Rescued, now trapped: Thousands of older New Orleanians fled
By Natalie Pompilio, Inquirer Staff Writer
FORT WORTH, Texas - Dot McLeod's post-Katrina world is defined by the bare, white walls of a one-bedroom apartment in a city where she is a stranger.
McLeod, in her late 70s, is confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk since September, when the helicopter rescuing her from the hurricane's floodwaters sputtered and knocked her against a roof. Her New Orleans home destroyed, she was taken to Texas - and left here.
McLeod is lost - sad, lonely and homesick. She has no one to take her out, nor anywhere to go in this foreign place. In the last year, she has felt the sun on her face only about five times. She cannot give visitors directions to her building because she does not know where it is. She assumes the facility caters to senior citizens because she sees so many of them from her window.
"I've never seen anything but this room," McLeod said during a recent interview. "I would like to go home, but everybody says there's nothing to go home to."
McLeod is one of thousands of elderly evacuees whisked away from their southeast Louisiana homes in Katrina's wake and dumped in cities hundreds of miles away. Like so many others, McLeod owned her home but had no flood insurance, meaning she lost everything she knew and owned, and received a pittance in return.
In New Orleans, although she had no husband or children, she had a close-knit network of neighbors, a grocery store she could walk to, a paid-off property with low taxes. Now she has just one friend - a fellow New Orleanian who shares her tiny apartment - and she relies on Meals on Wheels, waiting nervously for the daily knock because the delivery man will take the food and leave if no one answers the door immediately. Her $650 monthly Social Security check, once more than enough to live on, is no longer sufficient.
"I didn't need anything else in New Orleans," she said. "It costs three times as much here."
More than anything, McLeod wants to go home to New Orleans. But she can't.
"How can I go back by myself?" she asked, her voice quaking. "There's no buses, no people. Ferrara's, where I shopped for 50 years, is gone."
Post-Katrina, the New Orleans area has few elderly care facilities or nursing homes. Rents for undamaged or rehabilitated housing are rising, moving out of the reach of those on fixed incomes.
It is unclear exactly how many elderly residents Katrina displaced. But anecdotally, it seems everybody knows somebody who can't get back.
In the Lower Ninth Ward, an octogenarian who is rebuilding his own house pointed to a hole in a neighbor's roof. That's where the neighbor - "my partner," the octogenarian called him - hacked his way to safety as the waters rose. That man, also elderly, is not returning, nor are the older folks who lived across the street or others who lived down the block.
In Lakeview, a sign in front of one house features a photo of a white-haired woman and reads, "Bring Mrs. Mary Home," listing a bank-account number where donations can be sent. That's for Mary Espiau, 88, who now lives with her daughter in Garland, Texas.
Like so many others, Espiau had no flood insurance and she lives on a pension. Many of her neighbors have gone, and she ticks off a list without pausing: "Irene isn't coming back. She's with her daughter in Houston. And Mr. Mintz is in Metairie, waiting to see what the storm season does before redoing his home. Barbara and John across the street have their house for sale."
But Espiau is determined to go back to the city where she raised her children and where her husband is buried. She has poured her entire savings - about $50,000 - into rebuilding her home. Other money and appliances have come from donors.
"There's nothing like your own home, and I'm homesick," Espiau said. "I'm going to try it out, see how I make out. I know it's going to be bad. But I think I'm going to be all right."
McLeod spent time in an Army hospital after being injured during the evacuation. From there, she went to an assisted-living facility. She left a few months later, unable to pay the bills.
The building where she now lives is sterile and strict: No pictures can be hung on the walls. Wet shoes must be removed before entering apartments. No toilets can be flushed after 11 p.m. The downstairs neighbor will bang a broom on the ceiling if she thinks McLeod - who uses her wheelchair on a thick rug - is making too much noise.
McLeod has been unable, physically and financially, to get back to New Orleans. When her beloved cat, Poupon, was found alive five weeks after the storm, she had no way to return to her pet or to bring the animal - who has since died - to Texas. When her brother passed away in December, she could not attend the services.
When she heard that the city was requiring people to gut their homes or face demolition, she asked members of a religious organization if they would do the work for her. They did, and sent her the few treasures that survived: her grandfather's pocket watch, still half-filled with water; the crucifix that adorned her mother's coffin; a set of deer antlers she purchased when she lived in Germany.
"It's all gone," she said. "Sometimes you feel like going to jump off the balcony, you don't even know where you are. There's so much on your mind when you're fighting FEMA, the insurance company, the post office, all at once."
In recent weeks, McLeod has found something that cheers her: She ends her day by watching the purple martins, thousands of them, as they fly outside her window to settle for the night. She had never seen such a sight in New Orleans, and her face lights up when she describes the birds, the way they flitter and play and tease one another.
She can't exactly explain what she likes about the birds or why they bring her such joy. But the reason seems clear: The martins, unlike McLeod, are free.