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Five years later, large New Orleans family 'still walking through Katrina'

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 28, 2010; 8:04 PM

IN NEW ORLEANS -- All her life, Pam Cash dreamed of a house for her family. But she was poor as pennies. She worked two jobs, cleaning buildings. With every swish of the mop on her night shift, she worried about her children. It broke her heart when her son Curtis got sent to prison, but she still had seven mouths to feed in this wicked dreamscape of a city.

One day Cash realized that the $3,000 she had scuffled to save over the years was enough for a down payment on a house. She found it on Marigny Street. A small, single-story brown duplex with a back yard, opposite a church parking lot. "Me and my kids were so happy to get out of the projects," she says.

Never mind that she was broke again. The Cashes had a home.

Then the water came. And the horror and muck and fury of Hurricane Katrina and the five hard years that have rolled over them all since then - family members killed, a child's two heart surgeries, threats of eviction, accidents, debt.

The storm left them as scattered and broken as uprooted trees. New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Houston and, finally, back to New Orleans, back to the little brown house on Marigny Street.

It was a time of living and dying, of bloodshed and miracles.

Living on dry land but still underwater.

A long road home, to more struggles

When Cash purchased her $80,000 house in 1998, saying goodbye to the Lafitte Projects, it was not just for her own family. Her son Tony took half of the duplex. Nieces and nephews coming across hard times were always welcome. "My mother is like that," says Tony Cash, now 30. "My grandmomma was just like that too."

If they had nothing, they'd still give something.

When Denzel, her then-1-year-old nephew, was whisked off to children's services because his alcoholic mom had left him unattended, family members bragged about how Pam dashed downtown, her husky voice echoing down hallways, demanding Denzel be given to her. "I wasn't gonna let nobody else raise that boy," she says.

Pam Cash, 52, is mother to seven children: Curtis, now 34, Tony, Debra, 27, Michelle, 19, Nelson, 18, Rudolph, 16. She adopted Denzel, now 6.

Nelson has Down's syndrome. Rudolph has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. And Cash has a scowl for anyone remotely suggesting she can't care for them.

In the dynamics of project housing - home to those living at or below the poverty line - the line between relatives and one's own children can be thin.

Food is shared, as is gas money and Christmas gifts. On any given day, Genevia or Harold or Sylvester - just three of Cash's many nieces and nephews - might be at the house having something to eat.

So Pam Cash, the fifth of 10 siblings and the soul of the family, considered it her duty to stay in touch with those who had been scattered by the storm. And two years ago, when she got her opportunity to return to New Orleans, she was delighted.

Cash took advantage of the government's Road Home program, devised to help homeowners recover from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. She eventually received $130,000 to rebuild.

Marigny Street originally was developed by a Creole millionaire in the 19th century in a neighborhood where plantation owners once kept their colored mistresses. It's now the inner city, and come nightfall it can get tricky, full of moving shadows.

"There's more bad stuff going on at night around here now," Cash says. "I keep the kids inside."

Others may ask why Cash didn't start anew, move clean out of Louisiana. She dismisses the idea. "This is my home," she says. "I been here all my life. Friends, family. I got adjusted to Baton Rouge, but it wasn't home."

"I don't want to be too judgmental," says Joseph Bruno Sr., a lawyer who has helped Cash with post-Katrina insurance claims. "People are tied to this place, to this thought, this dream, this place called New Orleans. And they don't want to let it go."

Cash had plenty of challenges upon her return. She needed furniture, she needed a car, she needed to catch up on a mountain of bills. A home contractor hustled her out of several thousand dollars, she says. Then, shortly after their return, came news that little Denzel, born with fetal alcohol syndrome, who went through one round of heart surgery in 2006, needed more surgery. She paced the hospital hallways, thinking, "What if he don't come back to me after all we went through?"

Her fiance, Jessie Moore, stared out a window. ("I hurt," the little boy had confided to him before the first surgery in 2006, causing the big man to grit his teeth to avoid breaking down.)

Lying there in the hospital bed, Denzel opened his eyes. He wanted something to eat. Joyfully, she cried.

Pam Cash brought the boy and all his medications home to Marigny Street.

Denzel lived.

But the dying would go on.

'Get outta here the best way you can'

While cries were echoing from rooftops, while millions stared with mouths agape at TV images of frightened souls, while Washington responded anemically, Pam Cash and her family were on the move - by foot.

