Evacuee city: They live among us

Charlottesville attracts many newcomers because of its best-place-to-live reputation, and that was an appeal for many of the Hurricane Katrina evacuees who landed here. Even among the homeless and jobless, Charlottesville remains a more desirable destination for those escaping devastation than, say, Des Moines or Gary.

Now that they're settling in, though, the hurricane post-traumatic stress isn't over for people who've lost everything– or even those who've just lost their jobs. Will they stay or will they go? The future remains uncertain in Katrina's extended wake.


The Big [Un]Easy

 New Orleans resident Lisa Palumbo rode out Hurricane Ivan last year. But with Katrina, "When I saw Category 5, I said no," she says. She decided to turn the evacuation into an opportunity. "I'd been telling the kids for years I'd take them to Disney World," she says.

So she packed up Rachel, 9, and Alex, 17, drove up to the Jackson, Mississippi, airport (because they couldn't get a flight out of New Orleans), and flew to Orlando August 28 for what she thought was an excursion. "I never imagined we'd be staying away," she says.

Six weeks later when she returned to her house, 100 years old and built on piers, she discovered that water had risen up to the porch, taking out her central air conditioning and heat. The saltwater had destroyed anything green around the house, and wind had taken the siding and parts of the roof. "Water went down inside every wall in the house, and there's mold in every one," she says.

Palumbo feels relatively lucky because she has flood insurance and opted for the hurricane rider. The downside? She has a $50,000 deductible on her paid-for house.

"The worst things I dealt with were two refrigerator/freezers with six weeks of putrified food," she says. One was a new refrigerator that had fit nicely when she bought it. "It was so swollen with the gases, and the wood was so swollen that we couldn't get it out," she says.

Palumbo describes destroying a plaster wall as well as the front door to get the foul fridge out of the house, a process that blew out two sets of dolly wheels. "When we tilted it," she adds, "all this putrid gunk ran out."

When it became clear they weren't returning to New Orleans from Orlando, Palumbo was in contact with friends around the country, trying to decide where to go. "My greatest concern was the ethos of the city," she says, explaining that she wanted a place with good schools and that would be accepting of her biracial child.

She chose Charlottesville, and after staying at the home of an acquaintance in Keswick, she moved into an apartment in Carriage Hill at Pantops on October 22. The Charlottesville Hurricane Relief Initiative helped with two months' rent.

"Those people have been extraordinary," she says, "and University Baptist Church has been tremendously helpful. We really had nothing. We flew in here with what we had in our suitcases."

With shelter taken care of, Palumbo, a musician and an adjunct instructor of marketing at the University of New Orleans, needs work. "I'd love to be able to teach a couple of classes in the spring," she says.

The single mom is trying to look at this as an adventure, a chance to live in a part of the country with four seasons and mountains and hills.

But for all the area's charms, it's hard to adjust, particularly for her son, who misses his friends and was used to walking or biking wherever he wanted to go.

"It's not a city," she says of Charlottesville, "and we're all city people." And as a musician and songwriter, she says, "I haven't found my place in the music world."

Palumbo, whose mother lives outside New Orleans, knows she'll be going back, but not when.

"One of the big question marks is school for the kids," she says. "They're not up and running, and there are no children in New Orleans. It's very eerie."

Fixing her house remains on the to-deal-with list. Accomplishing that long distance without an income, not to mention a car that needs work and Charlottesville's high cost of living, is part of the continuing challenge of life in a post-Katrina world. And the demise of her trusty Powerbook makes communication all the more difficult.

"I've never had to ask anyone for help," says Palumbo. "That's been very difficult for me."


Fleeing Baton Rouge

 Tamika Derozen ran into disaster two days before Katrina struck, when her fiancĂ© was killed and her Baton Rouge apartment turned into a crime scene.

And then the hurricane hit. She took her two small sons– now three months and four years old– and moved in with a friend who sheltered 15 people in her apartment.

"The landlord evicted her," says Derozen. "We were without utilities, and the crime level increased." And Baton Rouge was flooded with evacuees from New Orleans, making it impossible to find another place to rent, she says.

Her girlfriend started calling social service agencies around the country and finally got through to a woman in Goochland County, who said she'd be waiting. The group of 14 started out in three cars. When one broke down, they continued in two cars. "I came to Charlottesville with only a garbage bag full of clothes," Derozen says.

The social worker in Goochland put the group in touch with the Red Cross here, which in turn referred her to Kim Kuttner, who found housing for eight Katrina families as her husband, Oliver, and his business partner, David New, prepared to take the Starlight Express motorcoaches to Mississippi after the hurricane.

Derozen is now living with her sons in a house in Woolen Mills, and she has started a job at Crutchfield. "I'm actually just starting to get into the swing and getting out some," she says, after the loss of her fiancĂ©, her home– and even her father, who died three weeks after she arrived here. Hurricane Rita prevented her from attending his funeral.

She's overwhelmed by the generosity of Charlottesvillians. Her landlord gave her six months free rent, and she calls the donor of her car "my angel, because I wouldn't be able to get to work without it." And she worries about the many anonymous donations because, "I can't write a thank-you note."

The idea of raising her children here appeals to Derozen because it's so edu-centric with the university. "Louisiana is poverty stricken," she says. "It's not a good place to stay. The crime is terrible."

