They are accidental Atlantans, driven here in a flood of people escaping hurricane-savaged New Orleans. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, settled and stayed.
Before they could consider returning, they had jobs, a comfortable home, kids in school. Over the years, they have become us; well, as much as anybody does in an Atlanta area where half the people were born in another state.
Ten years ago this weekend - Aug. 29, 2005 - Hurricane Katrina trampled their levees and forever changed their lives. Much of that is the story of New Orleans and other Gulf states, the pain of which, a decade later, hardly seems distant.
But Atlanta and Georgia have their own Katrina story. The state opened its arms to as many as 100,000 evacuees - remember that term? It set up shelters and “mega-centers” for services. State and local employees worked nights and weekends. Churches offered up truckloads of furniture and clothing. People donated millions.
“The hearts and homes of Georgians were opened as never before,” then-Gov. Sonny Perdue recalled in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The way Georgia responded - in one of it’s largest mobilizations of federal, state, local, nonprofit and faith-based groups - is one of the proudest moments in the state’s history.
“There’s nothing like it in Georgia history,” said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. “Georgia didn’t turn its back on the evacuees.”
At the same time, it didn’t take long for some of that early good will to evaporate. As weeks turned into months and many evacuees remained in taxpayer-funded hotel rooms, the grumbling began: Get a job. Find a place to live. Pull yourself up. Some saw racial overtones in the criticism.
Evacuees, for their part, argued they were dealing with insurance company red tape, overbooked contractors and the struggle of piecing together their lives.
Incidents of crime turned some public opinion. One gang that included evacuees, The Robbing Crew, was so violent that drug dealers themselves - often their robbery targets - complained about them to police. But authorities said overall crime in metro Atlanta did not change significantly.
For this story, The AJC spoke to dozens of evacuees, officials, experts and reviewed numerous reports on Katrina. Ten years provides a deeper look into the storm’s enduring legacy on people’s lives and on metro Atlanta.
The Atlanta area retains, even now, a touch more New Orleans about it. You see it when people fly their Saints flags on game day. And in the snowball stands that have popped up to sell the sweet, confectionery treats. And in the crowds that gather when Trombone Shorty comes to town.
“Atlanta has been good to us”
Jinaki Flint thought she had outsmarted Hurricane Katrina. A few days before, she drove with her husband and daughter to Mississippi to move her grandmother from a hospital into an assisted living, just to make sure that was done before the storm hit.
Driving back, she spotted an electronic highway sign that stunned her: No Entry into New Orleans.
This could be bad, she thought.
Soon after, the family turned their tan Jeep Cherokee toward Atlanta, where they planned to spend a few days with a friend in Stone Mountain, till the storm blew over. That night they slept on couches.
The next morning, Katrina struck. Every scene on the TV news seemed worse than the one before. The levees ruptured. The city flooded. People stranded on roofs. People drowning.
“I panicked,” Flint said. “We started calling people frantically trying to locate them.”
Many of them she couldn’t reach, by phone or email. She sat up all night long watching the news, eating pistachios, hoping to see a face she knew.
Her husband, Greg, learned his older cousin, a diabetic, was nowhere to be found. Days later, he turned up dead on a bridge.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands fleeing the Gulf Coast poured into Georgia. The state received the second largest number of people outside of the affected states. Only Texas saw more. The great majority came to metro Atlanta. Many had family and friends here. Others saw Atlanta as one of the closest major cities.
Those early days were chaotic here. The Flints found services fragmented across a range of county, state and city agencies as well as nonprofit groups and other charities.
Red Cross shelters overflowed. People seeking help waited hours on lines that stretched around government centers. Atlanta’s leaders knew if they didn’t do something, they would have a new class of homeless on their hands. A massive meeting ensued to solve the problem.
Over time, Flint landed a job at an ad agency and Greg was hired by the Atlanta police force. Mahalia, their little girl, settled into school.
Today, Flint is finishing her doctorate in clinical psychology.
“We were able to rebuild our lives due to the kindness of people,” she said. “Atlanta has been good to us.”
Still, the Flints remain wistful for the place they left behind. The shelves in their blue, bungalow-style home in the Adair Park section of Atlanta are filled with fleur-de-lis coffee mugs, glasses, lighters, blankets, key chains.
Every football season Greg hoists the Saints flag on the porch, if only to playfully mess with the neighbors.
This summer, they sent Mahalia, now 13, to New Orleans to attend jazz camp, specifically so she could learn music in the city legendary for it.
“Right now, if this were New Orleans, there would probably be a party somewhere on this street,” she said. “And I would go and join it.”
How many remain?
Nobody knows how many Katrina evacuees remain in metro Atlanta. Agencies, for the most part, stopped tracking them years ago. By most accounts — many of them anecdotal — a great number have gone home.
