The sunlight bothered his eyes and the dry air gave him chills, so Troy Williams, 46, closed the living-room window and shut the blackout shades. Outside was prairie, corn and miles of clear Nebraska sky, but increasingly he liked it better here, inside a Section 8 apartment with the TV blaring. He locked the front door even though nobody but family had visited for three weeks. He turned down the volume on a phone that rarely rang.
He put on sunglasses, lay on the couch and closed his eyes. His wife, Andrea, sat nearby, playing Candy Crush on her computer and listening to him breathe. She had seen him survive Hurricane Katrina in a stairwell and the post-traumatic stress disorder that followed. Now he had cancer, in his spleen and in his bone marrow, and she was beginning to think this was the setback they couldn’t withstand.
“Are you sure it wouldn’t help to get some fresh air?” she asked.
“You know there’s nothing for me out there,” he told her.
Above: After several children were coming and going through the back sliding door, Tyler Williams, 14, was asked by his mother, Andrea, to guard the door because too many flies were entering the house just before dinner time.
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It had been a decade since they arrived in Nebraska, a state they had known nothing about until Hurricane Katrina stripped their New Orleans home down to its floorboards on Aug. 29, 2005. They had traveled with their five children to shelters, church basements and an overcrowded motel, where one day a FEMA official announced that a church in Nebraska was offering to sponsor a family and asked whether anyone wanted to go. Nine hours later, they were on their way to the airport, a family of seven with a single carry-on bag and no idea where they were headed. They landed in Omaha, where the streets were wide and quiet; and then they were driven into the surrounding farmland, which started to smell of manure; and then they came into tiny Nebraska City, which at least had a Wal-Mart; and then they continued through 25 more miles of absolute emptiness until they arrived at what looked like nothing more than a junction in the road. One bar. Two gas stations. A main street of vacated shops and a squat municipal building decorated with a freshly painted sign. “Welcome Home Katrina Evacuees!” it read.
The town of Auburn, population 3,200, had provided them with a car, a four-bedroom house, job leads and free medical checkups. The Ladies Club stopped by with homemade casseroles. Goodwill delivered jeans and pearl-snap shirts.
“You’re one of us now,” a city councilman had written to them, even though no one else in Auburn was black, Southern, urban and poor. “We’re a close community that leaves no one behind in a time of need. You’ll be taken care of here.”
In the days after Hurricane Katrina, this was what Auburn wanted to believe of itself, and what so many Americans wanted to believe of their own communities, too.
A decade later, the councilman’s note was at the bottom of a closet, buried underneath the paperwork of what the Williamses’ time in Nebraska had become: police reports, doctor’s bills, grievance letters to the NAACP and dozens of collection notices. They owed the city for water, gas, trash collection and school supplies. They owed $15,000 to the hospital for Troy’s first round of cancer treatments, which he was supposed to be getting every week but instead was receiving only every three months at a clinic in Lincoln that had agreed to give him infrequent treatments at no charge.
“This matter concerning the Williams’ family has exhausted our patience,” read one bill, for $60, from an appointment to check Troy’s blood levels.
“We cannot and do not operate as a charity,” read another.
Ten years since the hurricane and still they needed so much help. Andrea quit her game of Candy Crush and logged onto an Auburn community Web site called “Families in Need!” She had posted on the site a few months earlier and set up a fundraising page. They had been living on a few hundred dollars each month, which Troy made by working 10 hours each day buying and reselling cellphones on the Internet. “Dear Friends & Family,” she had written. “Whatever God put in your heart to give, it will be well appreciated. Thanks so much for your love, support, prayers and concern.”
Now she checked the page for donations while Troy watched from the couch.
“Are they sending us anything yet?” he asked, even though he already knew the answer.
Andrea opened a new game of Candy Crush and washed down a Xanax for her anxiety.
“You can bet they’re sending us some prayers,” she said. “You know they’re real generous with that.”
They lived now in the last building before Auburn disappeared back into countryside, in a small housing project known by residents as “No Daddy Land.” It was a squat apartment building with about a dozen units, some vacant and others with children’s toys piled high on the front porch. Their neighbors were mostly single mothers on public assistance and low-income drifters who rented month-to-month, but the Williamses had been there for five years.