Unlike many evacuees who feel isolated from family and friends, Derozen's party of 14 includes both her sister and her girl friend, all of whom have found housing here.

"I plan to stay," says Derozen, who was studying cosmetology when disaster struck. "Of course, the cost of living is higher. If I can't afford to survive here, I may have to go back."

She says her apartment in Baton Rouge was looted, and she misses having a home computer. Her four-year-old wants his bike, toys, and Batman room. "It's hard to leave everything behind," she says.

For now, she's just trying to get her life back. "I'm just taking one day at a time," she says. "I know I'm not going to accumulate everything all at once."


Lab loss

 As Andy Catling and his 7 1/2-months-pregnant wife, Denise Newman, sat in a motel room in Texarkana on the Texas/Arkansas border watching CNN, it became pretty clear they weren't going to be able to return to their house in New Orleans. And it was also obvious that a need for good medical care loomed in their future.

"It was a no-brainer to come back here," says Catling. Both had been employed at UVA before moving in 2002, so they stayed at first with a friend before renting an apartment at Jefferson Ridge.

The good news is that their house in New Orleans is relatively unscathed, suffering damage only from a tree that punched a hole in the roof and damaged the deck. "We were very lucky," notes Catling. "Three or four blocks north of us there were flood waters."

The bad news: Catling's lab at LSU, where he was an assistant professor in health sciences, was destroyed. "It's a monumental task to rebuild a lab," he says. "I don't have the money to go buy equipment. I don't have the custom reagents– " the DNA and antibodies that can take a year to replace. And of course, there's the loss of the work itself.

His former colleagues at UVA, where he'd done post-doctoral work as a junior faculty member, are helping him set up a temporary lab. Mike Weber, the director of the Cancer Center, found some space, says Catling, and the microbiology and hematology/oncology departments have pitched in.

Perhaps most amazing to Catling is that six members of his LSU team– plus one of Newman's students from Tulane, where she had a research lab in child development– have relocated here, and he credits Kuttner and Robert Tobey's Charlottesville Hurricane Relief Initiative for finding housing and furnishings for them.

"It was worse for the people who followed me here," says Catling, noting that some lost homes and cars.

On the income end, Catling and his staff are still being paid by LSU, and he still has federal grants. And four of his staff just got back from New Orleans, collecting whatever material was salvageable from the severely damaged LSU research building.

In the long term, Catling plans to move back to New Orleans and to repair the classic Victorian the couple had just bought.

"This experience has revealed the good parts of human nature– the exception has been our insurance company," he says.

Health insurance is a happier topic, and the baby– due date November 27– is set to enter this world at Martha Jefferson Hospital.


Fear of flooding

 Evangeline McKinnon is on the phone with her insurance company– a common activity for Katrina survivors. She's still trying to get a settlement for her car that was flooded in eastern New Orleans, because living carless on Pantops Mountain can be difficult.

McKinnon is one of Catling's lab staff, and she decided to follow her job and relocate here. When she left New Orleans with her boyfriend and headed to Texas, "We thought we'd just be gone a couple of days and packed for that." She remained there a month.

Her parents were in the process of moving when Katrina struck and now have to deal with the loss of two houses. And McKinnon, who lives with them, had moved a lot of her belongings to the new house. Those possessions and the furniture she bought are all ruined.

McKinnon admits she's still angry with local and state government and the inability of its levee system to protect New Orleans.

"I was upset," she says. "And when I saw the chaos and people dying in the street– there was anger at that. Then there was denial. I came to hope things weren't as bad as they were– but they were."

Life is more stable– for the moment. She's sharing a Carriage Hill apartment with her coworker, Ashok Pullikuth, who has a car. She lauds the efforts of the local Red Cross and the Charlottesville Hurricane Relief Initiative in setting them up with furniture and free rent. "That's really helping us," she says. "You really do have to start over, and you don't have the funds to do so."

As for the future, McKinnon plans to go back once the Louisiana State University Medical Center is up and running.


"I've had my doubts," she confesses. "I considered finding another job in another state. I don't know if I can take another hurricane." And even when LSU reopens, it's going to be hard to keep her job if she doesn't have a place to live there.

The flooding of New Orleans also has deeply affected McKinnon's mother, who grew up there. "She says she doesn't want to live in the city again," McKinnon says. "There's the fear: is this going to happen again? I'm not too keen on it myself."

McKinnon commends Charlottesville's hospitality, comparing it to that at home. But what makes her homesick are New Orleans' cultural qualities: food, music, atmosphere.

"I miss the food most," says McKinnon, who even after losing everything, still dreams of gumbo.

Personal tragedy compounded with Katrina made Tamika Derozen homeless. She's working toward a new life for herself and her sons in Charlottesville.


Lisa Palumbo, with Rachel and Alex, weathered Katrina at Disney World. Their home in New Orleans didn't fare so well, and they're regrouping at an apartment on Pantops.


Charlottesville was a logical destination for Andy Catling and Denise Newman because of their ties to UVA and the town before moving to Louisiana.


Evangeline McKinnon wants to go back to New Orleans– but what if it floods again?


LSU researchers came here to set up a temporary lab– and temporary lives. From left: Electa Park, Ashok Pullikuth,
Evangeline McKibbon, Andy Catling, Tanja Milosavljevic, Ashok Pullikuth.