By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 26, 2008
Amy Douglas had already served the artichoke casserole, the baked mac and cheese, the 15-pound sweet ham and the dirty rice with giblets and gizzard dressing. Her eight children had torn through the mountain of gifts -- iPods, clothing, craft sets and dolls -- that were piled under the decorated tree. And when it was all over, Douglas paused for a moment to let the day sink in. It was the first real Christmas in years.
"It's starting to feel like normal," she said late yesterday afternoon.
For her family, it was a respite from a long upheaval. Douglas, her husband, Albert, and their eight children are evacuees of Hurricane Katrina. For more than three years, they have bounced from motels to hotels, rental townhouses to single-family homes in Lake Charles, La., Houston and Baton Rouge -- then in Manassas Park and Prince William County after arriving in the Washington region, their possessions in a dozen backpacks.
Like hundreds of thousands of residents of the Gulf Coast, they lost virtually everything in the storm: modest rambler, clothes, cars, family photos. They hope the simple home they bought in Woodbridge in July, with the assistance of federal grants, a low fixed-interest rate and donations, is the final stop on a long journey.
Of the estimated 1.5 million people who fled the hurricane, more than 7,000 settled in the Washington area in the weeks after the storm, although it is unclear how many remain. National researchers have found that many of the children of Katrina victims are behind in school or are dealing with high rates of mental and physical illness. Parents are found to be anxious or struggling with depression themselves.
But in some cases, normalcy has returned. Amy and Albert Douglas hope that their new home will be the foundation for their family as they struggle on a fixed income and confront a future filled with challenges. Amy, 32, has a form of brain cancer that doctors said should have claimed her years ago; she is blind in her left eye. Albert, 35, has chronic back problems resulting from a motorcycle accident just before the hurricane. That kept him from his job as a shrimp fisherman and tugboat captain before the storm and still limits his ability to find full-time work in the Washington area.
"This is more than just a house, I guess you could say," Amy Douglas said, who with her family fled their New Orleans home as the hurricane approached. "We want to make sure if anything happens to us, they'll have something, a foundation for us to leave them."
For the children, it is first and foremost a home. On a recent afternoon, the house was filled with clamor as six school-age children came home and began to serve themselves leftover pork chops. Ciarra, 8, and Alexis, 11, did their homework in the upstairs bedroom while Gary, 14, and Devin, 12, were in the adjoining room playing a video game. Nicholas, 12, bounced from floor to floor and at one point tried to spy on his mom as she whispered which child was getting which present for Christmas.
"Would you go away?" she said, getting up to check on 21-month-old Julius. "You're not getting any info" in advance.
Earlier, Albert explained his plans for the house. He pointed out where crown molding would go and which ceilings were going to be replaced.
"It's going to take a little time, but I'm going to get this house to be comfortable for all of us," he said. Albert spends some of his spare time helping his son Albert Jr., 17, start a music career. "I finally have a chance to create something again for us that will stay."
Getting this chance took patience. When the family landed at Dulles International Airport in October 2005, they were met with a cramped month-long stay at a Route 28 hotel. Then they found their own place in Manassas Park -- only to be told two weeks after moving in that their large family violated city zoning codes. That was 15 days before Christmas.
"You name it, seems like this family went through it," said Mary Agee, executive director of Northern Virginia Family Service, one of many agencies that helped the family contend with moves and sicknesses.
But as they settled into a new rental after the eviction, the family discovered their adopted home was a world apart from the Gulf Coast. Here, $2,000 in monthly disability checks doesn't go far. Housing, food, clothes, gas and utilities were all much more expensive than in Louisiana.
The family continues to tap basic social service programs -- food stamps, cash assistance and Medicaid -- but it's still a struggle each month. They bought their home with a low fixed-rate mortgage as part of a program for low-income people and those with disabilities, allowing for a manageable monthly payment of $1,164.
The Douglases, who left a solid working-class life in New Orleans, are keenly aware of the advantages they have here. "The schools are so much better. It's like night and day," Amy Douglas said, noting that her children are thriving in Prince William County schools, even her youngest daughter, who has epilepsy and a learning disability.
Through their ordeals, the family has learned to pull together through crises large and small. On a recent weekday, they piled into their minivan to pick up Alexis and Sierra from school. As Amy opened the van door, she realized she had left unwrapped Christmas presents for Daniel, 5, on the back seat. He started to climb in.
"Um, Nicholas can you grab your brother real quick and take him for a walk?" their mother asked, shooting the 12-year-old a knowing look.
Nicholas immediately got it.
"Come on, come this way with me, Daniel," he said, tugging his little brother.
"It's the only way we've made it as a family," Amy Douglas explained later. "Big ones take care of the younger ones, younger ones help with the little ones."
That has helped the family achieve what they hadn't been able to for more than three years: "We're turning this house into a home," she said.