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Haunted by Katrina

An uprooted family from the Gulf region tries to make sense of New York and cope with the emotional and psychological effects of forced migration.
 
 
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Vladine Lee Bryan stared in disbelief at the digital photographs on her father's computer screen. Black mold had spread over the walls of her house in New Orleans' Seventh Ward. The high-water marks in her son's room were inches from the ceiling. The refrigerator was overturned in the middle of the living room. The floodwater had rushed through the garage and ripped away plaster to expose weakened wooden beams.

A Harry Potter poster and school-issued plaques celebrating her children's successes had managed to cling to the walls. But there were few other reminders that she was looking at the place where she, her husband and their three young children had built their life together.

"It doesn't look like anybody lived there in years," said Bryan, 31, straining to speak through her tears. "It looks like one of them burnt out buildings."

After contemplating the photos, which her estranged husband took when he returned to assess the flood damage, Bryan reached for a Valium from the one-month supply she had been given at Manhattan's Disaster Assistance Service Center. She had been reluctant to take the drug, but if there was ever a time to borrow peace of mind from a tranquilizer, this was it.

Finding that sense of calm and security has been a constant struggle for Bryan since she and her children arrived in New York on Sept. 4. Unlike the Katrina survivors who have ended up in New York City without a support network, the Bryans are living with Vladine's parents in Jamaica, Queens. Joseph and Solange Roche readily offer shelter, money and emotional support, and say that their daughter and grandchildren are welcome to stay as long as they like. However, there still is stress as Bryan struggles to navigate what she feels is an unresponsive relief system and to assuage the trauma that still afflicts her children.

Over 2,000 households from the battered Gulf Coast have gone through the city's Disaster Assistance Service Center, which is run by the Office of Emergency Management. Over 150 survivors remain in FEMA-funded housing, as they are permitted to do until the Feb. 13 deadline. And judging from turnout at city-sponsored long-term housing fairs, most of these families plan to put down roots in New York City. So, in statistical terms, the Bryan family's story represents a small segment of the Katrina Diaspora. But the story also reflects a wider reality -- how, in countless ways across America, an uprooted multitude is searching for permanence and ways to cope with the emotional and psychological effects of forced migration.

"You're permanently in the world in a new way," said Mindy Fullilove, a psychiatrist and author of "Root Shock," a book about the destruction of city neighborhoods. "You're in the world as an individual, whereas previously you were in the world as part of the place."

The title of Fullilove's book equates displaced people with a plant that is ripped out of the ground.

"If you don't replant it, very quickly it dies," said Fullilove of both the uprooted plant and the uprooted person. "The suffering does not stop. The stress, the anxiety, the disturbance of it last, literally, for decades."

Bryan, a curvaceous woman with model looks whose seldom flashes her bright smile these days, manages her anxiety with the occasional sedative. More frequently, she takes long walks alone in the multiethnic residential neighborhood that she now calls home. She is still adjusting both to her return to New York City, where she moved from Haiti at the age of 2, and to the reality of what happened to her three months ago.

From New Orleans to New York

Though they had access to transportation, the Bryans didn't heed the warnings to evacuate New Orleans. Previous evacuations had proven to be unnecessary.

"They're always saying, 'This is the big one,'" Bryan said. "They just happened to be right this time."

Finally, the couple packed up Joseph, 11; Elaine, 8; and Victoria, 6, and went to the Superdome on Sunday, Aug. 28, the day before the hurricane battled the city's decrepit levee system and easily won.

Once inside the dome, the family was unable to locate a familiar face among the 30,000 people taking shelter there. Bryan scanned the crowds for people they could camp next to, but her search was fruitless. She spent five restless nights worried that her children would be abducted.

Victoria remembers the discomfort of those nights and has since told her grandmother that this is why she doesn't want to return to New Orleans: She worries that she will have to sleep upright in a chair again. Joseph, Bryan's 11-year-old, remembers the rising water and pledged to his grandparents that he'll never again live near the coast.

Bryan remembers the physical strain of those days and the subsequent evacuation -- first via bus to Houston and then, with plane tickets bought by her parents, to New York. She calls the result "the Katrina Diet." In one month's time, she lost 45 pounds, dropping from a size 24 to a size 16.

