A decade ago, when Renata Toney walked her aunt to the bus stop near her home in the 7th Ward, it meant a stroll to the corner and a kiss goodbye until tomorrow.
Not anymore. Last weekend, Toney, 35, waited in line with her aunt until the Megabus came and her aunt boarded it. Instead of a 15-minute trip across town, she was headed home to Atlanta, where she’s been living since she evacuated after Hurricane Katrina. It will be months before they see each other again.
Toney’s whole family is scattered like this. Many are in Texas, others in Georgia, Kansas and North Carolina. Toney herself lives in St. Bernard Parish.
“Before the storm, everybody was here in New Orleans,” she said, and the farthest anyone thought of straying was Slidell or the West Bank.
Today, families like Toney’s are common, especially within the city’s black community. New Orleans had 99,650 fewer black residents in 2010 than it did a decade before, compared with 11,494 fewer white residents, according to census figures.
All of these departures have slashed at the city’s network of extended families, the generations of children who stayed in the same neighborhoods, blocks or even houses one decade after the next.
A RAND Corp. study in 2011 found that multi-generational families, where adult children lived with parents, were “especially common” here before the storm — a whopping 50 percent more prevalent in New Orleans than nationally. The year after Katrina, half of those adult children were no longer living with their parent, RAND researchers found.
For many, the loss of relatives and neighbors means a more strained daily existence: turning to Western Union to wire money for the light bill instead of going down the street to an uncle’s house; missing a day of work for a child running a fever because the close relatives or elderly neighbors who used to be around aren’t there anymore; not feeling safe on the porch at dusk because no one else in the neighborhood is home.
“Since the storm, New Orleans is everywhere,” said Roy Simon, 62, who is the last of his family in the city and lives in a renovated house in the Carrollton area that his grandchildren used to call “the big house.” The family that once surrounded him is mostly in Houston, lured by better jobs and higher pay.
Post-Katrina decisions to return — or not — were shaped both by sheer luck and by key high-level policies.
Many of the city’s lowest-income black renters found their homes shuttered after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development decided to demolish and remake the so-called “Big Four” public housing developments, a decision later ratified by the City Council.
Only about half of the 3,077 families who had lived in the Big Four were back in New Orleans by 2011, according to the Housing Authority of New Orleans. And only 7 percent of those original families were living in the new developments that replaced the Big Four. The rest had been scattered.
James Perry, former head of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, argues that the state’s Road Home program also played a major role in displacing black residents. The program calculated the size of a grant for rebuilding a storm-damaged home based on its pre-storm value, rather than the actual cost of replacing the structure. And that often meant smaller grants for homeowners in black neighborhoods. Perry says the formula — later ruled discriminatory by a federal judge — forced many black residents to make homes elsewhere.
There were also barriers for residents who qualified for rental assistance through HUD’s Section 8 program. Many evacuees found themselves in Section 8 housing in the states where they landed after the storm, but HANO would not always accept a transfer back to New Orleans, unable or unwilling to foot the bill.
And then there were the many random factors that played into the individual decisions of thousands of people. Some found jobs elsewhere; others found schools that seemed to hold out better opportunities for their children. Some had the money to rebuild and the family to lean on while they did; others didn’t have those resources to draw on.
In their book “Left to Chance,” sociologists Pam Jenkins, Vern Baxter and Steve Kroll-Smith reject attempts to make the post-storm chaos fit into any easily discernible pattern.
“For each person, it was different,” Jenkins said. “It’s not like you can point to one factor.”
Driving the departures
For Cowana Edward, 41, it was violence that pushed her out of the city a second time.
She was living near the corner of Milton and Gibson streets when the levees broke, spilling 8 feet of water into her former home in the St. Bernard public housing development. She and her extended family slept on the causeway on their way to Houston, where she stayed for two years before she moved back for a stint.
Now she wishes she’d never returned.
In December 2011, behind the rebuilt Lafitte development, her son, 17-year-old Corey Thompson, was shot to death in broad daylight. Friends said the gunman was angry at Thompson’s friends but decided to shoot him instead — the kind of story that makes headlines every few days in New Orleans.
After that, Edwards wanted only to leave town. She had done it before. She would head back to Houston.
“The crime rate is too high,” she said. “It’s disgusting, sick.”
Edwards and her two younger children come back occasionally to visit family, but she doesn’t even want to go out at night during her visits.
“I’m at peace when I’m at home,” she said. “In Houston.”
Renata Toney worries about crime too, but it was the schools that lured her to St. Bernard Parish.
After the storm, her family came back to New Orleans, where her daughter quickly began falling behind in class. When she moved to Violet, where Toney works as a security guard, her daughter got extra help from her teachers. Eventually, she caught up to grade level.
It still pains her to live away from her old neighborhood. She and her partner, Robert Evans, 48, still reminisce about the pre-Katrina block parties with disc jockeys, second-line parades and family get-togethers that lasted all day.
Now, instead of regular family dinners on Sunday, there’s an annual family reunion coordinated through text messages and Facebook.
If she could find a school she could trust in New Orleans, she’d be back. “I would move back to the city in a second,” Toney said.
