquer them," said Lakisha Morris, 30, who was plucked from her roof and spent two nights outdoors on an interstate highway before boarding a bus for Houston. She said she wants to start her own business in this city, possibly day care for the children of fellow evacuees.

The poll vividly documents the immediate and dramatic changes that Hurricane Katrina has brought to two major American cities. It also suggests that what may be occurring is a massive -- and, perhaps, permanent -- transfer of a block of poor people from one city to another. That may have social, economic and political consequences that will be felt for decades, if not generations, in both communities.

Forty-three percent of these evacuees planned to return to New Orleans, the survey found. But just as many -- 44 percent -- said they will settle somewhere else, while the remainder were unsure. Many of those who were planning to return said they will be looking to buy or rent somewhere other than where they lived. Overall, only one in four said they plan to move back into their old homes, the poll found.

Some cannot wait. "Every morning I wake up and pray for them to say we can go back to New Orleans," said Lynette Toca, 26, a homemaker with two young sons who had never been outside her city before they drove to Houston the Saturday before the hurricane swept through on Aug. 29.

According to the poll, most of those who did not plan to go back to New Orleans are already living in their new hometown. Fully two in three of the 44 percent who will not return said they plan to permanently relocate in the Houston area, the city that now is home to about 125,000 New Orleans evacuees.

A total of 680 randomly selected evacuees living temporarily in the Astrodome, Reliant Center and George R. Brown Convention Center, as well as five Red Cross shelters in the Houston area, were interviewed Sept. 10 to 12 for this Post-Kaiser-Harvard survey. More than 8,000 evacuees were living in these facilities and awaiting transfer to other housing when the interviewing was conducted.

More than nine in 10 of these evacuees said they were residents of New Orleans, while the remainder said they were from the surrounding area or elsewhere in Louisiana. The margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus four percentage points. Potential differences between these evacuees and those not living in shelters or those who lived elsewhere in the affected Gulf Coast region make it impossible to conclude that these results accurately reflect the views of all Gulf Coast residents displaced by Katrina.

The Post-Kaiser-Harvard poll suggests these evacuees will start their lives with virtually nothing. Seven in 10 currently do not have a savings or checking account. Just as many have no usable credit cards.

Missing, too, from their lives are the vital support networks of relatives and friends that have temporarily absorbed the bulk of those who fled the Gulf Coast storm zone: Eight in 10 said they have no one that they can stay with until they get back on their feet.

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