One morning in late July, Andrea walked out the front door with the last $50 from her Social Security payment to buy food and medicine. There was a discount grocery across the street, but she wanted to leave town. “Going to Wal-Mart,” she said, and her three youngest children, ages 14, 10 and 5, rushed to join her in Troy’s SUV. There was duct tape holding together the windows and a breathalyzer machine attached to the steering wheel. A judge had required the machine on account of Troy’s drinking, which had worsened after he was diagnosed with PTSD, which a psychiatrist in Auburn had attributed less to the hurricane itself than to what he had called the “transitional trauma” of adjusting to life in rural Nebraska.
“Ready,” the machine instructed, and Andrea drew in her breath.
“Blow,” it instructed, and she did.
“Pass,” it indicated, and the engine came to life.
She pulled onto Highway 75, the main road through Auburn, where the posted speed was 25 mph and the town moved in slow motion around her. It was early August, halfway between planting season and the corn harvest, when the only thing to do in Auburn was wait. She drove by Casey’s General, where a group of farmers sipped coffee at the window table. She passed the gas station with its new sign — “We Now Have Premium!” — and then rose up a hill toward the community bandstand, where the town had thrown a welcome party that first night. Andrea had stood up to make a short speech, her voice trembling. One of the few other times anyone had given them anything, it was a small settlement for the lead poisoning her children had suffered in the New Orleans housing projects. “Nobody has ever paid attention to us and taken care of us like this,” she had said then. “You have given us faith to start over. This is home.”
A car traveling in the opposite direction beeped its horn and slowed to a crawl. In the driver’s seat was a former neighbor, and Andrea tapped on her brakes.
TOP: It’s not uncommon for locals who own vintage cars to take them out for Sunday drives around town. CENTER: The main thoroughfare in downtown Auburn, Neb., includes the intersection of Highway 75 and Highway 136. BOTTOM: Sweet corn is available for sale out of the back of a pickup on weekend mornings in nearby Nebraska City.
“Ms. Dre,” the neighbor said, rolling down her window, idling in the road. “I haven’t seen you in forever. Thought maybe you’d left. How you been?”
“Been just fine, thanks,” she said, before waving and driving on.
She passed the veteran’s memorial downtown and the stocked fishing pond in Legion Park. A light flashed on her dashboard and the car started to beep. The breathalyzer required a new test every 10 minutes. “Blow,” it said, and she did. “Pass,” it said.
How quickly had some people in town started expecting them to leave? How suddenly had so much generosity begun to unravel? During their third week in Auburn, the dealership had replaced their new Expedition with a used minivan, explaining that the Expedition had been a short-term loan. During the fifth week, their oldest son had been sent home from school for wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt. “A drug culture we don’t embrace here,” the administrator’s note had read. During the seventh week, the city had asked them to start paying rent on the four-bedroom house, $520 a month, which they couldn’t afford on Troy’s salary as a machine operator. During their eighth week, vandals had carved “Niggers” into the Halloween pumpkins on their front porch, and they had gone for the first time to see the police.
The community newspaper published all police activity each week in a section called “The Docket,” and soon the Williams family had become regulars. There was Andrea, ticketed for speeding 7 mph over the limit. There was Troy for failing to pay the trash. There was Troy again for driving under the influence, his first offense.
“Blow,” the breathalyzer machine said. Andrea drew in her breath. She exhaled into the machine.
“Troy, you idiot,” she said.
“Pass,” the machine said.
The main thoroughfare in downtown Auburn, Neb., includes the intersection of Highway 75 and Highway 136.
He had gotten his first DUI at an Auburn gas station, when he was idling in the car and a police officer pulled up alongside him. Troy had rolled down his window to say hello. The officer had smelled whiskey on his breath. “We are the targets of constant racism,” Troy had written not long after that, to the president of the NAACP chapter in Omaha, because he said the police were constantly following him and his sons, even if he sometimes did give them cause. He got his second DUI on the way back from Lincoln, his third coming home from a club in Omaha, then his fourth. He had been a drinker in New Orleans, too, but there it was different. He was popular. He owned a small clothing store. He DJ’d at parties. In Auburn, he drank to escape. He was always venturing farther out, staying away for a few nights at a time, until finally he left to stay with a friend in Nebraska City and begged Andrea to come, too. Nebraska City was twice as big as Auburn, a onetime stop on the Underground Railroad where Troy thought there was at least a semblance of diversity. “Aren’t you tired of living in a fishbowl?” Troy had asked her. “Aren’t you losing your mind in that place?”
