KATRINA EVACUEES
REBORN IN OMAHA

Some stay, some will go home, but no one was untouched

By Erin Grace / World-Herald staff writer

Saturday, August 29, 2015


It is hot, downright New Orleans-in-August sweltering, inside a food truck parked in Millard’s industrial backyard on a breezy Nebraska day last week.

10 years later

Look back on The World-Herald’s 2005 coverage of Hurricane Katrina and see how the landscapes of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast have changed, 10 years after the horrific storm.

Lee Franklin Jr. is sweating up a storm as he breads a handful of fat shrimp, then throws them into a bath of boiling oil for lunchtime po’boys. The 44-year-old chef moves quickly, nearly matching the pace of the frenetic, buoyant brass band playing on his phone. It’s this music that sustains him. It’s this music, more than the Creole seasoning he sprinkles on the fries, the hot-hot humidity inside the truck, even the paint on his truck declaring “A Taste of New Orleans,” that transports Chef Lee back home.
Man, does he miss New Orleans.
But, man, is he glad he lives in Omaha.
Omaha was his refuge after Katrina. It has been his home since. And considering the new kidney he got in an operation here, the business he started here and the new direction he has found after a criminal past filled with drugs and guns, Chef Lee knows what Omaha means to him.
“Omaha,” Chef Lee says, “saved my life.”

On Aug. 30, 2005, after being rescued from his home by boat, Brian Gayton cries for his grandmother, who he lost during Hurricane Katrina in the 9th Ward district. GALLERY See more photos from the fourteen days following Katrina through the eyes of the photojournalists who witnessed the disaster.

A forced separation

It has been 10 years since the force of nature and failure of man known as Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast, swamping one of America’s great cities. The loss was catastrophic. The trauma still lingers. The Category 3 storm, the subsequent storm surge around the low-lying, water-ringed city, and the levee breaches — more than 50 of them in New Orleans — wound up killing hundreds, maybe even a thousand, in the city. Katrina death estimates overall range up to 1,800. The events displaced some 1.5 million people, forcing one of the largest abrupt relocations in U.S. history.
People fleeing Katrina landed everywhere in the days and weeks following. Houston took in the most, some 250,000 exiles at first. At least 1,400 came to Omaha.
Most evacuees made their way back to the Gulf Coast region within a year, some back to their very homes. One government study found that in terms of finding jobs and staying off government assistance, those who returned tended to be better off than those who stayed in their adopted cities — at least in that first year.
Others, however, are examining whether the hurricane was an important game-changer for permanently displaced evacuees who rebuilt lives elsewhere. Author Malcolm Gladwell recently noted that New Orleans had far less upward mobility for poor people than most cities. And he cited a study’s findings that Louisianians who exited prison between 2001 and 2007 and moved away were less likely to commit additional crimes than those who returned home.
The jury is still out on how the Katrina evacuees have fared overall.
But the stories of three individuals whom Katrina forced to Omaha provide a glimpse into how the hurricane changed lives.

Rhonda Braden walks through the destruction in her childhood neighborhood in Long Beach, Miss. on Aug. 31, 2005, after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the area. GALLERY You're on the scene with World-Herald photographer Kent Sievers as he chronicles the ravages of Katrina.

John Coles

As Katrina’s 10th anniversary approached last week, John Coles figured he’d done all the crying he was going to do about it.
But when I reached him in the northeast Nebraska town of Verdigre, where he now lives, the 84-year-old retired engineer and executive stopped speaking for a minute.
“You’ve got me going again,” he says.

John Coles

The pains of leaving and of loss remain sharp for John, who was raised first in southwest Louisiana and then in New Orleans, where his father worked as a motorman on the city’s famous streetcar line. He was 10 when his family settled in New Orleans, and he considers that city home. He got his engineering degree from Tulane University, and he and his Omaha-born wife, Gladys “Dolly” Redman, built their life in nearby Arabi, in St. Bernard Parish, which abuts New Orleans.
They had three children. They also had grit. When Hurricane Betsy struck in 1965, filling their home with 8 feet of water, they stayed.
Then came age. Then came illness. Dolly had diabetic neuropathy, which resulted in around-the-clock care.
When the storm came, John took Dolly to Baton Rouge to wait it out. But there would be no going back. At least not to live.
Water covered their roof by several feet. They didn’t save a thing. All was lost.
John was too old to fight nature. Dolly was too sick.
So they came to Omaha, where their daughter, Patricia Derr, and other family members live.
John lived at 132nd and Maple. He settled Dolly into Skyline Village. She died in 2007.
Restless, John had returned to work. He volunteered for an organization of retired executives called SCORE. He also began selling and repairing mobile homes. That’s how he met his second wife, an accountant named DeAnna.
“I, being a good salesman, sold her a mobile home,” he says. “And she, being a good salesman, sold me.”
Both retired, and two years ago they moved to DeAnna’s native Verdigre.
It’s a long way from New Orleans. John gets back as often as he can to see a son still there, but his old neighborhood is mostly gone.
“It’s 95 percent still open ground now,” he says. “They’ve torn down, bulldozed everything. Removed even the slabs of houses. Mostly it’s just green grass.”
His old friends are gone, too. Some neighbors died waiting out the hurricane. Others scattered and lost touch, or died as they aged.
“I don’t have any of my old friends left,” John said. “That’s what you miss more than anything else.”
The hurricane, he says, teaches this lesson: You come into the world with nothing. You leave the world with nothing, except memories.
“The material things,” he says, “are of no consequence.”

