December 20, 2005

New Orleans Returnees Find Little Holiday Cheer

By Michele Gershberg

NEW ORLEANS -- A wilted red velvet ribbon and a plastic wreath are all the holiday decorations Jane and Randy could find as they scrounged for housewares from their flooded New Orleans home.

The couple returned to the city this weekend with a trailer filled with waterlogged furniture dug out a while ago from that house. Like so many others in the middle-class Lakeview neighborhood, it had been inundated with six feet of water when Hurricane Katrina hit on August 29.

With their damaged furniture, they moved into a rented flat in the Irish Channel district near the French Quarter, to try and resume their lives in a place that, according to the long-time sobriquet, was "The City That Care Forgot."

The carefree days are gone. Photos of the destruction they snapped for insurers take the place of ruined family albums portraying past celebrations. Rust-spotted pots pulled out of other people's garbage stock their new kitchen in a rented apartment.

"I don't have time for Christmas. I flat out don't have time," said Jane, who would not give her last name so her family and friends would not hear details of "my miserable life."

It is a scene bound to be repeated for thousands of Gulf Coast families who face a grim holiday season after losing either relatives, homes or livelihoods in the storm.

Many residents remain dispersed outside the city, including Jane's mother, an Alzheimer's patient now placed in a Houston area nursing home for lack of other housing. Jane will head back to Texas to spend Christmas with her mother.

"I'll have to show her the pictures," she said. "She doesn't understand there was a storm and thinks her children took everything away from her."


In a rare moment of peace for New Orleans, hundreds of Katrina survivors gathered on Sunday night in the city's Jackson Square to light candles and sing Christmas songs.

Many hoped the holiday traditions would restore a sense of normalcy. Others reflected on the misfortune that separated them from their neighbors.

"There's a term called 'survivor's guilt,' which I feel," said Phil Martin, whose home was spared the worst of the storm. "We were really lucky."

Amanda Lo is grateful she made it back to the city with her two children in time for the holidays, but cried as she thought of her daughter's teacher, Miss Shirley, still in a shelter.

"New Orleans is like a village, everybody is connected through family, marriage or friendship," she said. "This is nobody's fault. Like Miss Shirley, she had an honest job and can't come back."

Touched by the disaster, some U.S. families have decided to forego their own gift-giving and use the money to help hurricane victims get back on their feet in one of many acts of private charity.

Gary and Sheryl Kretchmer of Kansas City adopted a family of evacuees from Port Arthur, Texas, who lost their home when Hurricane Rita struck in September. They gave them debit gift cards for fuel and household items and collected Christmas tree ornaments from colleagues to help them decorate.

"We're just trying to do enough to stabilize their lives," Gary Kretchmer said by phone. "There's a lot of lessons to learn here about what it's like to be on that end. We've probably seen the best of people and the worst of people."