Blow. Pass. Auburn was behind her now, receding in the rearview mirror, and she could see from one side of the town all the way to the other. It looked flat and small beneath the sky, like an island in the corn.
She had considered moving — maybe back to New Orleans, or to Texas where she had a sister — but she was terrified of living near water and had zero money saved. Their apartment in Auburn cost $34 in subsidized monthly rent. Their three oldest children had graduated and moved to Lincoln, an hour away, but the three youngest didn’t remember a hurricane, or New Orleans, or any life at all before Auburn. Tyler, 14, was about to start high school as a basketball standout. Taja, 10, spoke in the matter-of-fact drawl of southeastern Nebraska. Tamia, 5, had been born in a hospital up the street, growing their family to eight.
Blow. Pass. “Stupid Troy. Stupid town,” she said. She pulled into Wal-Mart and bought food and candy apples for the children before turning back home. She stopped by the utility company in Auburn and then the secondhand store downtown where every item was priced at 88 cents.
Blow. She exhaled into the machine but the car wouldn’t start. Blow. Blow. The breathalyzer kept recalculating. She banged her fist against the dashboard and jerked the wheel from side to side. “Why does everything have to be so hard?” she said.
Another former neighbor came walking up the street toward the thrift shop. “Is that you, Dre?” she asked. “I thought you all had moved on to Omaha.”
She forced a smile and squeezed the steering wheel.
“No ma’am,” she said, as the engine finally came to life. “Our family’s still right here.”
Recently, their family had grown to include one more, a nephew, Cornelius Weaver, 27, who had arrived in Auburn several months earlier and now came banging again on their door in No Daddy Land. By the time Andrea opened the blackout shades to see who was outside, Weaver had started pacing circles in the parking lot, music blasting from his headphones. He wore a bandanna over his head, low-rise jeans and a tank top that exposed a 10-inch scar on his stomach. She could hear his music from 20 yards away, and he was shouting lyrics while punching at the air.
“Get in here!” she yelled. “Hurry up. You’re going to scare people acting like that.”
“Acting like what?” he said. “I’m just blowing off steam. I think these people are getting ready to fire me.”
“Again?” she said, and she brought him into the apartment. He sank into the futon while Andrea sat next to Troy on a couch. They had been married for 27 years, and together they had helped raised Weaver in New Orleans after his father started to deal crack and his mother got hooked on it. “Smoky” is what they had always called him, because his skin was darker than the rest of the family’s and wherever he went trouble seemed to follow.
He had come to them in February, because he needed to escape New Orleans and Auburn was the farthest place he could think to go. He had been shot in New Orleans after an argument, the bullet hitting his stomach, nicking his intestines, splicing his kidney and then exiting through his lower back. “Lucky by about two inches,” the doctor had told him after surgery, and Smoky thought the shooter would probably try again. He borrowed money from his grandmother, checked out of the hospital after his fourth night and went straight to the Greyhound station, where he boarded a bus for Nebraska. He saw his first snow in Omaha, his first herd of cattle in Nebraska City and then arrived in the dead quiet of Auburn with a gunshot wound that was still seeping. The first place he went was to see Andrea and Troy at their apartment. “All this way and we’re still in the projects?” he had asked that day, and his disillusionment had been building since.
He’d been fired from his first job at a car dealership for what he remembered the manager describing as “cultural differences,” and then from a downtown cafe for flirting with the waitresses, and then from a barbecue restaurant for “aggressively talking back.” Now he was starting his fourth job, at Casey’s General, where he had applied to work in food prep but was instead being trained to wash floors and unload delivery trucks.
Cornelius 'Smoky' Weaver is shown at the home of his girlfriend, Vickie Sciarappa, where he stays. After being shot in New Orleans, Weaver recently made his way to Auburn for a fresh start. He noted the irony that the beat-up home where he now lives resembles the shotgun houses of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans.
“They’re acting like I can’t wrap a sandwich,” he said now. “I keep telling them I went to culinary school, but they don’t listen.”