Bryan's weight loss in unsurprising, said Ma'at Lewis-Coles, a psychologist teaching in the Criminal Justice Counseling Department at John Jay College. She and other members of the New York Association of Black Psychologists have been counseling hurricane survivors staying at the Radisson near Kennedy Airport.

"They are suffering physical detriment because of stress," Lewis-Coles said. A disaster of this magnitude and the subsequent displacement affects not only a survivor's psyche but also her physical health, she said.

Bryan's parents were on their own emotional rollercoaster during their daughter's ordeal. There was no electricity or access to phones in the Superdome, and for three days the Roches didn't know whether she was dead or alive. Finally, Bryan was able to borrow a charged cell phone and call Queens.

Joseph Roche, 60, searched for words to explain his relief upon hearing her voice.

"Like when you get burned, then you put some cold water on it," he said, his voice thick with the French accent he carried from Haiti 34 years ago. "That was it."

Bryan and her husband, whose seven-year marriage had been strained in recent months by constant bickering, were separated in the rush to board buses bound for Houston. Their lives were already heading in different directions, said Bryan, and they have decided to divorce. She and the children continued on to her parents' home in Queens, while he has resettled in Virginia.

A different life on familiar turf

Family portraits decorate Joseph and Solange Roche's living room. A studio headshot of a teenaged Bryan hangs on the wall, her flawless complexion and broad smile appearing beneath feathered 1980s bangs. Nearby is a picture of her sister, Manon Roche, 26, who also lives in the house near the F train's Queens terminus. Black-and-white photos taken long ago in Haiti offer a glimpse into the family's history.

The three-bedroom house is now home to four adults and three children. Bryan and her children usually sleep in the guest room. But whenever their room starts to feel cramped, her father said, Bryan sleeps on the sofa bed in the living room, or else the children camp out in his basement office.

Though there are only two bathrooms, Joseph Roche said there have been no squabbles over access. The family's staggered morning schedule helps. At 5:30 a.m. he leaves the house for his job in the dietary department of a nearby nursing home. Bryan leaves to take the children to school at 7 a.m. An hour later, Manon leaves for her job assisting patients in the cancer ward of Long Island Jewish Hospital. Solange, who works as a home attendant, leaves home an hour after that.

According to Roche, the four additional people under his roof haven't made home life more difficult, and he seems proud of how he has been able to respond to his family's crisis.

"I'm very secure," he said. "I can support them as long as they want. I just refinanced the house. I pay my bills."

Roche freelances to supplement his income from the nursing home. Seated at the computer in his basement office, beneath a poster of Bob Marley, he transfers classic and obscure jazz and Caribbean music from his more than 2,000 records onto master-quality CDs and sells them to distributors. He earns between $300 and $400 an album.

In recent months, this additional work has put Roche in a better position to be the benevolent patriarch. He said what he likes most about having his grandchildren close to him is hugging them and being able to give them money.

But to Bryan, the move home has been less rosy. She is anxious to find an apartment and describes what other displaced Katrina survivors have called "evacuee fatigue."

"They think, 'Oh, well you're home and you're safe,'" Bryan said of her parents. "But that's your house. I would give anything just to be able to go back and have my son in his room ignoring everybody, have my daughters fighting each other, jumping off the bed and me screaming at the top of my lungs. I miss just staring out of the window in my bedroom. And people just don't get it."

Bryan's mother gets it more than her daughter may realize. Her own life has been disrupted in smaller, much less devastating ways.

"We're happy to have them, but sometimes …" Solange Roche stopped and hurried to clarify. "I'm not complaining. Everything good you have, you have something bad, too." Her grandchildren often make a mess, she said, but covering the living room furniture with bed sheets has become an effective childproofing system.

Living with her parents has also muddied up interactions with the city's relief agencies, Bryan said.

"The city thinks because I'm at home, everything's OK. Like I didn't lose everything," she said, her voice tinged with irony and anger. Bryan said that because she is not in FEMA-funded housing, she has missed out on certain relief benefits, such as the Wal-Mart gift cards that were given out at the Radisson and information on how to get reimbursed for the plane tickets from Houston.

Bryan has carried her frustrations with FEMA, spurred by their absence from both the Superdome and the Astrodome, here to New York. She is adamant that she has gotten help from individuals, not government agencies.

