At first, it was almost like a family vacation. The boys brought their Microsoft Xbox and all the games with them to the hotel in Houston. The night the hurricane hit New Orleans, Blaire Garnett and her cousins went to a nightclub and partied hard.
Then the floodwaters began to rise, and by Tuesday, Garnett's family members were riveted to the televisions in their hotel rooms, watching their home town drown. At the nearby Astrodome, they found a cousin who had escaped the Louisiana Superdome. He joined them at the hotel, 35 members of the same clan crammed into four cramped rooms.
Later, a relative got through on a cell phone to tell them that Garnett's aunt, who was mentally disabled, had died on the Interstate 10 bridge in New Orleans, awaiting help. The mood turned to disbelief.
So much is gone, but one thing is intact: the family's will to stand together. They have gone hunting for jobs as a group and have rented six apartments in the same complex to house them all. If their life in New Orleans is gone, they will remake it in Houston.
"We came here as a family, and we're going to survive as a family," said Blaire's cousin Gregory Garnett, 20, an electrical engineering student at the University of New Orleans.
The Garnett family wasn't rich before the storm, but they were comfortable. Blaire Garnett, 21, lived with her mom, stepdad and sister in a three-bedroom house in a quiet neighborhood of rental homes in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Blaire, a third-year business administration student at the University of New Orleans, says she wants to be a lawyer.
To help pay the bills, Blaire worked in a factory that made conveyor belts. She liked the job because it paid well -- $12 an hour plus health benefits -- and because her mom, Lucille Garnett Wiggins; her sister, Crystal; and two of her cousins worked there.
"We all liked our jobs. It was a good company," she said. "They send conveyor belts around the world."
Blaire's stepdad, Chad Wiggins, worked in a plant mixing chemicals for $8 an hour. It was Wiggins who alerted the family that they might want to leave town to ride out the hurricane. When he went to cash his paycheck Friday night, he saw a long line of people who warned that the hurricane might be severe. The next morning, they headed to Houston because it looked to be outside the storm path.
The family had fled hurricanes before and thought they knew the drill. Blaire said her mom told them: "Throw some jeans and T-shirts in a bag. We'll be home by Tuesday."
That sense of optimism vanished after the family spent those first few days watching the suffering of the displaced people on television.
"These are not refugees; this is our country," Blaire said emotionally as she and her cousins discussed the evacuation in disbelief last week. They said they felt the federal government's response would have come more quickly for white people. "This is happening right here in our country, " Crystal said.
It became clear the family could not quickly return to New Orleans. They heard reports that the neighborhoods where their home, companies and schools were had all been flooded. Many people helped them. One company gave all the evacuees in the hotel T-shirts, brought the children Barbie dolls and puzzles and twice prepared barbecue dinners for them. One night, a customer at Church's Chicken paid for the family's chicken when he realized they were from New Orleans. And the Texas Health and Human Services Commission provided the family with food stamps.
But the family realized that was not enough. Blaire tried to call the conveyor belt factory last week to see if workers would be paid but got busy signals. The family concluded they could no longer afford $200 a night for four hotel rooms and needed to move to apartments. But many places refused to rent to tenants without jobs.
On Thursday, Blaire and five of her cousins went to the Texas Workforce Commission, where a woman helped them type resumes and sent them to Randstad, a temporary-staffing company. Randstad found six $7-an-hour positions at Drake Pack, a packing and assembly company that needed workers for a few days to pack canvas tool belts in boxes.
For the past five days, Blaire and her cousins have worked in the hot Drake Pack warehouse, slicing open boxes, removing tool belts, putting barcodes and tags on them, repacking the belts and sealing them shut. Yesterday was their last day at the packing company, but a Randstad official said he plans to make sure the family members continue to get work.
Other family members went apartment hunting. At each complex, they repeated their story: They were a family of 35 who had fled the storm and wanted to stay together.
They asked if owners had any deals for people from New Orleans. One did -- $99 down payment per apartment, with the first month's rent free. After the first month, rent would be $540. The owner waived the standard credit checks and job requirement.
The apartment he was offering was brick with green grass and blue awnings. It looked safe. They signed leases for six apartments. The family plans to leave the Sheraton today and move into the first two apartments. The other four apartments will be ready later in the week. The children will enroll in the public schools nearby.
Blaire is relieved that the family will have an address. But she thinks wistfully of what she left behind, little things, such as her collection of Will Smith paraphernalia, including a candle with Smith's photo printed on it and T-shirts that had her photo and his, along with the words "Mr. and Mrs. Will Smith."
She also misses her old nail salon. She figures it will be a long time before she finds one in Houston that can buff her fingernails the same way. Glancing down at her hand, she sighs, "I would spend my last to get my nails done."
Some sense of normalcy is returning. On Monday, Crystal bought a hair weave at a beauty supply store, and her 17-year-old cousin Tiffany sat with a fine-toothed black comb and parted Crystal's hair, braiding in the weave.
Later that night, Crystal got on the Internet and was finally able to contact the conveyor belt company. The company said Crystal, Blaire and Lucille would be paid through September. The checks will be mailed to their new apartment, though the company could not give a precise date when the checks would arrive.
"I understand they are going to pay us, but we are out of funds," Lucille said. She also says she's worried that the paycheck will be smaller than normal, because she generally works 20 hours of overtime. She isn't expecting more than $400 this check.
Meanwhile, other family members are looking for jobs. Blaire's uncle Matthew, who worked for UPS in New Orleans, says he hopes the company can find him a similar job in Houston. He said he's done with New Orleans, tired of running scared every time a hurricane warning sounds.
Blaire's mom, Lucille, agrees, saying she is afraid to return to New Orleans.
Not Blaire. She misses her life back there. But where she settles next may depend largely on where she can continue her education.
Her federal financial-aid loan has already been processed by the University of New Orleans. Since she hasn't been able to reach anyone at the school, she doesn't know whether she can transfer the loan to another college.
She figures she won't be able to start at a new school until next semester. "I've already missed like four weeks of school," she said. "If I go to school right now, I might be behind."
She knows she fared better than many, and she says she'll just keep on pushing. "We are used to living at a certain level, and it is hard," Blaire said. "We have to keep working. I don't want to be complaining and whining. We are blessed."