“See, that right there is why we don’t associate,” Troy said. “The more you try to explain and interact in this town, the worse it gets.”
“Don’t say nothing to them,” Andrea said.
“But I’m a social person,” Smoky said. “I’m just trying to show them how their thinking is backwards.”
“We stay out of all that,” Troy said. “We are captive in our house. That’s how we feel sometimes. I’m just keeping it honest.”
They had been introduced to the town on the front page of the newspaper in September 2005, under the headline: “Hurricane Katrina Evacuees Glad to be in Auburn.” In the photo they were dressed up and beaming, outfitted in new clothes, and it had felt during those first weeks like they were the stars of a national telethon. “What can we get you? What do you need?” everyone had asked, and so Troy had told the newspaper reporter that what people said about the United States was true: There was no place so giving in a time of crisis. “We feel like we’re part of a family,” he had said then. “We feel that somebody does care for us. We are so happy and so thankful for everything.” The federal government had offered them cash. Public officials had coordinated their emergency shelter. Church congregations had sent prayer books and blankets. A town in Nebraska with only a handful of black residents had watched the Ninth Ward flood on TV and then decided to rescue a family of strangers.
The Sept. 30, 2005, edition of the Nemaha County Herald announced the arrival of the Williams family as evacuees from New Orleans. Taja Williams, 10, points to herself in the photo when she was just a month old.
But then they had stopped being strangers, and their crisis was not a single hurricane but an accumulation of disadvantages that were harder to address: poor, jobless, sick and troubled. And after a while it felt to them like there was no real desire to help, no telethon, just a community and a country that was finding it easier to look away.
“Reduced,” the federal government had written, when it halved their food stamps because of a government cut.
“Denied,” the government had written, when Troy applied for Social Security disability insurance after receiving his cancer diagnosis.
“No thank you. Not here,” the governor of Nebraska had said, when he declined to expand Medicaid under the federal health-care law, which left Troy uninsured.
“A drain on the community of Auburn,” one neighbor had written about them on the town’s community message board.
Troy looked back across the room at Smoky. Troy had continued to work 60 hours each week in a dog food factory even after his diagnosis, rarely missing a shift until a combination of the cancer and his medication made him so sick that he had to quit working.“Even if you do it all right here, you are an outsider,” he said now. “You can’t count on anybody but yourself. Do you see that?”
“I’m starting to,” Smoky said. “But then why in the hell did you stay?”
Tierra Williams and her brother, Troy Jr., goof around in the kitchen for a photo taken off camera by a friend. In the background, family friend Barbie Gardner helps cook dinner.
One of their reasons for staying showed up at the apartment later that same afternoon: Tierra, 20, home on a short break from college at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. She had just gone on a charter jet to the national track and field championships in Oregon, and then to Disneyland after that, and now she carried in a few gifts for her siblings.
“Why is it so dark in here?” she asked, and her mother opened up the blackout shades.
“Does the TV really have to be on this loud?” she asked, and her father turned it down.
She was back in Auburn for a few days before returning to Lincoln for her junior year. She would be on full academic scholarship, a resident adviser in the dorms and a preseason All-American in the long jump. “Auburn’s local superstar is taking her act national,” the newspaper had written of her once, in a section that wasn’t The Docket, and whenever she came home there were so many people she wanted to visit. She’d already seen Ms. Hamman, the high school cheerleading coach who had bought Tierra her first cellphone and paid the bill for six years; and Ms. Oliver, the former babysitter who gave Tierra a place to stay; and Mr. Golladay, the high school principal, who had spent hours fighting the NCAA when it questioned her college eligibility. About the only people she hadn’t seen yet were her parents.
Tierra Williams was behind in school when she came to Nebraska 10 years ago. Today, she attends the University of Nebraska on an academic scholarship (she also excels in track and field). She thinks that her parents would do better if they left the confines of Auburn, Neb.
“Nice to be back,” she said now, looking over the apartment. Her mother was playing Candy Crush on the computer. Her father was lying on the couch in his sunglasses, too sick lately to drink. The air was stale, and the room smelled faintly of smoke.
“Not much here compared to Disneyland, ” Troy said.
“That’s true. But it’s home,” she said.
