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For Katrina evacuees, a year of fortune or trouble By Andy Goldberg

Deutsche Presse Agentur
Published: Monday August 21, 2006

Huntsville, Alabama- On the morning of August 28, 2005, as Hurricane Katrina closed in on the Gulf Coast, building contractor Vincent Whittaker nailed shut his home in beachfront Waveland, Mississippi, climbed into his old red Ford truck, and together with his nephew Vincent fled for his life. Sitting in the north-bound bumper-to-bumper Interstate 59, they became part of the largest one-time displacement of Americans in centuries. Over 1 million people fled from one of the worst natural disasters in American history - a catastrophe which cost 1,815 lives, caused an estimated 125 billion dollars in damages and devastated a region the size of Great Britain.

"I thought I would be back in a few days," Whittaker said in early August, nearly a year later. "Now I don't think I'll ever go back again. There's nothing left there for me now."

Whittaker, 52, seems older than his years. You can see he was once handsome. There's still no fat on him, but his face is heavily lined, his hair a dirty grey and his mouth has no teeth. The African- American moves slowly, as though every step is painful.

In February he went back to Waveland, a small town of 7,000 on the coast pummelled by some of the strongest gusts of the 280-kph-winds. It was a wasteland.

"I watch the TV like everyone so I knew not to expect much," he recalls. "But the place I lived in was dead. That place was my soul and everything was gone. Just a heap of stinking trash and cars."

Still, some of his former neighbours have gone back. Many live in government trailers on their property as they negotiate the cumbersome bureaucracy of insurance and permits and finance. Retail stores like WalMart have reopened.

Nevertheless Whittaker says he's "staying right where I am, thank- you sir".

He landed on his feet, 650 kilometres from home in Huntsville, Alabama, a booming southern town with its own Toyota plant where he drummed up business as a building contractor, and has since bought his own home.

"This place is good. It don't make no sense to go back to all that danger out there," he explains.

While many other evacuees were fortunate, like Whittaker, as they scattered across America, hundreds of thousands of others remain in limbo either amidst Katrina's destruction or displaced to strange communities, with few family nearby. Many are single mothers.

As of April, the last time such figures were compiled, there were still 750,000 displaced by Katrina and the two hurricanes that followed, Rita and Wilma, according to Bob Howard, communications director for the Washington-based Red Cross Hurricane Recovery Programme.

There are 100,000 evacuees in Atlanta, Georgia, and up to 150,000 in Houston, Texas. Many are African-Americans from the disadvantaged neighbourhoods of New Orleans who remain jobless and will run out of federal disaster assistance in March, when they could quickly become homeless too.

"These families consist mostly of women, generally poor and uneducated, with children," said an editorial in the Houston Chronicle. "Almost all are still reeling from their losses. They are uniquely ill-prepared to start anew in a city so much larger and more complex than New Orleans."

There has been backlash in host communities. A Houston police report in August blamed the influx of hurricane refugees for the 17.5 per cent rise in the city's homicide rate this year. One in five murders involved an evacuee as suspect or victim.

New Orleans, the storied city of jazz that bore the brunt of the storm and public interest, is slowly getting back on its feet. The Mayor's office says the city's population is already "north of 250,000" out of the pre-storm population of 455,000.

But given the scale of destruction, it will probably take decades rather than years to recover. Decisions still haven't been made about which areas can be rebuilt, and which are still at risk of flood. A total of 1.7 million families registered for assistance at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA,), which has paid out some 6 billion dollars in personal aid.

The Red Cross provided emergency assistance to 1.4 million families and an estimated 4 million people, Howard said.

"We are still trying to deal with infrastructure issues and the ability to provide basic services," he said.

Prior to Katrina, the largest Red Cross operation ever was assistance for 70,000 families after four hurricanes hit Florida in 2004.

"We went from supporting 70,000 families to 1.4 million families. It was 20 times larger than anything we had faced in our 120 year history," Howard said.

Ultimately, he says, it's up to each individual family to determine their own recovery.

Some will be like Nathan Whittaker - who now plans to take additional relatives into his flourishing construction business.

But others will never get over Hurricane Katrina, Howard says, "not in one year or ten."

© 2006 DPA - Deutsche Presse-Agenteur