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Katrina evacuees at home in Chicago

by Mema Ayi, Chicago Defender
August 30, 2006

One year after Hurricane Katrina destroyed her New Orleans home, Mildred McGehee is making a new life for herself on Chicago's South Side.

McGehee, 76, is one of more than 6,000 evacuees of Hurricane Katrina who relocated to Chicago. For many, the move was temporary - until they were allowed back into their neighborhoods or their homes were rebuilt. Others, like McGehee, have no plans to return home.

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"I was living pretty good, but there's nothing for me to go back down there for," said McGehee, a retired federal court custodian and lifelong resident of New Orleans.

McGehee, like many other displaced Gulf Coast residents, had ties to Chicago, which may explain why the city has absorbed more evacuees than any other city outside the South.

Once in Chicago, whether their move was permanent or temporary, Heartland Alliance, a service based human rights organization, served as a link to housing, food, job assistance and a means toward getting back on their feet, said Charna Epstein, the organization's associate director of crisis prevention and disaster recovery. 

The history of Heartland Alliance dates back to the late 19th century when it served as a resource center for young people moving into the city from other parts of the country and later became an assistance agency for immigrants.

Over the past year, the Chicago-based non-profit helped a new influx of residents to the city. Since the storm, Heartland Alliance has placed more than 1,200 Katrina-displaced families into housing in Chicago, Epstein said.

McGehee was able to move into her apartment on the city's South Side this spring.

"We worked really hard to help get people back on their feet. We addressed needs as they arose," Epstein said.

Helping evacuees navigate the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been a constant focus of the organization, Epstein said.

"It's an urban myth that if you were displaced by the hurricane that FEMA would pay your rent for a year," she said.

FEMA was able to provide some assistance, but many evacuees found the procedures and paperwork daunting.

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"Lots of people received the initial check, but they had to wait for the (home) inspection and they had to prove they were from (the Gulf Coast)," Epstein said.

In some cases, FEMA officials who deemed homes evacuees abandoned were habitable, those Gulf Coast residents had to return to their often storm-ravaged homes or lose their federal assistance, Epstein said.

For McGehee, federal assistance would have been helpful, but the devastation of the storm, losing friends and everything in her home sent her into a severe depression.

While she had expected to return home the day after the storm, two months would pass before she could enter her East New Orleans neighborhood to see what Katrina had wrought.

"It's devastating to lose everything you have and know you're not going to get it back," said McGehee.

But Chicago wasn't McGehee's first stop. On the day of the storm, McGehee, riding in a Kia with three friends and two large dogs, nearly reached Memphis when they gave up on finding a hotel room.

The group headed back south toward New Orleans.

"We should have went on to Chicago because the rain was coming down so hard and the telephone poles were coming down, there were trees all over the highway," she said.

The group ended up about 50 miles outside of New Orleans in Notalbany, La., where McGehee had relatives. 

"It was rough up there too. The lights were out for 15 days," she said.

Another 50 miles north in McComb, Miss., Lisa Banks, her two small children and about 16 extended family members and neighbors tried to wait out the storm in her home.

"We thought it would just be a regular storm. We thought it would just be a lot of wind and rain but when it knocked the power out, we knew it was bad," Banks said.

The wind broke a window and the group was sitting at Banks' dining room table when a piece of the roof caved in, she said.

A week passed before Banks, 26, and her two children, then about 4 and 1, were able to leave her home - where mildew covered everything - and joined a group headed to Chicago.


McGehee waited until October, after some urging from her first cousins in Chicago, to relocate. But once she arrived here, she lived with relatives and friends for seven months.

"That was rough. I wasn't used to living in somebody else's house. Now I've got a little place of my own," she said.

Banks said though she had friends and family in Chicago, it was a struggle for her to get back on her feet.

Heartland Alliance, she said, helped her connect with FEMA, find housing, get temporary employment and offered her transportation assistance to get around the city.

Still she would rather be in Chicago because she has nothing to return to in McComb. Though she and her children are living in an unfurnished South Shore apartment with few clothes, she has found some hope.

"In McComb, there's no transportation, there's limited jobs. There's nothing there," Banks said.

McGehee said her reasons for staying are simple: at her age, she can't get around as well as she used to.

"I'm not going back. These young people can take all these changes. I'm on a walker," McGehee said. "If I would have been there with no way out on this walker, I'm sure I wouldn't have made it out."