Volunteer Mickey Monceaux, center, uses his boat and one in-tow to rescue residents from a flooded neighborhood on the east side of New Orleans on Aug. 31, 2005. INTERACTIVE GRAPHIC See how New Orleans has been transformed in the 10 years since Katrina.

Andrew Digby

Andrew Digby had no idea where the flight out of Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport was taking him and the others stranded there in the days after Katrina.
It was only on approach, when the pilot said something like “Here’s Omaha,” that the New Orleans cabdriver realized how drastically his life had changed. All he knew of the city was Mutual of Omaha. He figured his stay would be temporary.

Andrew Digby

In August 2005, Andrew was among the stubborn ones who refused to leave as Katrina began gathering strength in the Gulf of Mexico. Then 64, Andrew had lived through hurricanes before. He’d made it through Betsy in ’65. But he wasn’t foolish enough to try to work the day before Katrina hit. Roads out of New Orleans were jammed, but the city’s streets were empty. It wasn’t worth the cab fare to sit stuck in all the evacuating traffic on Interstate 10.
On the morning of Aug. 29, as water crept around his rental home in Chalmette, just east of the city in St. Bernard Parish, Andrew started putting the TV and other appliances on his dining room table.
Too late. The water was chest-high in minutes. It was raining outside, but he had no way of knowing that the levees were breaking.
Andrew managed to get upstairs. He pushed out a window screen and jumped into the water. Unable to swim, he clung to the window ledges and inched his way over to where he knew a fence was. His bare feet found the cyclone fence and he made his way to a metal storage container propped against a tree.
For the next three hours, Andrew clung to that container in pounding rain with winds whipping at least 70 miles an hour. A neighbor found him, tossed a life preserver to him and got Andrew into his flooded house, where they spent the next 11 days living on the second floor. They survived on helicopter airdrops of water and food they had to fetch from the roof.
When the water receded, Andrew and his neighbor walked for help, and Andrew eventually wound up on a flight to Omaha. He arrived in his neighbor’s too-small shoes. A bus ferried everyone to the Civic Auditorium, where Andrew stared, mouth agape, at strangers waving American flags at the bus.
He said to someone “You’d think we were war heroes.”
Well, he was told, in reference to Katrina, you are.
An Omaha volunteer took him shopping and spent $140 on special diabetic shoes for him. He got signed up for Veterans Affairs services. He got a government-subsidized apartment at Underwood Tower.
For a cabdriver used to getting around, Andrew felt marooned in Omaha. He mastered the bus system, but its limitations meant he couldn’t always go where he wanted when he wanted. He cooked for his neighbors. He got treatment for bone cancer.
Now 74, Andrew has decided New Orleans won’t be his past. He is reclaiming the city as his future.
He is giving up his apartment. By the end of September, he is moving back.
“I couldn’t live,” he says, “anyplace else.”

A New Orleans resident walks through floodwaters coated with a fine layer of oil in the flooded downtown area on Aug. 30, 2005. GALLERY See before and after images of areas hit by Katrina.

Lee Franklin Jr.

Chef Lee plans to stay right here in Omaha.
Oh, he loves New Orleans. It is etched on his heart the way the fleur-de-lis is painted on his food truck.
His old life in that city was a trap, though, and if it weren’t for Katrina, he thinks he would be dead or in prison by now.

VIDEO Chef Lee Franklin Jr. cooks the way his mother and grandmother taught him to prepare traditional Louisiana dishes.

The former high school football player went to the University of Arkansas but dropped out and returned home at age 19 where he saw friends making fast money by selling drugs. By 1996 Lee was in so deep that, by his account, a man robbed him, pointed a gun at him and pulled the trigger. But the gun jammed.
Lee pulled a gun, too. It didn’t jam. According to court records, Lee was charged with second-degree murder, though he said it was self-defense. The charge was dropped. Then he was charged with drug possession in 1997 and indicted for drug trafficking in 2001 as part of a federal sting. He was serving a five-year prison term in Mississippi when Katrina struck.
Four months later, Lee got out. He had no home to return to in New Orleans. His mother’s home had been under 8 feet of water. She was in Omaha with his brother, a doctor.
So Lee came to Omaha with an ankle bracelet and a prison record and a startling realization that Katrina had offered him a do-over.
He entered a halfway house. He had gotten culinary training in prison and found a job at Creighton University, working in food service. He worked hard. He saved. Then his kidneys began shutting down and he couldn’t work.
Eventually Lee switched to a treatment that enabled him to feel well enough to buy an old tool truck and put a kitchen inside.
He had someone paint it gold, for the New Orleans Saints.
The transition hasn’t been completely smooth. Lee had a falling out with his brother. Three months after launching the food truck business in June 2013, he wound up getting a kidney transplant and had to close. When he reopened his business in November, it was cold and slow. Since then, sales have picked up.
His mother, Rosalyn Riley, has moved back to New Orleans, but the 61-year-old is often ill. Lee sees her when he can.
And he is trying to keep his son, Lee Franklin III, from repeating his own mistakes. But the 20-year-old is facing a felony accessory charge stemming from a robbery in Omaha earlier this year. Chef Lee says his son, who has no prior criminal record, had no idea his friends were going to rob a cellphone store. The younger Lee is out on bail and working alongside his dad.
That day in Millard, outside the Kiewit Corp. offices, I watched both Lee Jr. and his son dish up jambalaya and bread pudding. I saw them assemble shrimp and chicken po’boys.
All the while, that raucous New Orleans brassy sound blared from Chef Lee’s phone.
The name of the band was Rebirth.
Contact the writer: erin.grace@owh.com, 402-444-1136, twitter.com/ErinGraceOWH

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