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.

The poll suggests that the story of these evacuees is not merely about how little they were left with -- it is also about how fragile their lives were even before the storm hit. Together, the findings suggest the long-term challenges posed by the evacuees to local and state governments already cutting back services to their neediest citizens.

According to the poll, six in 10 evacuees had family incomes of less than $20,000 last year. Half have children younger than 18. One in eight was unemployed when the storm hit. Seven in 10 said they have no insurance to cover their losses. Fully half have no health insurance. Four in 10 suffer from heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure or are physically disabled.

When illness or injury strike, they were twice as likely to say they had sought care from hospitals such as the New Orleans Charity Hospital than from either a family doctor or health clinic -- needs for costly services that now will be transferred to hospitals in the Houston area or wherever these evacuees eventually settle.

This survey suggests some of these emergency shelters may be forced to shelter evacuees for weeks and months, or perhaps longer. While half expected to be relocated to an apartment, house or with a volunteer family within a few days, one in five expected to be living in an emergency shelter for at least a few more weeks. Indeed, Houston officials said this week that they have delayed their goal of emptying the temporary shelters by this coming weekend, in part because so many of the remaining evacuees lack resources to set up households on their own.

The survey also provides disquieting clues as to why so many residents remained in New Orleans to face Hurricane Katrina despite orders to evacuate. A third of those who stayed said they never heard the mandatory order to evacuate issued by the mayor the day before the storm hit. Somewhat fewer -- 28 percent -- said they heard the order but did not understand what they were to do. Thirty-six percent acknowledged they heard the order, understood it but did not leave. In hindsight, 56 percent said they could have evacuated, while 42 percent said it was impossible.

Bad decisions, bad luck or sheer stubbornness kept many in town. More than a third said the single biggest reason they did not leave was that they thought the storm would not be as bad as it was, or they decided too late to flee. One in 10 simply did not want to leave. Slightly fewer stayed behind to protect their homes from damage or theft. A handful said they did not want to leave pets.

Angie Oneal, 44, a housekeeper from the Sixth Ward, heard the warnings to leave on her radio. But she stayed to protect her belongings.

"I said to myself, if we went through Bessie, I thought we could go through Katrina," Oneal said. "I thought it was just going to pass over." She worried about the new TV, computer and bedroom set she had just bought.

The days immediately after the storm but before they were evacuated to Houston were filled with terror, pain and uncertainty.

A third of the interviewees said they had been trapped in their homes and had to be rescued; four in 10 said they spent at least a day living outdoors on the street. Four in 10 were rescued by the Coast Guard, the National Guard, police officers or firefighters. Still, half said friends or neighbors helped them to safety (25 percent) or they managed to reach safe havens on their own (24 percent).

A majority said there was a time when they were without food or water. A third were trapped in the city without their prescription drugs. One in five managed to survive the storm, only to be threatened or assaulted by other survivors in the chaos that followed Katrina.

Religious faith has sustained the respondents through their worst days in New Orleans and now during their time in Houston. Eight in 10 said their faith was very important during the past two weeks. Remarkably, 81 percent said the ordeal has strengthened their belief, while only 4 percent said it weakened it.

"We say, God did this for a reason, to clean up the shootings and murders that have become New Orleans," said Dorothy Stukes, 54, a school security officer from Jefferson Parish who said she spent "four days of hell" in the Louisiana Superdome. "Ninety-five percent of us are good people, but now God is going to take care of those that are not."

While the hurricane drew most New Orleans evacuees closer to God, it further estranged many from their government and political leaders. Three-quarters agreed that the response was too slow "and there's no excuse." Seven in 10 disapproved of the way President Bush has handled the recovery effort. But majorities were also critical of Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (58 percent) and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (53 percent). Overall, six in 10 said the initially sluggish government response has made them feel that "government doesn't care" about people like them, according to the poll.

Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company