Tough journey back
The stories of many families who did find a way to resettle in New Orleans illustrate just how difficult the journey could be.
In the St. Roch neighborhood, family ringleader Nelda Millon, 67, reports that all of her extended family is back in town, within 10 minutes of her repaired home on Galvez Street. Her daughter, Kazanda Millon, lives a few minutes away in the redone Lafitte housing development, now called Faubourg Lafitte.
The Millon family is deeply rooted here. Nelda’s brother, the late Jake Millon, was a well-known big chief of the White Eagles Mardi Gras Indians tribe. Her grandson, Reginald, is a jazz drummer. Kazanda works as a security guard for nearly every music festival in town and, on her off-days, often goes to see brass bands at second-line parades and community events. Scarcely a Sunday goes by without the Millon family in the pews at Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church.
Yet Nelda Millon gave serious thought to relocating. In the days after Katrina, she and more than two dozen family members ended up in suburban Phoenix, driving in a caravan of 10 cars from Houston, which had become too crowded with evacuees.
Soon after the storm, Millon was laid off from her job at the city’s Mosquito, Termite, and Rodent Control Board, where she was three years short of retirement.
With her job gone, she made plans to stay in her quiet neighborhood in Phoenix. “I felt safer there,” she said. “I could take the dog for a walk, and I didn’t worry about looking over my shoulder.”
Then Millon received a letter from the state’s Road Home program, which was offering residents the option of selling storm-wrecked properties to the government or accepting money to rebuild. She opened it and was shocked to see that the program had offered her only $50,000 for the shotgun double she had called home for nearly three decades. Instead of selling, she opted to take the grant and rebuild.
Ironically, if it weren’t for the paltry offer, “I would still be in Arizona,” she says now.
And as Nelda went, so went the Millon family. “If she hadn’t come back, no one would have,” daughter Kazanda said.
Once Nelda made her decision, in October 2006, the family packed up and moved to Houston to get her within driving distance of New Orleans. Around the same time, her nephews began fixing their mothers’ houses in New Orleans, so that her sisters could return, too.
For nearly a year, she would drive to New Orleans for a few days to check on contractors in St. Roch. Then she would head back to Houston, making a last stop at Castnet Seafood in eastern New Orleans so that she could carry some local seafood back with her.
At some point in 2007, Nelda tired of the back-and-forth and moved in with a nephew in Elmwood. Several months later, she moved home, though it took her months to locate a charity that could help pay for a moving truck.
Her daughter Kazanda soon followed, putting her possessions in storage until she could get moving assistance and find an apartment using her Section 8 voucher. She stayed with her mother for about six months. Dozens of other family members used Nelda’s house as a crucial first stop as they, too, moved back home.
Moving expenses were a big hitch for displaced families.
Many charities ran out of money for those types of costs or required months of notice. And for the first few years after Katrina, FEMA had a reimbursement-only policy for families moving home. Later, pushed by legal advocates, the agency began paying for moving trucks upfront, but only for a limited amount of time.
The Housing Authority of New Orleans was also sporadic about moving expenses, paying some money to scattered families early on, then refusing to pay for a few crucial years. In late 2009, HANO federal receiver David Gilmore reinstated the support.
Nelda Millon is both happy to be home and disappointed to see St. Roch destabilized by the loss of many older neighbors, to the point where she doesn’t feel comfortable walking by herself in the early morning. She shakes her head as she thinks back to 2006 and wonders if she would make the same decision knowing what she knows now.
“It was a time, I’m telling you,” she said. “If it happened again, I would never do it again. I’m too old.”
Reunited in death
In 2005, Jackie Brown’s mother, Emma Drayton McElveen, decided she was too old to rebuild.
McElveen, then 88, was heartbroken over the flooded city but knew she could not return to her home in the Upper 9th Ward. When she got her Road Home letter, she checked Option 3, selling the house to the state.
“New Orleans is my home,” she told her daughter, with whom she lived in Houston. “But I won’t be alive to see it come back. Just bring me home when I die.”
When McElveen died in 2009 at age 92, Brown followed her instructions, laying her mother to rest in Providence Memorial Park in New Orleans.
The following year, the family finished going through the succession process on her mother’s flooded home on North Johnson Street.
Now, Brown, 68, merely wants to complete the sale to Road Home that her mother had previously begun. It took time to go through two successions, for her mother and father, who had died previously. Staff changes and lost paperwork also have contributed to delays, she said.
In the midst of it all, Brown is torn. Since she and her siblings all live out of state now, she is anxious to be done. She will be glad to no longer have to oversee 9th Ward lawnmowing from her home in Texas.
But sometimes she takes a deep breath and realizes that once she signs that title away, it will mark the end of her family’s legal ties to her home city.
“In my heart of hearts, there’s no place like New Orleans,” she said. “That’s home.”
In Texas, life is different, said Brown, an inveterate walker who often strolled to her job at the federal courthouse.
On her time off, there were rides on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, shopping on Magazine Street and time spent in Jackson Square, watching the fountain and listening to jazz.
“Really, I’m making myself content where I’m at,” Brown said. “I’ll always miss home. Like my mother, when I die, I will come home.”