School Climate & Safety

On Katrina’s 10th Anniversary, Stories From the Diaspora

By Denisa R. Superville — August 29, 2015 14 min read
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As part of our package on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, The Re-Education of New Orleans, I spoke with students, parents, and educators about their post-Katrina experiences outside of New Orleans.

(We interviewed representatives from KIPP Public Charter Schools, which started New Orleans West College Prep, for New Orleans students who had evacuated to Houston; Mike Feinberg, KIPP’s co-founder, who was instrumental in getting displaced students back into classrooms; and others who provided counseling and other support services to student evacuees.)

Some of the interviewees’ stories appeared in the final package; others did not. Here are some of those stories.

Starting Over and Finding Support

Devyn Tyler’s family lost nearly everything in the storm. Their Gentilly home, prized photographs, and original paintings. But the loss of those possessions didn’t unravel their tight family unit made up of Tyler, her mother Deneen, father Kevin, and grandfather Benford Davis, even as they started from scratch in Houston.

Tyler, who was then 14, had begun her freshman year at Benjamin Franklin High School, one of New Orleans’ most sought-after magnet schools. She was excited about high school, but anxious too about normal teenage things: Would she fit in? Would she have to wear gym shorts? Would people make fun of her?

She had spent the summer devouring the biography of the founding father and oscillating between excitement and angst as she contemplated life as a high school freshman in New Orleans.

But those concerns were subsumed by more urgent needs wrought by the storm’s aftereffects: Where would she live? Where would she go to school? Would she see her friends again?

The family got to Houston with only three days’ worth of clothing and relied in the early months on assistance on multiple fronts. They got donations of furniture and household staples from strangers, financial support from FEMA, and clothing and other assistance from aid organizations.

Hearing that Tyler was an aspiring actress, someone recommended that the family look into enrolling her in a local performing arts high school.

Within a few weeks, Tyler entered the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, one of just a few students from New Orleans to attend that school. She felt welcomed from the very first day she walked into French class and students sitting at the back motioned for her to sit with them.

But Katrina left some scars. Two years after the storm, Tyler’s Houston friends couldn’t understand why a seemingly innocuous joke about Katrina had left her upset. She had to leave an integrated physics and chemistry class on the science of hurricanes because she couldn’t stop crying.

Then there was the unusual routine that the family fell into: They went everywhere together. The supermarket. FEMA lines. All four of them tumbled into the car every morning to drive Tyler to school.

At the end of the school day, mother, father, and grandfather would be waiting to pick her up.

“We just didn’t want to be apart,” said Tyler, now an actress based in New York City and a graduate of Columbia University. “It was like we already lost everything, we couldn’t lose each other, too.”

There were also signs that the family was never really settled in Houston. They never hung curtains in the windows, didn’t buy expensive furniture or invest in anything that would indicate that they were putting down roots in Houston and leaving New Orleans behind, she said.

But the schooling Tyler was getting in Houston was ideal with its blend of rigorous academics and theater training. Still, Tyler and her mother said she would have flourished no matter where she had enrolled.

Both products of New Orleans’ public schools, Deneen Tyler said she and her husband, Kevin Tyler, had always prioritized their daughter’s education.

When Tyler was younger, her parents enrolled her in a Montessori school for the elementary years, and when it came time for her to attend middle school, Deneen and Kevin Tyler opted for the short drive to Lusher Middle School even though there was another school practically next door.

“We did not have the [financial] means to send her to private school, but we put her in the best institutions that we could,” Deneen Tyler said. “And for some strange reason, Devyn has always been an over-achiever and a lover of education.”

And they did the same in Houston, her mother said, seeking out a school that was a “comfortable, collective, nurturing environment” for their daughter.

Tyler thinks that she would have had a comparable academic experience at Benjamin Franklin, where her friends blossomed after returning.

But she had great opportunities in Houston. At the suggestion of an English teacher, she signed up for People to People, a student-travel program that introduces students to other cultures. It was through that program that she first visited Columbia University and started imagining herself going to college there. The next year she traveled to England and France.

She was named a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts in 2009 and had the opportunity to perform at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

“It’s absolutely incredible to know that those experiences came from something so horrible,” she said.

Tyler, who returns to the city often, appreciates some of the transformation underway there. At the same time, she is also worried that gentrification in parts of the city will displace longtime residents.

Her old elementary school is gone; so are some childhood friends.

Her parents—who had put off rebuilding their Paris Avenue home—were approved for a loan earlier this year.

“I wish it didn’t have to be so tragic for things to turn out the way they did,” she said. “That being said, the fact that now things are looking up is a good thing. I can say that yes, there was a period in my life where I lost everything, and we were all just haggard, and our blood pressure was up, and we were stressed, and we were alone, and we suffered a complete loss. But after that we were able to grow again.”