Her family had moved to Auburn a few months after she turned 10. Up until then, she had been attending the worst-performing elementary school in New Orleans, where in fifth grade she was just beginning to read. “Three years behind expected grade level,” the Auburn School District had concluded, in its initial evaluation, and the school had provided her with a teacher’s aide in the classroom and a tutor to help with homework. By eighth grade, she was reading at grade level. By 10th grade, she was the first in her family to make honor roll, and later the first to attend college.
She was also the first to lose her Southern accent, to correct her parents’ grammar and to say what they rarely said: that she liked living in Auburn. She liked the town and loved the people, so much so that sometimes she chose to stay with friends instead of going on the family’s occasional trips back to New Orleans. Her college boyfriend was German. Her best friend lived in Spain. And even though Troy and Andrea referred to her success as an example of what was possible for their other children — even though they preserved each one of her certificates and news clippings in a folder labeled “Way to go Tierra!” — the way she credited those accomplishments sometimes hurt.
“This town basically saved my life,” she said now, in the living room.
“You got this far on your own,” Troy said.
Katrina survivors a decade later
A multimedia project shows the lives of those who stayed after Hurricane Katrina and those who decided to move. See where some of those people stood in the early months after the disaster, and where they stand now.
“Really?” she said. “Is that really what you think?”
“There are some good people here. Don’t get me wrong,” Troy said. “But we guarded you from the bad stuff. Like those pumpkins, we threw them out before you even woke up.”
Tierra just stared back at him.
“Let’s keep it straight now,” Troy said. “Don’t you remember what they did with little Troy that first year when he was playing football at the high school? How he was taking them to the state championship, but the principal sent us that letter saying we were being too rowdy and cheering too loud at the games?”
“I don’t remember it that way,” Tierra said, because what she remembered was the Jack Daniel’s that sometimes preceded those games, and how Troy would yell until she found an excuse to go sit somewhere else.
What she remembered was her family moving five times in Auburn because of conflicts with landlords and arguments with neighbors. She remembered the police being called to their house and the way her father would argue with them, calling them racists, retreating upstairs, closing the shades. She remembered the fight she had gotten into with her father at the beginning of her senior year — a fight so awful that this time she was the one who called the police, and after the officers left her father had given her a choice. She could stay and be respectful or she could leave. “Proper, white girl Tierra,” he had called her, and even though she loved her parents she had decided to leave. For the next several months, she had stayed with friends, borrowed money and asked her teachers for rides to school. She had relied on the generosity of the town.
“Stop blaming everyone else and expecting them to fix your problems,” she had told her parents then, and it had been one of the last things she said to them for months.
Andrea Williams leaves the store with daughters Tamia, 5, left, and Taja, 10, after purchasing some ice cream.
“How did it get this bad?” Andrea asked herself one morning, surveying the disrepair of their apartment. There was a hole in the bathroom floor and a leak spilling into the kitchen. “When did everything start seeming so impossible to solve?” she said.
She remembered a time when she had been the person to whom neighbors came for help. “Mama Dre” was how she had referred to herself in New Orleans and then for a while in Auburn, too, because she had offered her bedroom to a woman who was being abused, taken over an addict’s finances so his children could buy food and sometimes driven a caravan of children from their apartment complex to the elementary school. She had worked for a while as a waitress in Auburn and later at a retirement home. “A giving, generous personality type,” Tierra said of her mother at her best, but the restaurant customers hadn’t always been generous in return, promotions had gone to co-workers, and the town had begun to feel increasingly remote. Troy had started drinking more, and Andrea had gone to see a therapist who prescribed anti-anxieties and antidepressants.
Lately it was all she could do to address one problem, just one, so she decided to see the landlord about their carpet.
It was gray, dusty, fetid and so threadbare in parts that cleaning it was like trying to vacuum concrete. She remembered the management company promising to replace the carpet every two years, but now it had been almost five. Troy thought it was the carpet that was making him cough and sneeze, with his immune system weakened by cancer treatments. Andrea had been calling the management company for weeks, but her landlord had a new baby and kept putting her off.
Andrea walked from their apartment toward the rental office, a half-mile in the heat. The posted hours said the office opened at 9 a.m., but now it was after 10 and the lights were off. “This is how they do it, just dodging all communication,” Andrea said. She walked home and returned in the afternoon.
