Building New Lives after Katrina

Hurricane Katrina was one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history displacing an estimated 1.5 million people. About 300,000 of these evacuees were grade school and college students, who are now living in temporary homes and attending new schools across the country.

JoAnn Bruster is one of these students, who used to live in Terrytown, La., a parish of New Orleans. A Social Work graduate student, she was enrolled at Southern University in New Orleans. JoAnn is now staying with her friend in Houston, Texas and is attending University of Houston, where she hopes to finish her master's degree by the end of the year.

JoAnn Bruster spoke to WireTap from her new home on October 12 about her evacuation from Louisiana and her new post-Katrina life.

Could you describe your experience with Hurricane Katrina?

We left the day before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Sunday, August 28. We were actually going to stay in a hotel in Metairie, right behind the airport, and we decided not to because we saw how bad it was getting.

When we left Metairie, there was a lot of traffic. So we got off the interstate and took the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Bridge and then we took a back road up the 55. Once we got on 55, we went all the way to Littlerock, Ark.

I was traveling with my younger sister, my roommate Brandi Dortch, her son Brandon, who was about 8 months old, and a few people in another car from her job. She is employed with JetBlue airlines, and they have a station at the Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans.

When we went to Little Rock, Ark., her job had already had a hotel waiting for us there. They took good care of us. They paid for the hotel, they paid for the meals, and we stayed there for about three days. But then we still weren't ever sure if we were going to get back into the city. So we left there and went to Clinton, Miss. Now that's when it really started getting bad, in Clinton.

Why did you decide to go there?

We were trying to get as close to the city [New Orleans] as possible. At that time we thought they were going to let us back in and we tried to get as close as we could to avoid some of the traffic. But when we got to Clinton, we got a word that the storm had hit and that it was really bad and they weren't sure if they were going to let people back into the city. ... The levees had just broke, the houses and streets were beginning to flood. And we stayed there for two days.

We then went to Bulmont, Texas. Her job once again had another hotel and people waiting on us. By the time we got to Bulmont, we realized that we weren't going to be able to go back home. So it was like a change from a couple of days vacation to making some serious life decisions.

At that point, I had no idea what to do because my home is in New Orleans, I've been living in New Orleans all my life, and I always said that once I finished up with my education in New Orleans that I would leave the city and go live somewhere else and then come back in my later life.

I had a very good friend that lived in Bulmont. ... When I get to Bulmont she [Chereese] asked, "What do you want to do because you're not going to be able to go back home?" I said what I need to do is find a school that I can go to because I need to finish up my education. I can't do anything without my education. She said, "Well, I'm going to call you back tomorrow and let you know what I find out."

She called me the next day -- by then it was Tuesday or Friday, at that point all the days were running together. She told me, "I talked to the Dean of the University of Houston. You are registered. You need to be here Tuesday to go talk to them and sign papers."

I said, "What?!" And she replied, "JoAnn, have you been watching the news?" I said I stopped watching the news because it was making me too sad. She said that New Orleans is under water. I said, "What?! I heard that the levee broke, but I thought it was just in Metairie." She replied, "No, the water has went totally into the Ninth ward, the Ninth ward is flooded. Quite possibly your school is under water." My school did suffer a lot of damage, every building on my campus got water to the second floor.

By that next Tuesday, I brought my little sister back to Louisiana but went to St. Francisville to be with my dad and my grandmother. And I left and went to Houston.

When I got to Houston, it was still not real. It was just not real. I went to the University of Houston, met with the dean and the admissions person of the school of social work, the graduate school, and they just took me right then and there. They wanted to know how we were doing, what we needed, and that was it. They had been really, really kind. They provided book vouchers to get the books, and the school gave us IDs, and you know they had truly accepted us into their university. [According to JoAnn, the master's in social work program at the University of Houston accepted 20 students from New Orleans, now there are 6.]