Overcoming Challenges

Lori Peek, an associate professor at Colorado State University, said she noticed some common strands among the students in the diaspora who overcame the challenges of their displacement.

For the students who rose above the adversity, personal characteristics mattered, but so, too, did structure, said Peek, who is the co-author with Alice Fothergill, a professor at the University of Colorado, of “Children of Katrina.” The book is based on the children in the Gulf Coast region.

Children who had families, communities, schools, and other adults that could help them access resources like food, shelter, clothing, and counseling, if necessary, tended to do better, she said.

Advocates who could help get students into good schools or help parents with transportation options also played a role in children’s success. Children who rose above the odds also tended to have proactive caregivers, she said.

Geography—whether children were displaced in Colorado or New Orleans—was less of a factor than family stability in how well students were likely to do post-Katrina.

“When things were going relatively well in the household—the parents had a job, the siblings were mostly reunited, things were starting to come back together—the child was faring better in school regardless of whether they were in New Orleans or elsewhere,” according Peek. “And this, again, wasn’t universal. We saw kids fall through the cracks who had the best families imaginable.”

“There are always variations,” she continued. “But, generally speaking, it was less about whether you remained in place or whether you went back, and more about wherever you were, were you able to essentially re-establish that complex matrix that makes a life. Of course, some of the children were already living in very precarious situations before this storm; and so sometimes Katrina just amplified that and made it even worse regardless of whether they stayed displaced or returned. And other times Katrina opened up that one new window where maybe a parent got access to a job they wouldn’t have had access to, and things began to change.”

A District Responds

We profiled Franiqueka Fortune, whose family fled New Orleans to Houston, with the storm nipping at their heels.

Once in Houston, Fortune enrolled in the Alief school district, which absorbed about 3,300 student evacuees from the Gulf Coast region, the majority of whom were from Louisiana, according to district officials.

“I wish I could say ‘yes, we were prepared,’ but that was not the case,” Sue Page, an area superintendent at the Alief Independent School District, recalled 10 years later.

But the district made quick work of getting up to speed. It hired additional staffers, including 26 teachers, nine paraprofessionals, 15 hall monitors, and additional academic and advisory counselors, all the while hoping that additional money would materialize to cover the unexpected expenses.

The funds came in later. The district eventually received $16 million from the federal government over a two-year period; about $26,000 from Harris County; another $1 million from the Houston Katrina Rita Fund; and about $144,000 from the City of Houston, according to Karla Kessler, the district’s director of federal programs and grants.

Page said that students and families urgently needed help with housing, counseling, and other social services. But those types of needs were not new to the district, she said.

“We are a predominantly low SES district, so for people to come in here with tremendous needs was not shocking to us,” she said. “We had a lot of those services in place.”

“I was washing and ironing uniforms so that kids would have that,” she continued. “I remember a family came to my home because I had some extra bedrooms...We all pitched in. Whoever had, they just gave.”

The district had to rely on students’ word about whether they were freshmen, juniors, or seniors. School officials worked with the Louisiana Department of Education where possible to determine student placement, but it was difficult to get all the information necessary because in the rush to escape the storm and not knowing that they would not be returning home, families left without transcripts, report cards, and birth certificates.

For the students who were close to graduation, Louisiana and Texas worked out an agreement that those students could complete the Louisiana requirements and graduate with a Louisiana diploma.

District officials said they knew it was difficult for the evacuees who had to start over in a new city. The district got some assistance from New Orleans educators and social workers who had also fled the city and were able to empathize with students’ plight.

And as Fortune said in her story, there were tensions between evacuees and local residents. The district had to address issues related to gangs. Communities in Schools, the Washington D.C.-based organization, ran after-school programs and other activities to alleviate tensions between evacuees and students. Attorneys helped with conflict resolution.

There was also a culture shock: In New Orleans, for example, schools closed for Mardi Gras.

“Well, we were not closed; that was something else for us all to get used to,” Page recalled.

As time went by, some evacuees moved back to New Orleans. Some found housing elsewhere in the sprawling city and enrolled in other school districts. Mobility and attendance were big issues in the early days, school officials said.

Alief kept track of Katrina student evacuees for some time, certainly for up to three years, but after a while it didn’t make sense to continue to do so.

“They were our kids for sure,” Page said. “It wasn’t Katrina kids, or Rita kids, or whatever. It was just Alief students.”

A Good Ending

Melina Duplessis, 39, a transplant from Gentilly, now lives in the Village of Glen Iris, in a subdivision of about 65 homes that were designated by Habitat for Humanity and Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network for Hurricane Katrina and Rita evacuees.