Like thousands of others in this poor city, the Cashes lived on hard currency, not credit cards. As the levees broke, they wrapped their money in plastic and stashed it in their pockets, then headed out into the hurricane. They left Marigny Street for higher ground: the Lafitte Projects, where Pam's sister Bridgette still lived. Curtis had been home from prison all of two weeks. And now here he was, helping carry 1-year-old Denzel and his oxygen tank. "It was a miracle he was home," Pam Cash says of her son.

They reached the Lafitte Projects. But the hurricane would not be so easily denied. Water poured into the ground-floor apartment. "And when it gets in the hallway," Moore says, "you know it's time to go."

They started walking to the Convention Center, a hulking edifice four miles away where desperate city officials were directing those who had no means to escape the city. Jessie held little Denzel; Nelson was riding on his brother Rudolph's back. Pam held the hands of Michelle and Debra, all the while gripping Denzel's portable breathing machine. Tony and Curtis played lookout for manholes and roving gangs. At the sound of one burst of gunshots, they all turned like a wobbly drill team. "It was crazy and scary," Tony says.

They went up St. Louis Street and winced at what they saw: "There were two bodies in the water. A girl and a boy," Tony says.

Watching dead bodies float by, seeing a man bizarrely jump from a highway overpass 70 feet above them, with Pam screaming about manholes, they thought they'd perish. More than 1,800 would. They never learned the fate of the jumping man.

With the Superdome overflowing with 25,000 people, city officials were ill-prepared for the throngs that descended upon the Convention Center, yet another emergency destination, but this one with no water or food. It was a large open space, with crying babies, the sick and elderly moaning, and, because there was no screening for weapons as there had been at the Superdome, intermittent gunshots. The Cashes carved out a space and were soon joined by Harold, Sylvester, Genevia and Curtis Wilson, father of Tony and Curtis Cash.

Pam fretted about Denzel, whose water-damaged oxygen machine was not working. Lacking drinking water, she was forced to pay a teenager $5 for a cup of ice. "I used it to rub Nelson and Denzel's and Rudolph's lips," she says.

Someone Jessie knew from the neighborhood gave him a loaf of bread and some ham. "A miracle," he says. But Denzel's labored breathing shook them all to the core. "Didn't think he was gonna make it," Tony says.

A brutally honest policeman told Pam that no help would be coming, then whispered, "Get outta here the best way you can."

Jessie and Tony left the Convention Center and came upon a car lot. Jessie broke in and found keys to two automobiles. Tony retrieved as many family members as he could and they scooted stealthily to the cars, worrying in those desperate moments about being carjacked. Many of the main roads out of the city were flooded, but Moore had worked in the sugar-cane fields in his youth. "I knew all the back roads," he says.

They headed for Baton Rouge, about 80 miles away, the roads twisting and jet black, Pam holding a wheezing Denzel. They stopped at a gas station. They hadn't bathed in nearly three days. Denzel's face was swollen. "We looked awful and smelled awful," Jessie recalls. "Some white lady came out of the little restaurant attached to the gas station and gave us some money. After that, another man, white man, gave us $40 and said, 'Y'all get them kids something to eat.' "

They wound up at the River Center in Baton Rouge, an arena and exhibition hall that had become another large venue for hurricane survivors.

Jessie and Tony did not want to be arrested with stolen automobiles, so Jessie walked up to a police officer shortly after arriving in the city and told him the family had taken the cars to save Denzel. Moore pointed to the curb where the cars were parked with the keys inside. "I didn't hear you," the officer said, and bid them farewell as they walked away.

At 'a critical point,' help arrives

Pam immediately sought medical attention for Denzel. When the doctors found lung and heart problems, they rushed him to a hospital. "They told us he likely wouldn't have made it another day," Pam says. He was hospitalized for three weeks.

When Denzel was released from the hospital, "home" was still the River Center. It was better than the Convention Center - better lit, more of a police presence - but it still was an amalgam of distressed souls and warring germs. One month turned to three, which turned to five. Many were moving into trailers, but doctors told Pam that the dust in the trailers would be harmful to Denzel.

Then Pam got tuberculosis. She was on medication for months.

State agencies started loaning employees to the River Center to help. One of them was Lisa Vosper, an associate commissioner for workforce education. In one of those inexplicable moments, the boy with the breathing problems, little Denzel Cash, caught her eye. "They were at a critical point," Vosper recalls. "Pam was dealing with all these children with special needs."

