Once displaced, Downtowners help Katrina’s victims

By Ronda Kaysen

Noël Jefferson has spent the better part of the past week on her cell phone. With the help of a cousin in Houston, she has become something of a messenger for her sister’s family, keeping each member informed of the whereabouts of the others in the days since Hurricane Katrina flooded them all out of New Orleans.

Jefferson, a Tribeca resident who herself was temporarily displaced after 9/11, is one of many New Yorkers with friends and family in New Orleans who have found themselves 1,300 miles away from the storm, but very much caught in its eye.

“We rely upon each other to know how they’re doing, to know what the situation is,” said Jefferson, an Ohio native.

Jefferson’s sister raised her children in New Orleans. She fled the city before the storm hit and is now staying in Houston, Texas, where she will most likely resettle. Her grown children and in-laws have scattered across the South, where most of them will now stay.

“We have a very close family so it’s going to be difficult for the family to be so spread apart,” said Jefferson, who also has a sister in Brooklyn and one in Cincinnati, Ohio. “We’re all going through withdrawal.”

The looming Sept. 11th anniversary has been relegated to the back burner, as Jefferson focuses all her attention on the current disaster. “I remember what I went through. Now to see that my family is going through that and more is just as painful,” she said.

But the level of attention this disaster has received from the government compared with 9/11 nags at her. After 9/11 the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived immediately. FEMA has been suspiciously absent from in the aftermath of this disaster.

Jefferson, an African American, has been outraged by the coverage of looting in the media and what she describes as the nonchalant response from government officials.

Recalling FEMA’s speedy response after 9/11, Jefferson told her niece, whose home was decimated in the flood, what information she would need to provide for FEMA. “And then to learn that they hadn’t responded — to have heard [FEMA chief] Michael Brown say that he just learned about [the crowded conditions at the New Orleans convention center] after the evacuation was simply ludicrous,” she said. “How could the director of FEMA not know? It just does not make sense. How secure is our nation? I was just totally disappointed in their lack of response.”

For Alex Roche, the assistant director of Manhattan Youth, a community group Downtown, the diasopra has brought his extended family to his doorstep. His fiancée’s 15-year-old brother, Son, and her mother arrived last week and will stay indefinitely.

“It’s been a pretty wild, wild ride,” Roche said.

Roche is not sure how long his in-laws will stay in his Downtown Brooklyn apartment, but they have all been through this before. His mother, a Battery Park City resident, stayed with him for several months after 9/11 when she was displaced from her apartment. Roche’s fiancée, Trucle Nguyen, and her family fled Vietnam in 1979. “They’ve lived quite the life of the refugee,” he said.

Before the storm, Roche and Nguyen were putting the final touches on an Oct. 15th New Orleans wedding. The two might keep the date, although many details need to be resolved. “We think maybe we could do something small here in New York. We’ll see,” he said.

Roche is not worrying about the long term yet. For now, the family is focused on more immediate concerns. “From my experience from the previous parent refugee experience, you don’t make any plans right away, in terms of the first week or two,” he said. “Just get everyone there, to be happy that everyone’s together. When everything settles down, you can make a better decision about what you want the plan to be. As of now, everyone’s coming here.”

Son took the entrance exam for Stuyvesant High School this week, and will begin classes shortly after.

Everyone, it seems, knows someone who was affected by the hurricane. Even one of Downtown Express’ own staffers has family now rendered homeless by the storm. Julius Harrison, an advertising sales representative for this company, spent five days after the storm frantically searching for his ex-wife and 13-year-old son. Their neighborhood, near Lake Pontchartrain, was destroyed. “It’s draining when you don’t know where someone is. Did they get out okay? Did they stay? Do they have enough food and water?” he said.

After a lengthy search that included calls to his ex-wife’s brother in Houston, her sister in Atlanta and her company’s corporate headquarters in Boston, Mass., he finally located the two of them, safe in Athens, Georgia, where they will remain.

“I was totally relieved. A huge weight of all that worry has been taken off my shoulders,” he said. Last weekend, he flew down to Atlanta to visit his son, who starts school in Athens this week.

The Internet has also served as a great connector in the disaster. Bill Love, a Battery Park City resident and Virginia native, lived in New Orleans for two decades. The neighborhood where he lived is now submerged.

Since the storm, he has been surfing the Web, culling information for his displaced friends. “It’s been a fairly busy time, trying to track down people, trying to communicate,” he said, adding that by now most of his closest friends have been accounted for. With cell phone connections unreliable, he’s found e-mail the best way to communicate. For his friends in search of basic information, his easy access to the Internet is useful. “I’ve been trying to keep people informed,” he said.

He is also keeping them moving. One friend fled to Atlanta, Georgia, where her car promptly broke down. Love wired her money so she could get her car fixed and drive to Houston, where her job has been relocated.

Love, like Jefferson, was displaced after 9/11. But unlike his friends in New Orleans, his job was intact and the rest of the city was still operating. “Here all that’s gone. The whole city is gone,” he said. “People are scattered to the four winds, they’re not with the people they usually would share these things with and there’s no telling how long that will last.”


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