Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Local Katrina refugees struggle to rebuild lives


Chris Leavy, who fled Hurricane Katrina for what he thought would be a 'three-day party trip,' is studying nursing in Toledo and hopes to return someday to New Orleans.


After Hurricane Katrina struck a year ago today, Kevin Dandridge, Sr., his fiancee, his parents, and 14 other members of his family fled New Orleans for his ex-wife's three-bedroom home in Toledo.

Participants in one of the largest mass migrations in the nation's history, they stayed at the home on West Poinsetta Avenue until March. That's when they moved back to New Orleans and into a trailer home provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

They have spent the past year struggling to rebuild their lives, but they are still faced with a lot of uncertainty - including the threat from developing storms such as Hurricane Ernesto, now expected to strike Florida.

"We don't know what is going to happen to us," Mr. Dandridge, 40, said. He added that a sense of desperation is once again setting in.

"There is still something stale about life in much of New Orleans," he said. "We have been living in this FEMA trailer since we came back in March, and we don't know how long we are going to stay or keep it."

Many people in New Orleans are in the same situation, said his fiancee, Renata Dotson, 26, noting that people who evacuated the city early or during the storm had no understanding of the scale of devastation and what the rebuilding process would cost.

"People are trying to rebuild their homes and reopen their businesses, but everything is moving very slowly because people just don't have the resources," Ms. Dotson said. "You still can't see a lot of people in New Orleans, and many of the people we know are frustrated because they lost many aspects of their livelihood."

Ms. Dotson, whose 6-year-old boy is enrolled in school again, herself re-enrolled at ITT Technical Institute in St. Rose, La., where she is a junior majoring in computer science and networking systems. She said that she and Mr. Dandridge decided not to rebuild their three-bedroom house in New Orleans' Ninth Ward because the neighborhood is "pretty much a ghost town."

Katrina's devastation forced Matt and Sheryl Frught to leave behind a 5-week-old son in a New Orleans intensive care unit and move with their other two children to live with relatives in Port Clinton.

The Frughts said they have spent the past year worrying about much more than their house and financial recovery.

"New Orleans is a mess and we have had to deal with a lot of issues. The storm tremendously interrupted all our lives, but even without the storm our lives were already complicated. We still have a baby to worry about," said Mr. Frught, 34.

The couple's now 1-year-old son, Dylan, was born prematurely in July, 2005. He was eventually transported from New Orleans to the intensive-care unit at Toledo Children's Hospital by ProMedica Health System. His condition has improved substantially.

"Dylan is now off the respirator, his lungs are much more developed, and many of the digestive problems he had have passed," Mr. Frught said, noting that a slight vision problem remains.

Mr. Frught said that his wife Sheryl, 34, and their other sons, Kyle, 9 and Austin, 2, were overwhelmed by the outpouring of support they got from family and friends both in Ohio and Louisiana.

"We were blessed to have ProMedica and the people in Toledo and Port Clinton, who were phenomenal in helping us through donations and enrolling our children in schools there," Mr. Frught said.

An auto mechanic who works for a group of dealerships in New Orleans, Mr. Frught returned with his family to Louisiana in February. To their amazement, much of the damage and debris at the family's home in Metairie, La., a suburb of New Orleans, had been cleaned up by friends and relatives.

Nicholas Crawford and his family were not as lucky. A Toledo native, Mr. Crawford has been living in Angie, La., outside Bogalusa, about 70 miles northeast of New Orleans, since 1998, when he was stationed in Louisiana with the Navy.

"Coming back [after Katrina] was scary. The whole place looked like a war zone," recalled Mr. Crawford, 27, a nursing student at Louisiana Technical College in Bogalusa.

Mr. Crawford said that he and his wife, Ginger, 33; son, Noah, 8; and daughter Ansley, 5, rode out the hurricane but left their home on Aug. 31, 2005, because conditions after the storm became unbearable.

The family moved in with Mr. Crawford's mother in Toledo and stayed for three weeks. They returned to Louisiana to find "total chaos," he recalled. "It was nerve-wracking. I remember going to Wal-Mart and watching National Guard troops escort people around the store. For the first few nights we were back, many families had to protect themselves from looters."

Now, a year later, Mr. Crawford said much of the attention continues to be focused on New Orleans, while other communities in Louisiana and Mississippi continue to be neglected in the nation's psyche.

"Everybody is still worried about New Orleans," said Mr. Crawford, who works for the Louisiana Department of Labor. "How about people like us in other parts of the Gulf Coast? There is still a lot of debris that has not been cleaned up, many people still live in FEMA trailer homes, and much of the damage that happened here is still very obvious."

Many people, he said, have stopped looking to the federal and state governments for help to save them or to help them rebuild.

Hard work, perseverance, and a will to rebuild is also the message Chris Leavy gives people who ask him how people in New Orleans are coping with the devastation of their homes and lives.

A New Orleans native, Mr. Leavy, 34, is now a nursing student at Mercy College of Northwest Ohio in Toledo. He recalls leaving New Orleans a year ago yesterday for what he thought would be a "three-day party trip" and to escape the storm.

"My friend and I left New Orleans headed for Lafayette in the afternoon and we were basically going for three days," recalled Mr. Leavy, a former waiter at the Hard Rock Cafe in New Orleans.

But faced with the bumper-to-bumper traffic and a 17-hour trip that normally takes two hours, Mr. Leavy said he realized that Katrina was unlike other storms." He ended up moving to his aunt's home in Toledo.

A nursing student at Delgado Community College in New Orleans, he said that he decided to stay in Toledo because Mercy College agreed to accept him into its nursing program.

"I have been back to New Orleans a number of times and the place looks like a hydrogen bomb went off," he said. "But people [there] are strong and dedicated. We will rebuild the city and we are going to make it. I am waiting for my turn when I can go back and do my part."

Contact Karamagi Rujumba at: or


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