This time the landlord’s mother-in-law was the only one in the office, and she explained that the landlord was home with her baby. “Oh, that’s nice,” Andrea said. “What can I help you with,” the mother-in-law said, because every month when Andrea came to the office she wanted help with something. She wanted a new screen. She wanted the window fixed. She wanted to pay her monthly rent in cash with two $20s and wait for her $6 in change, even though the rental office didn’t have a cash register and somebody had to go break the bills at the store across the street.
This time she wanted carpet. “It has gotten pretty bad,” she said.
“We’re working on that,” the mother-in-law said.
“You’re working on it,” Andrea said.
Andrea Williams has been married to Troy Williams for 27 years.
“We’ll get it fixed,” the mother-in-law repeated.
“You will,” Andrea said.
They stood in silence, smiling awkwardly at each other, until finally Andrea said thank you and walked out. “I don’t want to get us evicted,” she said, but the closer she got to home the angrier she became. She passed the new sign posted in Legion Park: “Visit Nebraska. Visit nice,” it read. “How much fake niceness do you have to put up with in this town?” she said. She passed the farmers sipping coffee at Casey’s General. “Bet they’d be getting their carpet,” she said.
And there, coming out of Casey’s and stomping his way toward No Daddy Land was Smoky, punching again at the air, undoing the buttons on his work uniform.
“Isn’t this the middle of your shift?” Andrea asked him, when they both reached her parking lot.
“They sent me home,” he said. He was pacing circles around her. “I can take it and take it and take it up to a certain point, but eventually I just pop off.”
“Slow down. What happened?” Andrea asked, and so Smoky began telling her about his shift, and how well it had started, since the manager had finally let him make sandwiches. The regular sandwich maker had called in sick, so suddenly Smoky had found himself behind the counter, a culinary graduate plying his craft, first working on the ready-to-go sandwiches and then moving on to the wraps. “Some meat, some nice crisp lettuce and then provolone, just like they trained me,” he said, and for a while behind the counter he had felt pretty good about Auburn. The customers were nice. They left their trucks running in the parking lot and knew each employee by name. They seemed to like his sandwiches. But then the manager had come back to check his work and told him his wraps needed to have American cheese, not provolone. She told him to remake the wraps, and he told her that in fact provolone was better, based on his experience in culinary school. She said then maybe he should go back to working in the stock room, and when he continued to argue she had sent him home.
“That’s four hours of my shift that I’m missing,” he said. “That’s 32 dollars I just lost.”
“Of course they want you in the stock room,” Andrea said, and now she was pacing, too. “They’re railroading you. They’re going to give you an emotional breakdown just like the one they gave me.”
Andrea Williams rests after a tiring, all-day chemotherapy session for her husband, Troy, in Lincoln, Neb., as 14-year-old son Tyler plays video games at son Troy Jr.'s home in Lincoln.
“They trained me wrong. They told me provolone,” he said.
“I bet they did it on purpose. They’re setting you up for a fall,” she said, and then she stomped out her cigarette and started walking up the road toward Casey’s with Smoky trailing behind her. The streets were empty and the sky was clear but she was heating up, spinning, so much pressure colliding into a storm that built in her chest and rose into her throat.
“I’m tired of it!” she said. “You and I both know why they sent you home. Let’s see if they’ll say it to your face.”
“I’m not so sure . . . ” Smoky said, but she cut him off.
“They think we’re just going to keep taking it?” she said. “No way. No way.”
“But what good is . . . ”
“You better believe we’re going to make a fuss,” she said. They were almost at the gas station now, and Smoky ran up in front of her and grabbed her arm. “Please. No. Please,” he said, because didn’t she remember what she had been telling him all this time? How it was best to disassociate? To stay at home, invisible? “If we go in there, it can only end one way,” he said. “I’m going to lose my job.”
Andrea stared at him for a moment. Her shoulders dropped, and she looked depleted. “I’m just tired of it,” she said again, but this time her voice was quiet, resigned. The storm was over and this was what was left. He grabbed her shoulders and turned her away from town, back toward the apartment.
After getting bored from playing for hours on the phone, 10-year-old Taja bounces a rubber ball in the area that leads from the kitchen to a small patio.