STRAINS IN A STRANGE LAND
Before they knew the full extent of all they had lost to Katrina--their home, their family silver, their wedding and baby pictures--childhood sweethearts Carmelita, 43, and Nathaniel Williams, 49, their daughter Jennifer, 9, and Nathaniel's daughter from a previous relationship, Natrena Lewis, 24, briefly feared they had lost the most precious thing of all: one of their own. Five days after New Orleans' levees collapsed, flooding the city, Natrena, a home health aide who had stayed behind to help a patient get into a shelter, was stranded on the rooftop of a motel along with her two young boys. When Ty'iyr, 22 months, had an asthma attack, he was airlifted to a hospital, but there was no room in the helicopter for his mom or brother Telly, 5. A few days later, Natrena and Telly were rescued and eventually reunited with the rest of the family in Houston, but they still had no idea where Ty'iyr was. Only after a relative in the Air Force put out an informal bulletin to the military with the toddler's birthmark and nickname, Tottie, was he located at an Atlanta hospital.
At times, that near tragedy makes it a little easier for the family to accept the mundane, daily struggles of restarting their life. Natrena can still laugh about how often she gets lost trying to find her way around her new hometown, and Nathaniel likes to gripe about how no one in Houston seems to play dominoes or go fishing. It helps that Carmelita, Nathaniel and Jennifer have moved into a fully furnished and--thanks to a city housing voucher--temporarily rent-free apartment and have qualified for emergency food stamps; Natrena and her two boys have done the same. Nathaniel, a food loader for Southwest Airlines, has continued to be paid as his family gets settled. The catch is that after Thanksgiving, when he starts work again, it will be in Chicago.
But that doesn't mean they all don't have what Nathaniel calls "dark days," when he admits he has drunk too much Courvoisier "as a crutch" or not talked to his wife at all. Carmelita, a big-hearted, churchgoing woman with an ordinarily sunny disposition, admits ruefully, "I still feel like a stranger in a strange place." Most of the Williamses have a bit of a weight problem, and the anxiety of being in unfamiliar surroundings has only worsened their appetites for sweets and fried food.
Telly has had the toughest time adjusting. Once a model preschooler, he has been acting up in kindergarten. One day he used scissors to carve a hole in his desk; another time he crumpled his homework into a ball and covered it with glue. "I don't know if he's being rebellious toward me because 'You let me be on the roof for five days,'" says Natrena, a single mom.
For Carmelita, who used to be president of her PTA and coached softball and cheerleading squads, the hard part is the lack of a structured, busy life. To rebuild one, she spends a lot of time helping out at the PTA president's office at Jennifer's new elementary school, where the ambitious young girl has already been named the fourth-grade student of the month. "She feels more challenged here," Carmelita says.
Now that she has received her last paycheck from her former job as an administrative assistant at New Orleans' Dillard University, Carmelita is looking for new work. So far, openings for a hot-dog vendor or truck driver have not been too appealing. Carmelita and Nathaniel like to imagine that in three to five years, they may be able to return to New Orleans. Their neighborhood of Pontchartrain Park, the first African-American subdivision in the city, was so wrecked that whatever is left is slated to be reduced to rubble. Carmelita is sad that it will be lost to history, but Nathaniel is not one to dwell on the past. After all, for everything that the family lost to Katrina, the thing that mattered most ended up being found.