Duplessis was already planning to leave her apartment in New Orleans and settle somewhere in Houston. She intended to start looking for a new place in January 2006 and was hoping to have a job by the next summer.

But Katrina forced her hand by nearly a year.

Houston, she said, offered better professional and educational opportunities for her and her now 16-year-old son, Darrell Augustine.

And to some extent, it has worked out for her. A former bank worker, she is now a 6th grade teacher in Alief Independent School District.

She owns the home in the Angel Lane development, where the population of Katrina and Rita evacuees has dwindled over the years as evacuees returned home, moved elsewhere, or rented out their homes.

But life in Houston has turned out to be extremely difficult for her son: In the 10 years since Katrina, he has attended about seven schools in two different Houston-area school districts. He has also switched between charter and traditional district schools in Houston and New Orleans.

Darrell was asked to leave some of those schools because of behavioral issues, but in others he had been on the verge of failing, she said.

And while Duplessis believes that, overall, the schools in Houston were better than the ones she left behind, she said that the rigorous academics and resources in Houston schools also varied depending on the neighborhood.

Duplessis said her son’s experience was not unique—boys had a more difficult time adjusting to their new environment than the girls who had been similarly displaced.

Some of the teenage boys dropped out of school in Houston or led itinerant lives, shuffling between Houston, where their parents settled, and New Orleans, the city of their births, and never quite finding home.

While there are personal and behavioral issues involved in her son’s case, Duplessis doesn’t rule out the role the storm and the displacement played in her son’s inability to settle down.

“Moving here at five or six years old, they did not understand why they had to move, why they couldn’t go back home,” Duplessis said.

“He asked me that a lot. Part of my reason for staying was mainly because of him. We are in a better city. He can get a better education,” she continued. “We have a million schools right here in Houston alone. I just felt it would be better to stay here, even though he may not have agreed with me. He just wanted to go back home. It was hard for him to understand why we couldn’t go back home.”

She said the schools provided counseling for her son and she also arranged for him to see a counselor in 2008. But for the majority of the last 10 years, nothing seemed to work.

Duplessis also did not escape the storm’s emotional punch. Although she evacuated the city before Katrina made landfall, her mother, who stayed behind, wasn’t so lucky.

While the television screens flashed images of floodwaters rising in New Orleans and general chaos, Duplessis worried about her mother, who was alone at home, couldn’t swim, and was out of touch because phones were not working. Her stepfather, a national guardsman, was required to work at the Superdome, she said.

“The water was coming up so fast,” she recalled. " You were hearing the horror stories that people couldn’t get out. They were hot. They were suffocating. People on diabetes couldn’t get their medication. It was so messed up.”

Her mother was rescued by a civilian who was cruising the neighborhood in a boat looking for survivors, she said.

Those wrenching days of uncertainty are still with her, even after her mother made it safely to Houston.

When Duplessis was finally able to return to her first-floor apartment in New Orleans, she retrieved a few mildewed photos of her son that had been pinned to the wall. Nearly everything else was unsalvageable. High school photos and her son’s baby pictures were all soaked and damaged beyond repair, she said.

A decade later, her anger still simmers over the absence of a coordinated transportation plan to evacuate residents, the limited food supply for evacuees at the Superdome, and the deaths that could have been prevented.

“I just feel like they were not prepared, and I don’t ever want to be there if [something like this] ever happens again,” she said, her voice choking with emotion.

“New Orleans is always going to be home, but I won’t ever go back to live there, " she says. “I love New Orleans, I have family there, but I won’t go back...unless it was medically necessary, like something happened to my mom and I needed to go back and take care of her.”

Houston, she said, has offered her stability to build a better future for her children.

“I just feel like the opportunities I’ve had here, I would not have had in [New Orleans],” she said. “In order for my kids to be stable, I have to be stable. And so I just think it’s better here. There is just so much going on in New Orleans. It’s not even up and running the way it was before Katrina.”

The remaining challenge is getting her son back on track. She is optimistic about the recent strides he has made. He finished ninth grade in New Orleans this year without having to attend summer school, she said.

She recently took him on a tour of Taylor High School at Alief, and his response was favorable. The school has a basketball program and after-school activities, including drama, arts, and other extra-curricular activities.

“There is just so much that they can get involved in,” she said.

Duplessis is optimistic about what lies ahead.

“I have a good ending,” she said. “There was something good that came out of it, so I am okay with it. Maybe it was meant for me to be here. I have a house. I have a good job. I have reliable transportation, so I can’t say I am not supposed to be here.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.