For Katrina Evacuees, A Chance to Be Heard

By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 25, 2008

HOUSTON -- In a cramped guard booth on the edge of a community of luxury townhouses, the sense of helplessness that has become so familiar to Gregory Sam since Hurricane Katrina uprooted him from his home town of New Orleans can become all-consuming.

"I'm struggling," said Sam, 29, a college graduate who took an $8-an-hour post as a security guard after more than 20 job interviews led to nothing. "I feel like I'm isolated in the country somewhere . . . in a time warp."

For the nearly quarter-million people such as Sam who were evacuated to Texas after the hurricane and its floodwaters left New Orleans devastated in 2005, powerlessness has been a constant theme, exacerbated by their reliance on goodwill and the government for help in starting over again. Angry at the Bush administration for failing them both before and after Katrina, many view the March 4 Democratic presidential primary as a chance to exert some control over their futures.

"The big thing is rebuilding," said Martin Jones, an evangelical pastor who lost his home and church on the edge of the French Quarter and has settled in Houston. His former parishioners, Jones said, "are looking for a solution, for restoration. People are looking for some semblance of life again. How are [these candidates] going to benefit the folk who lived there?"

No one knows how many evacuees have registered to vote in Texas or how many will show up at the state's odd mix of primary and caucuses next week, but in interviews across this sprawling city almost everyone indicated an enormous desire to participate -- adding an unknown and potentially pivotal element in a race that polls show is deadlocked between Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).

Overwhelmingly African American, the evacuees are likely to bolster Obama's already strong support among blacks, who by some estimates could make up as much as 30 percent of the Democratic primary turnout in Texas, which is expected to top 1.5 million. In some urban precincts, evacuees could account for 5 to 10 percent of voters.

Nearly every evacuee interviewed, including those who say they harbor no desire to return, said rebuilding the New Orleans area and restoring some measure of the lives they knew is their overwhelming priority in this year's election. They want a president who can relate to the downtrodden and is dedicated to rebuilding more than just the city's tourist attractions. They are angry, for instance, that Donald Trump will soon construct a 70-story hotel in the city's central business district while neighborhoods in the Ninth Ward are still rodent-infested wastelands.

Transplants such as Jones are also frustrated that the plight of New Orleans and its former residents has not played a larger role in either party's presidential campaign. The Democratic primary in Louisiana this month was largely ignored by the candidates and the news media. And the candidate who paid the most attention to New Orleans, former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), is gone from the race, dropping out at a news conference last month in the same part of the Ninth Ward where he kicked off his bid a year earlier.

Many here had kind words for Clinton, but most members of the New Orleans diaspora said they will vote for Obama, with whom they share a sense of racial kinship and who they believe will not let their city's historically black neighborhoods die.

"If you have not sacrificed, suffered throughout your life, you wouldn't understand us. [Obama] has," said Godiva Anderson, 49, a real estate broker who settled in Houston after Hurricane Katrina. "I'm not taking anything away from Hillary, but she's a white woman. She hasn't had the same struggles that we've had."

Anderson is one of about 100,000 evacuees who have permanently settled in Houston. An additional 60,000 or so are in metropolitan Dallas, 60,000 are located around Austin and San Antonio, and 10,000 are sprinkled across this vast state, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

The election has been a welcome diversion for many evacuees such as Anderson, who has fought depression since arriving in an unfamiliar city where she has struggled to find clients. She has lost herself in the excitement of Obama's historic run. Last week, she signed up to be a precinct captain for him, and lately she has spent more time cold-calling Democrats on the list she got from his local headquarters than she has calling potential homebuyers.

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