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Katrina-scattered families rebuild separately and together

Curtesy of Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Niemi Curtesy of Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Niemi

By ALLEN G. BREED
AP National Writer

HOUSTON (AP) - Bunk beds dominate the narrow living room of Chevelle Washington's modest three-bedroom brick townhouse apartment. A large box in the corner is piled high with kids' shoes. The 51-year-old is raising six of her grandchildren. Her home is a refuge, a haven.

It was that way back in her native New Orleans, too - never so much as on Aug. 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck.

"I had 21 people at my house," she says of that horrible night. "Because I had an up- and downstairs."

The water rushing through the city's breached floodwalls climbed all 17 of those front stairs, stopping just below the porch. It had receded to the 11th step by the following day, when a uniformed man appeared in a motorized flatboat.

As their anonymous savior steered the craft into the lake that the Upper Ninth Ward had become, Washington burst into tears.

"It ain't never going to be the same no more," she cried.

Her youngest son, Steven, remembers how the man at the helm tried to comfort his mother. "You're moving on to something better," he said.

An estimated 1.5 million Gulf Coast residents fled Katrina, scattering like wind-tossed seeds to all 50 states. Many thousands of them, like Chevelle Washington, have taken root where they landed.

But for son Steven, the pull of home, of New Orleans, was too strong.

A few months after Katrina, he returned to his ruined city, hoping to recapture that sense of belonging he couldn't find in Texas.

Standing on that 11th step recently, his mind wandered back to the day he and his family climbed into that boat. He was never really sure what the man meant by "something better." A short-term shelter? A bigger house? A safer city?

Like so many families splintered by the storm, the Washingtons are still searching.

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The storm did not "drown" New Orleans. But there's no denying it is a changed city.

The black population has dropped from nearly 67 percent in 2000 to 59 percent today; whites, once about one-quarter of residents, now account for nearly a third.

"The people who have not returned have been disproportionately African-American, renters, low-income, single mothers and persons with disabilities," says Lori Peek, an associate professor of sociology at Colorado State University and co-editor, with Weber, of the book, "Displaced: Life in the Katrina Diaspora."

Since the storm, rents in the Crescent City have skyrocketed - up 33 percent for a one-bedroom apartment and 41 percent for a two-bedroom.

Following Katrina, officials demolished four of the city's notorious projects, vowing to replace them with modern, mixed-income developments. Despite much progress, there are still about 3,200 fewer low-income, public housing apartments than before the storm.

Most of the people living in those units were black. Like Linda Nellum.

Revitalization had already pushed Nellum out of the murder-plagued Magnolia projects. Living in temporary Section 8 housing when Katrina hit, Nellum was evacuated to Houston.

From Texas, she applied for return and was put on a waiting list. She's still waiting.

"Every now and then, you think about going home," the 43-year-old says, a tear trickling down her cheek. She feels "trapped" in Houston.

Chevelle Washington chooses to see it differently.

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Growing up, sisters Chevelle and Champernell Washington never saw any reason to fear the landscape around them. But there was something different about that mid-summer's day 10 years ago, says Champernell.

"You could just about smell it in the air," she says.

When the skies began to clear, Chevelle Washington thought all was well - until she opened the door to the garage below. A refrigerator and her grandson's basinet swirled up toward her, "like trying to see who was going to get up the stairs first."

Steven, then 16, waded down the front steps and stared as shrimp and crawfish skipped past.

When the rescue boat arrived the next day, Chevelle Washington was reluctant to get in, not wanting to split up the family.

The boatman dropped them on a nearby street where, hours later, a military truck took them to the Superdome.

The Washingtons managed to find space in the hometown Saints' end zone. Surely, this dangerous, leaky-roofed open latrine was not the "something better" they'd been promised.

After a few days, the refugee family escaped New Orleans.

Champernell had once lived in Houston. She'd loved the schools there, and there always seemed to be plenty of work.

And so, she, Chevelle and other family members resettled in Texas.

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In southwest Houston, the Washington clan has created a little slice of New Orleans.

Chevelle lives just a couple of miles from Champernell and her two girls. About a 10-minute drive east, brother Rene's restaurant, Sleepy's Po Boys, offers fellow Katrina refugees a taste of home.

Each has been back to New Orleans numerous times. Despite obvious progress, "It's still that sense of death in the air," says Champernell, 45, night manager at a hotel.

Chevelle talked of a friend who moved her family back - only to have three of her boys killed in a drive-by shooting, victims of apparent mistaken identity.

"I'm not ready to bury none of my kids," says the former hotel maid, who now makes do largely on disability benefits for one of the children.

Much as she loves her hometown, it's not worth the risk. Besides, she says, "It would never be home again."

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It's not that life in Houston was horrible, says Chevelle's son Steven, who lives in a one-story apartment complex halfway between Treasure and Abundance streets in New Orleans.

His new high school made room on the football team for the running back from New Orleans. But off the field, it seemed he was forever trying to dodge tensions - like the taunt "N-O!" that the Houston kids would shout whenever New Orleans refugees passed in the hallways. Bottom line, he was homesick.

"I just couldn't really do Houston," he says.

After an uncle moved back to New Orleans, Steven joined him. He ended up in a different school from the one he'd left, with different kids.

He found jobs after graduation, most recently in the city's vibrant restaurant industry.

Yes, New Orleans is dangerous. But most of the time, Steven says, the victim "probably did something he had no business doing."

Ten years after climbing into that boat, he admits that he's not satisfied with where he is in life.

"Just making it," he says.

Last year, Steven had a baby girl, My'chel Marie. He sent her to live with his mother in Houston.

Between shifts, he's found time to take computer and business courses at Southern University New Orleans. His uncle has been talking about expanding, and Steven thinks he could run a restaurant.

More and more, he's thinking he'll have to leave New Orleans.

"Too many of the wrong young people are coming back," he says.

Although he says he has no regrets about coming back to New Orleans, his advice to other young people is: Unless you're returning for a good job or to study, stay where you are.

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