I can stay at the University of Houston and I plan to stay, but it's quite possible that I might not have any money to finish up my last semester because of this storm. So we need, all of us. And when I'm talking about all of us, I mean everybody from Louisiana, all the Gulf Coast schools, we need the federal government to make a decision on what they're going to do. It's not our fault. We're definitely the ones who are going to be penalized because of this situation.

One of my classmates who had left New Orleans had just gotten her refund check. That means she had to take herself, her four kids, and go to another state, and she used that money for living expenses -- for hotels, food, shelter. That money that we budgeted for the semester, has now been used as living expenses. So now that we're at another school, we can't expect these other schools to take us in for free.

Some of my classmates that were with me at Southern University, who came to University of Houston, have left it, and went back to Southern Baton Rouge -- our main campus ... I'm not planning on doing that because I always said that when I get through my education in New Orleans, I was going to leave any ways. So I'm staying [at University of Houston].

But how can I survive here in graduate school and not have any income coming in? So unless the Federal Government steps up and help us, we're going to be in some serious trouble. Believe it or not, I've applied for so many jobs -- I mean it's just crazy how many jobs I have applied for -- and I haven't gotten any responses yet.

Was your home flooded and damaged?

There was a time when they were letting people back into the city, but only during the daytime. I went back and did get all my stuff. And it was messed up -- it looked like somebody had broken in, but didn't take anything. I'm just thinking they were looking for some food or some shelter.

The roof was damaged. There was some water damage in two of the bedrooms. One of the closets had a lot of water damage, and some of the clothes were messed up. It was minor compared to a lot of other people.

The houses surrounding my house were really messed up. I saw trees on houses. I saw one house where there was one entire side gone.

How is your family doing?

My older sister and her two kids stayed. She lives in Arlene's Parish, on the west bank of the river. When I was able to talk to her, she was in Clinton, Miss., and I was already in Houston. She said that after the storm hit, the following day they still had electricity and water. The neighbors had gotten together and whoever had gas, they were cooking for each other and sharing the food with the neighbors. It was good to hear that people were actually taking care of each other.

And then the water went out, the electricity went out, and things started getting worse. The businesses around her home, they were starting to be broken into. This is when the looting started going on. So she got scared for her and her kids and a bus came by. The bus was loading up people and she left and this bus took her to the Causeway Bridge.

I don't know if you remember seeing in the news where they actually had people under the Causeway Bridge ... just standing there. A bus had taken them there and just dropped them off there. Well, my sister, my niece, and my nephew were three of those people. They stayed there for about 24 hours and then another bus came and took them to Clinton, Miss.

When she went to Clinton, Miss. is when she could contact me. And after that, she went to Atlanta, where she is now. My niece and my nephews are in school, they're having a great time, they're making new friends. She's actually making plans to relocate there. She's going back to New Orleans on Friday and she's going to stay there through the weekend to make arrangements and move her and the kids permanently to Atlanta.

I haven't been back to the city ever since I got my stuff. I would like to go. But where would I stay, what would happen? There is so much unknown to where it might be more of a danger to go back than not to go.

How do you think the government handled Hurricane Katrina -- mainly the federal government?

[Laughs] I think the government did a very poor job. Saying we have the strongest military force, and we are supposed to be the richest country in the world, it's totally amazing to me that we have people right here in our own country that suffered so hard and for so long.

I just don't blame our Federal Government. I also blame our local and state government. I'm pretty sure when those persons got into office, someone sat down and said those levees can only stand a Category 3. I mean, what do we pay these people for? I honestly believe that from federal to local to state, they did not do a good job, and they're still not doing a good job.

Do you think our government could have done a better job with the evacuation process?

Yes. Those helicopters we pay so much taxes for could have done a whole lot, and they didn't. I'm really disappointed at all of it. I'm hoping and praying that, it's got to get better.

What do you think about President George W. Bush's reaction to Hurricane Katrina?

First of all, I'm not a huge George Bush fan. His values are totally different from mine. But as my president he had every responsibility for every person in the Gulf Coast. He had the major responsibility of making sure the citizens of this country are okay and he failed miserably. There was so much that he could have done that he didn't even try to do and then when he tried to do something it was so half-assed it didn't even matter if he did it or not. It just did not make any sense to me.

