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Houston Holds Hope, Despair for Katrina Evacuees

Two years ago, Terry Gabriel and her children fled their home in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Now, Gabriel — shown here with son Earl Gabriel, 15, and daughter Terranisha Odom, 7 — are living in a new home in Houston.
Michael Stravato for NPR /
Two years ago, Terry Gabriel and her children fled their home in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Now, Gabriel — shown here with son Earl Gabriel, 15, and daughter Terranisha Odom, 7 — are living in a new home in Houston.

Two years after Hurricane Katrina emptied New Orleans, more than 90,000 evacuees live in Houston, permanently it seems. Their stories are a mix of sadness, loneliness and triumphant hope.

One of those Houston transplants is Terry Gabriel. At 40 years old and 6 feet 1 inch tall, Gabriel still seems very much the star basketball player she once was. Strong, attractive and charismatic, Gabriel carries with her an unshakable Christian faith.

Hurricane Katrina tested that faith. Gabriel, her sister and four children fled the storm in a rental car and began living on the floor of the Houston convention center.

Like her fellow evacuees, Gabriel was shell-shocked and disoriented. But she understood earlier than most that her life in Louisiana was over: After a week, she began looking for a job.

"It was so stressful; you were thinking, 'Work just yet?' But what I was seeking first and foremost was a church home ... I needed stability and I didn't have it mentally," Gabriel says.

In the last two years, Terry Gabriel has come a long way.

'I Feel Like a Million Bucks'

She lives in a new Houston suburb, in a new two-story, two-garage house she's renting to own. Gabriel praises the neighborhood's manicured lawns, and polite, kind and loving neighbors.

Gabriel first landed a part-time job with UPS as a small-package sorter in a warehouse without air conditioning. Four women applied for the job, but when it came time for the second round of interviews, Gabriel was the only one who showed up.

With that, Gabriel landed her first job; soon, she added a second — manning a beer stand at the Houston Astros games. In Houston, Gabriel could end up being a success in a way she may never have been able to in New Orleans.

Her three children are attending new schools with healthy budgets, decked-out sports teams and big bands for half-time. As an evacuee, the federal government is helping her pay her rent, and that $900 monthly subsidy makes all the difference. For the first time in her life, Terry Gabriel is living the American dream.

Her subdivision is so new "it's not even on MapQuest," Gabriel exclaims. "God is good. I love it. I mean, I feel as though I fit right in; I don't feel like a sore thumb. Every day I wake up, I feel like a million bucks," she says.

This is Houston's right hand, the one that gives to the evacuees. It gives them its powerful economy, inexpensive new homes in far-flung suburbs, and public schools collectively educating Asian, Indian, black, white and Hispanic children. Taken together, it is a powerful offering.

But Houston has two hands.

'Where Do We Go From Here?'

In a three-bedroom apartment in southwest Houston, four Katrina women evacuees, all related, live with their 14 children. Twelve of them came to Houston together from New Orleans that fateful day, all in a single Grand Am. The five-hour trip took three days.

Lorenthia Richardson was one of those women. She recalls that when they arrived, they had no clothing, no furniture. They pooled their money and rented a single apartment.

"We're sitting in this little room, on the floor, looking around — no toys for the kids to play with," Richardson says. "You [can] imagine all these kids, running around with nothing to do, wondering what is going on, and then you see us sitting on the floor, looking at each other, like, 'Where do we go from here?'"

Richardson had been a nursing student in New Orleans. She quickly enrolled in nursing school in Houston in a desperate attempt to continue her previous life, but ended up having to drop out.

"I guess mentally I was not prepared. In most situations, when you have a chaotic situation, there's one level-headed person who will say, 'This is what we're going to,'" Richardson says. "Well, I'm usually that person, but at this point I could not figure it out."

In New Orleans, in addition to nursing school, Richardson worked part time at a hospital. Before the hospital, she was a Wal-Mart manager for three years. But in Houston, a job interview was elusive.

When she would call to follow up on applications, Richardson says potential employers would say they couldn't find her application. She told them she would reapply, and she did, to no avail.

Richardson knows how to dress and act for the professional world. That's not her problem. Her problem is that she is a black, single mother from New Orleans. For two full years, Richardson has been unable to land a job, despite more than 50 separate attempts.

This is Houston's other hand, the one that slaps evacuees around.

Despair Difficult to Keep at Bay

Take Donna Rodriguez and her four children, for example. Rodriguez is Lorenthia Richardson's cousin. While searching a Red Cross database, Richardson found Rodriguez's name after two years of not knowing what had happened to her.

Richardson drove over and rescued Rodriguez and her children from a Houston homeless shelter. Rodriguez has fallen through the cracks in the system, and the last two years have left her shattered.

"I can't even express how I feel because I don't think [anybody is ever going to] understand how I feel," Rodriguez says between uncontrollable tears, her sense of helplessness and frustration palpable.

Rodriguez and her children have gone from Houston homeless shelters into the homes of families who took pity, then back to the homeless shelter where they've spent months at a time.

With the addition of Rodriguez and her children, Richardson is now providing shelter to 18 evacuees in her three-bedroom apartment.

Houston Still Holds Hope for Evacuees

In many quarters, Houston's patience with the Katrina victims has run out, and evacuees are left to help one another. But just when the future looks bleakest, sometimes Houston reaches down with a helping hand.

Two weeks ago, Lorenthia Richardson landed a full-time job with benefits. It's as a case worker for a private agency that has helped her and more than 1,500 other Katrina evacuees.

The Houston agency also agreed to enroll Richardson in nursing school and pay for it. She starts next month. And just like that, Richardson — and the women who depend on her — have hope.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Wade Goodwyn
Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.