Tyler Smith, a stocky 8-year-old with enormous feet, returned home from school one day this week with the results of a geography quiz. "I got an A," the third-grader boasted as he presented the results of his handiwork to his grandmother, Dolores. "I really like my school," he added. "I like Austin, too."
His 10-year-old brother, Deron, seconded that emotion. "I have a girlfriend already," he announced before retreating to a place on the floor near his father's bed to resume a marathon phone call with his new sweetheart, Ambry.
As thousands of families victimized by Katrina begin the agonizing process of deciding where to piece together their broken lives, to return home or to try their luck in a new community far from the familiar, the sentiments expressed by children such as the Smith boys are bound to figure mightily.
Interviews with a dozen families and individuals in Texas in recent weeks reveal a battle being waged across cultural and experiential fault lines that will help determine the fate of New Orleans and other areas destroyed by Katrina. In the Smith family, the key factor is generational, with the young lobbying to stay, the elderly angling to return, and Ryan Smith, the 37-year-old father and a federal government employee, stuck in between.
For weeks, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin has been urging New Orleans residents to come home. But in Texas, many of the 400,000 evacuees are leaving shelter for apartments and houses and putting down roots.
In Austin, the local school district started with about 1,000 children from Katrina-affected zones. Today, more than 700 remain.
"My feeling is that most of them want to stay," said Dora Fabelo, the principal of Katherine Cook Elementary School in Austin, which has 25 children, including the Smith brothers, from Katrina-affected areas. "We have experience taking in children like these. We took in Liberian refugees last year and before that kids from Bosnia and Kosovo. Like them, these kids have gone through hell, but, unlike them, they're neighbors. They are our kids."
Fabelo and other principals have placed the children into remedial and special-ed programs. They also have gotten parents to come over for parenting and nutrition classes offered at the school -- something that has impressed parents and made staying in Texas even more attractive. Fabelo has raised money for several of them and has helped one single mother of three, who was in danger of being evicted, to pay the rent.
"A lot of them are still overwhelmed," she said. "They spend days working through the red tape."
Steve Harris, a 37-year-old former dockworker and carpet cleaner from the Ninth Ward, said the bureaucracy has been maddening.
In New Orleans, he was sofa-surfing at friends' apartments and therefore was not recognized as the head of a household. He's concerned that that will make him ineligible for housing assistance. He and his mother were rescued by helicopter from a third-story fire escape a week after Katrina blew through New Orleans. They were taken to the airport and airlifted to Texas. Before taking off, Harris asked an official where they were going. He said San Antonio. "When we touched down the pilot said, 'Welcome to Austin,' " Harris said.
At the Austin Convention Center, where Harris was housed for two weeks, volunteers arranged for him to move into an apartment in a low-slung subsidized development in north-central Austin. Now, several weeks into his stay there, he is running out of money and the rent is due. The Red Cross paid for one month, and FEMA officials at the convention center told him they would step in, but they didn't give him anything in writing.
"My rent is due tomorrow, and I still don't know what I am going to get," he said. "All I am doing is stressing."
Harris's one bright spot has been a good interview for a position cleaning carpets. "If I get work, I am not going back to New Orleans," he said. "Why should I go back? They left me to die."
The transition from New Orleans, where few people moved around much and the population grew only 7 percent since 1990, to Austin, a mobile society where one in three people is from someplace else, has been baffling for many evacuees.
Confusing, too, is the switch from a city where African Americans make up 67 percent of the population to Austin, where they constitute 10 percent. Hispanics are Austin's largest minority, at nearly one-third of the population. Some evacuees have found themselves in apartment complexes where their neighbors speak no English.
"Wherever I look, someone's speaking Spanish," said Steve Harris's mother, Rose. "When I say 'Hello,' they just put their heads down and look away."
In New Orleans, Tyler and Deron Smith attended an all-black elementary school attached to St. Peter Claver Church. Two weeks ago, the family used FEMA aid to rent a three-bedroom apartment in northeastern Austin two blocks from Cook Elementary. There, two-thirds of the student body is Hispanic, 23 percent black and 10 percent white. More than half of the boys' classmates do not speak English at home.
Deron said he likes that it's mixed, and so does his father.
"It gives the boys a chance to see how other people live," their father, Ryan Smith, said. "No matter how you look at it, this has been a broadening experience for my boys." Being from a Katrina-affected zone has made Deron a bit of a celebrity in school.
Two girls were pursuing him, he said, and Ambry has promised him a first kiss, on her birthday, Dec. 8.
At 63, Deron's grandmother Dolores Smith is the self-described matriarch of a clan that can trace its roots in Louisiana back at least 120 years. Her one-story house on Kennon Avenue in the Seventh Ward was a center of family life. The house is going to be condemned; at the height of the flood it was awash in seven feet of water. But Smith counts herself as lucky to be alive. Three neighbors drowned. Smith also had flood insurance.
When she can wrest the phone from her grandson, Smith spends her days talking to friends and family scattered across the country. On a recent day, she was consoling a relative in Mississippi.
"We gotta get back," she enthused emphatically. "We gotta get back and get our lives together."
Hanging up, she sighed. "So many people need me," she declared. "They need me to return."
Ryan, also, misses the community, his friends and the "weekends when we all get together and do something." His wife, Deon, died a year ago after a six-year battle with cancer. He had a job with the Department of Agriculture.
Last week, Ryan returned to New Orleans for a look. He and a friend drove to the Kennon Avenue house. The neighborhood was silent. No children, music, cars, trucks or birds. The only sound was that of malfunctioning smoke detectors. Ryan tried to enter the house but when he walked through the door, broken open by emergency crews searching for bodies, the stench of rotting meat and mildew almost floored him.
Now, he figures it will be a year, maybe two, before they will able to rebuild. And in the meantime, his boys are becoming Texans.