Do you think certain parts of New Orleans or the Gulf Coast were treated better than others?

I really feel like they were really treated the same: really bad, really wrong. They were totally disregarded as tax-paying citizens -- even if it wasn't for the fact that they were poor, black, white, or whatever. Just for the fact that they were tax-paying citizens, they were treated unfairly.

What do you think needs to happen now in New Orleans?

I think every person in the federal government -- from the President to the Vice-President to Congress and the Senate -- needs to go live in New Orleans so that they would know exactly what is going on there. If they don't get off their butts and fix this problem it can only get worse. For an American city to die ... it's a very bad thing. That means that anybody in the world could come to this country and just do anything.

I think they need to send more money to the Gulf Coast. I think they need to rebuild New Orleans as soon as possible. And I think they need to get these people back home and get them some type of security to let them know that they're safe. And I think it's not going to happen without the media. It is going to be a slow process in rebuilding but the media needs to help and not hinder.

Are you talking about the exaggerated reports?

I actually did see a lot of those reports. And actually I did see some people looting. I saw most people carrying food. I didn't see people carrying TVs and stuff like that. You only saw one or two carrying TVs. And they [the media] made it seem like everybody were doing it.

The people at that time were facing hunger -- they didn't know where their next meal was going to come from -- they didn't know where they were going to get their drinking water from. So in that time when nobody was there to help them, and they were looting for food and for water and for drink -- I had no problem with that.

And I heard one report that said that in the ninth ward 90 percent of the houses in the ninth ward are rental houses. So not true. I would say 95 percent of the houses in the ninth ward are owned by families for generations. And all of those homeowners are going to need help in rebuilding.

I don't think that companies, or governmental agencies, should go in and offer these people money to sell their property. I mean, if they sell their property, where else are they going to go in this country and find housing? It makes no sense to me. They have the land, all they need to do is rebuild. And I think it should be the homeowners' decision, not someone else's.

How do you feel about mainstream media's coverage of Hurricane Katrina?

I think they're reporting half-facts. For example, the homeownership in the ninth ward I mentioned earlier.

OK, say for instance, you have a lot of money. You know for a fact that New Orleans is going to be revamped and rebuilt. If I had a lot of money, I could go down there and say, you know what, I'm going to buy this property and do what I want with it. Meaning they could turn it into something that is not accessible for low-income people. Of course, New Orleans is one of the lowest income [cities] in this country so these people are going to need help. They don't need anyone offering them money for a temporary fix, it has to be a long-term fix.

What are your plans for the future?

My plan is to finish graduate school. That's my first priority. When I get out of graduate school I know for a fact that there's going to be a lot of need for social service agencies. It really seemed like a good idea to get away, and see other things, but if I don't help out my home to rebuild, who else is going to help my home rebuild. And I know for a fact that in order for me to help, I am going to need an education.

Then I'm going to go back home and help rebuild the best I can. And I'm going to fight for those things that I know for a fact that people are going to need -- food, food stamps, and possibly welfare for a while. I want to be one of those people that help.

How are you doing now? What could make your life easier now?

(Laughs) Right now, Houston, University of Houston, my friend Chereese here, her family, they have done everything to support me, to help me do all of this. And I'm really appreciative. I'm fine right now. My life is getting back to normal. I don't think it'll ever be back to quite where it was when I was living in New Orleans, but it's getting back to normal.

I love New Orleans. I miss New Orleans. And believe me, I do believe that it's going to come back stronger than ever.

I'm really looking towards our leaders to help in every way they can. Not just temporarily but long-term.

I'm making sure that I write to Congress, the White House, and my representatives from home to let them know as a registered voter that they're going to do everything they can for these people, for my people, and even for the people here in Texas.

The people in Texas have invested a lot into us. And they didn't have to do it, but I'm thankful that they did. The people in Texas need to replenish the funds that they used for us instead of their own citizens.

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