That still left thousands living here. Many evacuees were working class and had low incomes. But some experts speculate that a number who fled to Atlanta were better off financially than those who relocated to Texas, where many people arrived in government-funded buses. Coming to Atlanta required means, or at least a car, said Joachim Singelmann, the former director of the Louisiana Population Data Center at Louisiana State University.
That self-sufficiency, he added, likely helped them transition into metro life.
Mike Washington was determined not to be beaten down by Katrina, even though he left behind a house and printing business in ruins.
Washington had spent his childhood years in poverty, depending on government supplements. He vowed he would never depend on charity again.
He had built his printing business in New Orleans from scratch, starting it inside his home. It burned in 2002 and he rebuilt it.
When Katrina drove the Washington family from New Orleans, he brought them to Powder Springs to live with his wife’s cousin.
For weeks, Washington began nearly every day haggling with insurance companies and adjusters. They wanted document after document, receipts and proof of assets, before they’d shell out a dime.
He felt his pride pinched till it hurt, having to accept charity from churches and other groups.
“I felt like less of a man,” he said.
He cobbled together savings, a government assistance program and some help from churches to get an apartment in the Vinings area. They liked the schools there, and their son, Kevan entered kindergarten at nearby Teasley Elementary. It was a welcome change from the underachieving school he would have attended back home.
To restart his printing business, he knew he had to start small. In 2006, he rented a space in Smyrna, purchased used equipment and started churning out small promotional items like T-shirts, coffee cups and pens.
These days, his printing business, called Up Up & Away, has finally started to make the kind of money it did before Katrina.
Kevan, his father likes to say, is New Orleans at the root and Atlantan at the leaves. Every summer he visits New Orleans. He played three sports last year and still came out with top grades at Campbell High School in Smyrna.
He thanks his father for staying here.
“I think there are more (opportunities) here than there are in New Orleans,” Kevan said.
Mike Washington added, “I need to start looking for colleges for him.”
“I’ve never seen a grown man cry that hard”
Hurricane Katrina struck metro Atlanta in all kinds of ways. Eighteen tornadoes spawned by Katrina injured people and damaged homes and businesses in the counties of Carroll, White, Spalding and Peach. Folks tend to forget, but at least two Georgians died in those storms.
One of them was Craig Eidson, who took refuge in a chicken house in Roopville in Carroll County. When the tempest hit, the building blew apart. A piece of flying debris struck the 44-year-old in the head, killing him.
Ten years later, Cindy Eidson recalls her husband as a steady presence, a guy she assumed would be around to help raise their three children.
Eidson has raised them alone; she never remarried.
“We have moments,” she said. “They become less, but we do. We miss him.”
As Gulf Coast residents flowed in, officials opened numerous “mega-centers” around metro Atlanta, essentially grouping together agencies and charities so people could get help in one place.
In her southwest Atlanta home, Ann Foote watched the news reports. She saw so many people in need. She had never volunteered during a disaster before, but she reached out to the Red Cross.
A background check and two hours of training later, she was a client caseworker. She showed up at an old Walmart building in Lawrenceville that had been converted into a makeshift mega-center and began sifting through the lives of shattered Gulf Coast residents.
One couple, maybe in their fifties, told her they had sought shelter under a bridge in New Orleans. The wife could not walk, and the husband stayed beside her for two days.
Telling the story, the wife started crying, while her husband showed little emotion.
“You’ve been through something devastating,” Foote said to the man. “Feel free to cry.”
She recalled, “I’ve never seen a grown man cry that hard. I had to call someone from mental health to help him.”
Foote is 70 now, and she has since gone on 35 disaster deployments for the Red Cross - in Colorado, Oklahoma, New York, Houston and quite a few in Georgia.
“I’m a better person,” she said.
Before Katrina, she had recently retired and her heart and diabetes problems were worsening as she passed days with little activity. Now, she has a purpose.
“It saved my life, in a way,” she said.
Sheri Russo of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency helped receive evacuees flown into Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, which was dubbed Georgia’s “Ellis Island.”
Among the first people she saw was a frail man who shuffled off the plane in bluejeans, a T-shirt and no shoes. He gripped his belongings in a grocery bag.
“This went well beyond what we thought,” Russo recalled. “This was just taking care of another human being.”
With sorrow, wisdom
Shannon Drawe tried to make a go of it in New Orleans after the storm. But the woman who “sold the city for a living” realized the hospitality industry was cold as stone.
Before she left, she volunteered for two months to help others devastated by the storm.
“It was my goodbye,” she said.
Drawe packed up and headed east, intent on starting a new life. These days, she lives in Atlanta, near midtown, and manages the restaurant Atkins Park in Smyrna, owned by her brother. And she’s happy.
But a decade on, the ghosts of that time come back when she returns to New Orleans to visit family and loved ones.
She remembers her home under eight feet of water, and how it took two weeks for the slop that smelled like sewage to drain out. She recalls trees hit so hard they were stripped of branches.
With the sorrow, she realizes, has come wisdom.
“The knowledge I gained in my twenties, is what people get in their older years,” she said. “Material things can be replaced. Family and community are what’s most important.”
For Terri and Morris Jordan, it was different. They fled New Orleans to her brother’s home in Douglasville. But Terri couldn’t stop thinking about her neighbors back on Lake Barrington Drive in the 9th Ward. She started praying for them.
“We decided to come back,” she said. “I wanted to come back and help rebuild the city.”
When the Jordans first returned in early 2006, they couldn’t even live in their flooded home. The destruction to her neighborhood was mind-boggling, she said. There were no birds or dogs; no signs of life at all.
Her neighbors slowly started to return, and a feeling of community was reborn.
By the summer of 2006, the Jordans were back in their home, along with some other neighbors.
When the Walgreens reopened in August of that year, residents celebrated, going in and buying things they didn’t even need.
‘It was God’
About a week ago, on a rainswept Decatur night, some 300 people gathered for a church commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Many had been blown to Atlanta by the storm.
They had struggled through so much, Bishop Paul S. Morton told the group gathered at Changing a Generation FGBC. But today, he said emphatically, they would celebrate.
Standing at the pulpit, his hands raised to the heavens, he sang the gospel song “I’m Still Standing,” which testifies to life’s challenges but confirms that, because of a love of God, they were still standing.
Everyone was on their feet, swaying and clapping and singing along.
Ten years ago, Morton brought this church group from the ruins of New Orleans. They were about 200 strong then. After arriving here, some pretty miraculous things happened. He had a conversation with Tyler Perry, the actor, writer and director.
Morton explained that the Lord had led him to Atlanta. He had preached here many times before. And he wanted to start a new church.
“Don’t worry about it,” Perry said. “I’ll have a check for you tomorrow.”
That check was for $500,000.
Now, Morton’s ministry has two churches, one in Decatur and the other in southwest Atlanta. More than that, he restarted his church in New Orleans.
On this night, he spoke personally about his own struggles with cancer and the loss of a granddaughter. And Katrina.
“Despite all that, I’m still standing,” he said.
The whole place roared.
HURRICANE KATRINA TIMELINE 2005
Aug. 23: The National Hurricane Center issues its first advisory about the tropical system that will become Hurricane Katrina.
Aug. 28: The National Hurricane Center describes Katrina as “potentially catastrophic.” New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issues a mandatory evacuation order. Residents begin streaming out of the city. Others seek shelter in the Louisiana Superdome.
Aug. 29: The hurricane’s eye comes ashore again near the Louisiana-Mississippi border. The storm’s strongest winds are about 125 miles an hour. In New Orleans, a major levee fails and the city begins to flood.
Aug. 31: Gasoline prices shoot up dramatically in Georgia. Gov. Sonny Perdue declares a state of emergency and says there is “credible evidence” of price-gouging.
Sept. 1: Nagin issues a desperate SOS for help from the federal government.
Sept. 2: A convoy of U.S. National Guard troops and supply trucks arrives in New Orleans and distributes food and water. In Georgia, evacuees stream in. Some arrive at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, which is dubbed Georgia’s “Ellis Island.” Perdue asks President Bush to provide federal funds to cover the state’s relief efforts. Some 80 relief agencies meet to assess the needs of evacuees and try to coordinate their response.
Sept. 3: Perdue issues an emergency order suspending state taxes on gasoline and summons legislators to Atlanta for a special session to ratify the move.
Sept. 6: Frustration mounts as the number of evacuees entering Georgia continues to rise, straining the ability of relief agencies to respond. “We are going to take care of all who come, ” Perdue said. “We’re going to do what’s right and worry about how we pay for it later on.”
Sept. 9: Three “mega-centers” open in College Park, Marietta and Lawrenceville. Set up by the American Red Cross, the centers are designed offer assistance with food stamps, housing, unemployment insurance and other needs at one location. A separate center later opens in Lithonia. Thousands arrive seeking help with lines stretching as long as football fields.
Sept. 10: The state Legislature ratifies Perdue’s gas tax moratorium.
Sept. 14: As demand eases, state officials pull out representatives of agencies such as the Department of Family and Children Services and the Department of Labor from the service centers. The centers shut down soon after and evacuees seeking help are funneled to a state website and local offices for organizations like the Red Cross.
KATRINA BY THE NUMBERS
40,622: Families registered for FEMA under Georgia zip codes as of June 2006
2.5: The agency’s assumption of people per household
$267 million: Amount FEMA reimbursed Georgia for helping evacuees
Nearly 10,000: Katrina students registered in Georgia public schools
400,000: Pounds, of food, clothing and toiletries collected and distributed by the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Georgia
4,000: Volunteers who signed on with Hands On Atlanta to help Katrina victims
19: Planes that landed at Dobbins Air Reserve Base carrying some 1,300 evacuees