Katrina Forces the Merging of Families

The Associated Press
Sunday, April 30, 2006; 3:13 PM

NEW ORLEANS -- Jerry Reese sleeps on a sofa that is too short for his 6-foot-3 frame in the living room of his sister's house, a place that's become a long-term shelter for eight other relatives displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

He lies on the sofa waiting for the crowd to disperse, awakened by the repeated, chipper strains of a toaster that sings the Mickey Mouse Show theme song every time a relative's toast is ready.

"M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E, Mickey Mouse." Five to 10 times per morning. Sometimes before dawn.

Singing toasters are just the sort of quirky possessions that make any usual visit with relatives memorable, as long as it's blissfully brief. But Katrina's devastation has forced family visits to stretch over many months.

The arrangements can provide support for those who have lost so much, but they also can strain ties when basic routines, like dinnertime and laundry, collide.

"At some point, you want your privacy back," said Donald Henry, a family counseling clinic director whose mother-in-law has been living with him since the hurricane hit last August. "The honeymoon would certainly be over by now" for many families.

Federal authorities estimate more than 182,000 occupied housing units in the New Orleans area suffered major damage or were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. That's nearly 40 percent of the housing stock in the metro area.

Landlords and homeowners are repairing units as fast as they can, but many homes remain flooded and uninhabitable. In addition, competition and high prices keep some renters from finding homes; and lots have sometimes been deemed unsuitable, spoiling plans to bring in trailers.

Fewer than half of New Orleans' 455,000 pre-Katrina residents have returned. Those who have, drawn back for jobs or other reasons, bunk with whomever they can.

"This whole thing has been challenging for all of us. We're used to our own space," said Stella Chase Reese, who's been living at her sister-in-law's with her husband, teenage son, and other relatives.

Nine people in a three-bedroom house is spacious compared to the 16 crammed into the Baton Rouge home where the Reeses lived immediately after the storm. They returned to New Orleans when the school reopened where her husband, Wayne Reese, teaches and coaches football.

Stella Reese and her family thought they'd stay with her sister-in-law for a couple of weeks, but as three different rental deals fell through, the time together has stretched into months.

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