In October, she received a $1,000 donation from Queens residents bound for the Nation of Islam's Millions More March in D.C. But relying on these informal networks worries Bryan. She expects that people's sympathy and attention will soon be directed elsewhere.

"We're gonna be forgotten," she said. "You don't hear anything about the tsunami anymore, and they're still having problems."

The search for self-sufficiency

Bryan, described by her father as "brilliant" and "the brain of the family," has a degree in political science from Barber-Scotia, a private historically black college in North Carolina. Joseph Roche expected his elder daughter to become a lawyer; Bryan also had high ambitions.

"I was gonna be a politician and rule the world," she said. "But then I realized I'm not really cut out for politics. I'm too honest."

Teaching seemed an honorable way to make a living in New Orleans. This was a common profession among residents in Gentilly, the predominately black, middle-class neighborhood where the Bryan family lived.

Bryan is putting her teaching skills to use now, tutoring at-risk students at Platform Learning in Jamaica, Queens. Bryan said she is able to work three hours each weekday afternoon and earn an income close to her New Orleans teaching salary. Medicaid covers her family's health needs.

"I couldn't handle a 9-to-5 right now," Bryan said. "My kids have too many issues. I have too many issues."

The Bryan children's issues run the gamut, with 8-year-old Elaine exhibiting the most residual trauma. She has nightmares and hoards food, taking more than she needs and hiding it away for safekeeping.

"She feels she has nothing," said Bryan, who inadvertently introduced her daughter to the practice in the Superdome, where she coaxed extra meals-ready-to-eat from National Guardsmen, stockpiled them and carefully rationed the contents to her husband and children. "I think she figured that that's what she has to do to help me."

Victoria, who is 6, lacks her sister's depth of understanding. When she learned that New Orleans had been reopened, she was excited to tell her mother that they could go home.

"The levee broke!" Elaine told her sister. "Don't you know what that means?"

Victoria responded simply: "No."

All three children are receiving counseling at school, but Elaine and 11-year-old Joseph are not yet ready to talk about what has happened.

Joseph has shut down, Bryan said, and showed emotion only after learning that his first-floor bedroom had been hardest hit by the flooding and that his prized possession, a GameCube, hadn't survived. Crying, he told his mother that he wished he could have at least saved the video game equipment from their home.

"That broke my heart," Bryan said. "Because he hasn't asked me for anything."

Joseph's attachment to his video games isn't proof of unhealthy materialism, said Fullilove, the author of "Root Shock."

"Kids know less, so these rituals that they know are much more important," Fullilove said.

Joseph's video games, part of a daily ritual that told him he was home, are gone. Bryan wonders how she will recreate other rituals for her children, like the Halloween festival they attended annually or their involved system of exchanging gifts on Christmas morning.

"That kind of stuff, you can't replace," she said.

Bill Cross, a member of the New York Association of Black Psychologists, said that Bryan's own emotional stability is a prerequisite for her children's.

"The parent mediates the experience," Cross said. "If the parent is stable, the child is stable. If the parent isn't." Cross let his voice trail off, indicating that self-pity and untreated depression are risky options for parents affected by Katrina.

Bryan said she knew that she had to address her own sadness and shock when she realized how much she had neglected her looks. She went to a job interview wearing a headscarf, she said, and she jokes that her haggard appearance had started to attract the wrong kind of attention in the street.

"Guys who shouldn't even try to talk to anybody were trying to talk to me because they thought they had a chance," Bryan said, arching her perfectly plucked eyebrows and laughing.

When Bryan first arrived in New York, she made an appointment with a mental health counselor, but she didn't keep it.

"I just didn't go," she said by way of explanation. Instead, she got a makeover and talks to her father when she needs advice. But Joseph Roche insists that his daughter should see a professional, and Bryan says unconvincingly that she'll reschedule the appointment.

For her, it's the stigma attached to her situation that continues to discourage and anger her.

"Don't call me a refugee, this is my country," Bryan said, recalling her college coursework in international affairs. To her, a refugee is "taking refuge from another country, not another state."

"Everybody's trying to adopt a 'Katrina Family,'" Bryan said, thankful for the gesture but offended by the term.

"Don't label me. I don't want to be considered a 'Katrina Family' or an 'evacuee' or a 'refugee.' I'm an American who's trying to raise her kids."

Dani McClain is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY.