Web extra: Katrina survivors find a new home in Montgomery

by Tom Ensey

Five years ago Hurricane Katrina swirled out of the Gulf of Mexico and smashed the city of New Orleans. The images were appalling -- bodies and makeshift graves, destroyed homes and lives.

That storm displaced thousands of residents -- some of whom now call Montgomery home. They've sought to rebuild their lives and find a place for themselves in an unfamiliar city, while never forgetting where they came from.

Raymond Hunter spent days on the roof of his house that was inundated by the flood, watching boats and helicopters passing him and others in desperate need of rescue. He's still angry. And he launches into rants that are by turn hilarious and heartbreaking as he tries to come to terms with the destruction of his hometown.

"How can America invade a foreign country -- Iraq -- looking for weapons of mass destruction, find no weapons of mass destruction, spend billions of dollars to tear up a country then spend billions to rebuild it -- and we still can't put New Orleans back together?" he said a few days after visiting his old neighborhood, which is still in a shambles.

Raymond purges himself with dark humor. Family friend Elvira Gibson finds her peace in religion.

She and five carloads of family fled New Orleans -- they wound up in Montgomery because the Marriott was the closest hotel they could find with an empty room after traveling for 24 hours straight.  They thought they'd be back home in a day or two. They brought one change of clothes. They've been here ever since.

"We were blessed," she said. "We all lived. We are together."

Two of her children stayed behind and rode out the storm. Her son still cries when he talks about it -- his home was in Gentilly, and most of his neighbors were old. He spent days trying to help them get to safety. He couldn't help them all.

Her daughter Karen started to evacuate with the rest of the family, but she turned around and went home when her daughter -- Michelle -- had a panic attack. There was 18 feet of water in their neighborhood. They spent three days in the upper part of the house and were finally rescued by National Guardsmen in a rubber boat. The guardsmen were there to check damages, not to rescue -- but they pulled Karen and her family out through the upstairs window.

She has a heart condition and diabetes. They were out of water.

"One more day, and I don't think we would have made it," she said. She still has problems with feeling claustrophobic. And she doesn't like to drive on the Interstate. It reminds her too much of the evacuation, the snarled traffic, and the decision to go back.

Elvira said Montgomery feels more like home now than it did at first. It's a hard town to get to know people -- they're more standoffish until they know you here, she said. It's not like that in New Orleans, where she lived the first 66 years of her life, working at a hospital. In New Orleans, nobody is a stranger. She misses that.

But she feels a part of the community now -- she likes her church. And most of her family have joined her here.

But there is still something missing.

"The food here is … different," she said, with a smile. It's hard to find good gumbo in Montgomery. And yes, she can make it herself.

Raymond's sister Carolyn Clark has taken on the role she had in her neighborhood back in New Orleans -- her house was the place where everybody in the neighborhood gathered after work to visit, unwind -- and eat. She's a magnificent cook, her son Timmy, has worked as a professional cook and Raymond is a chef, himself. Her daughter Nikki found a good job at Jackson Hospital, her godson, Chucky works in a barbershop down the street. Grandchildren are growing up -- two grand daughters are in college at AUM and belong to the ROTC there. They are both, she says with a grin, beautiful and smart as whips.

She refuses to get down despite all she's seen -- she spent days on end at the SuperDome, where she says she saw one woman murdered and a baby girl drown after a man knocked her off a wall into dark, murky flood water. She wouldn't drink water because she didn't want to have to go inside the SuperDome to use the bathroom. She said the inside of the SuperDome was hot, dark, people screaming, it smelled awful. As close to hell as she wants to come.

Her husband, Haywood, survived New Orleans -- but he's in the final stages of lung cancer now. It's not easy to accept.

"But I have my family," she said, blinking and managing a smile. "And I have my friends here."