The Cashes had been at the River Center for six months when Vosper relayed some wonderful news: She had found them an apartment in Baton Rouge. She got blankets, clothes and furniture with assistance from church members. That holiday season, she came by with Christmas toys. No matter who came through the door of their apartment, Nelson would grab them by the hand and give them a tour.

Jessie Moore traveled back and forth to New Orleans, having found a job cleaning up the ruins. Tony and Curtis did some day laboring. Pam couldn't work now - Denzel needed her. Rudolph, with ADHD, needed her. Nelson needed her.

In 2007, Pam's sister Debra - living in Houston at the time - went back to New Orleans for a visit. Coming out of a bar one evening, she tripped, cracked her head on the cement, and died.

Then Tony and Curtis left Baton Rouge to be with their father, who had been on a post-Katrina odyssey that had taken him from New Orleans to Oklahoma City to San Antonio and, finally, Houston. Even with allowances for the shock of the hurricane and the subsequent dislocation, Curtis and Tony were stunned at how sickly Curtis Wilson looked. It was only then that Wilson revealed he had AIDS. "He kept saying to me, 'Man, don't let me die in Houston. I want to go back to New Orleans,' " Tony says.

It was a family scattered, the months and years washing over them in painful waves. Pam and Jessie were in Baton Rouge with five of her children. Curtis Wilson and his sons were in Houston with nephews Harold and Sylvester and niece Genevia.

When the Road Home project allowed the Cash family to move back to Marigny Street, they had been away three years and there were adjustments to make - both physical and emotional. Rudolph would beat his head for long stretches before falling asleep. Pam thought he was afraid of something, of everything. When it rained, Nelson would open the door constantly, peering up and down the street. "He would be checking to see if the water was rising," Pam says.

Life and death, after the storm

The deaths that began with Debra Cash continued with Curtis Wilson, who got his wish and died in New Orleans on Sept. 29, 2007. He had sent his son Curtis to fetch some strawberry ice cream. When Curtis returned to the hospital room, he was gone.

On April 27, 2008, Sylvester Cash, 17, who had been at the Convention Center those terrible nights, got in an argument with some acquaintances. He was found lying in a back yard, shot dead.

Others who still lived out of town would call Pam and she'd tell them about the neighborhood, about how they were tearing down the Lafitte Projects, that the chicken tasted as good as ever at Willie Mae's Scotch House. Sometimes they'd just hop in a car and come visit.

On Jan. 20, 2009, Inauguration Day in Washington, Harold Cash woke up and caught a ride to New Orleans. The driver must have been in a hurry. The car went over a guardrail about 20 miles outside New Orleans. Police say it flipped over at least 10 times. Harold, who had been sitting in the back seat, died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.

On July 7, 2009 - six months after Harold died - intruders broke into the home of Pam's niece Genevia Cash Berniard. They were looking for one of her friends. He wasn't there; Genevia, 33, took the bullets instead.

Going to funerals was becoming an unhappy ritual for the Cash family, leaving them cursing the hurricane and crying for the lives lost in its aftermath.

Vosper, the official from Baton Rouge, has stayed in touch through the years. "In their lives they are still walking through Katrina," she says. "They are still in recovery mode."

Three weeks ago, Pam Cash's family threw her a birthday celebration at a storefront party hall a few blocks from her home. There was music and homemade treats. Then bullets sent everyone scattering. Pam collected 21 shell casings. One relative suffered a slight wound to the leg, the only injury.

"A miracle," Pam says.

Her family believes the shooting was retaliation for Pam's demand for an investigation into Sylvester's killing, which is still unsolved. So is the slaying of Genevia.

But Pam is back in her home, and there have been blessed moments that have left her grateful.

Her son Curtis recently got married. "I'm a totally different person now," the onetime inmate says. Tony has gotten his old job back driving a produce truck.

"I do thank God for what I have," Pam says. "It's been a bunch of flat-out miracles. I don't know what else you would call it."

Pam recently got a new neighbor. Cassandra Cash, 22, her niece, moved into the other half of the duplex with her 8-month-old son, Lenard. The father of her son had gone to prison, breaking Cassandra's heart, but it's not Pam Cash's nature to wrap moral judgements around her family. She just knew Cassandra and the baby needed a place to stay. So she opened the door to the little brown house on Marigny Street.

haygoodw@washpost.com

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