Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Katrina evacuees find a fresh start in Albuquerque

Of all the words describing Hurricane Katrina – disaster, tragedy, horror – there is one less heard, one still hiding inside a just-bought house on the dirt-road edges of Rio Rancho.

There, in the home of Liz Dorner and Adam White, it can be seen in the freshly painted rooms and the smile of their 2-year-old daughter.

Opportunity.

“It was a nice chance to figure out what we wanted to do, where did we want to go,” Dorner says. “It was a whole new, fresh start.”

One year after Hurricane Katrina, the lives of thousands remain in flux, and as those pushed into New Mexico by the storm look back on what happened, some share stories that defy the despair that one might expect.

Yes, the sorrow is there, but as these new New Mexicans tell it, nature’s fury brings more than destruction.

Lost and gained

White, 28, had lived in Mandeville, La., and worked at a Starbucks for two months before Hurricane Katrina struck the city about 30 miles north of New Orleans.

He and Dorner, 27, were struggling with their relationship. He had his own place; she stayed with her parents, whose house went mostly undamaged by the hurricane. His biggest concern was being close to Hannah, the couple’s daughter, who stayed with Dorner.

Closeness he got.

The mandatory evacuation that came with the hurricane meant he, Dorner, Hannah and Dorner’s parents headed about 120 miles west to join other family members at White’s parents’ house in Lafayette, La.

Ten people. One month. One house.

“It was very stressful. Especially living almost a month together again,” White says. “There was a lot of headbutting and arguing and things like that during that time. It’s still a struggle. We’re still trying to figure out what it is we’re exactly going to do.”

Though his apartment rode the northern edge of Lake Pontchartrain – the massive body of water that swelled in the storm – his belongings and abode escaped mostly untouched.

His job was another matter. The Starbucks where he worked shut down for a month and a half, he says. The company paid him, but encouraged evacuated employees to take its offer: the chance for a job at any Starbucks around the country.

It was a chance to build a career, a chance to support his family – a chance he figured would be rare in the New Orleans area after the storm shut down many Starbucks and, he feared, would stall the company’s job-generating expansion.

“I just felt it would be the best choice for me to get out of that area,” he says.

With about $5,000 from FEMA, he headed west in September 2005, turned a love seat into a bed at his brother’s San Diego apartment and began saving money.

“It seemed financially the best thing to do,” he says.

He regularly flew to Louisiana for visits with his daughter and Dorner, who had stayed behind. He and Dorner talked about the future. What was best for Hannah? For them individually? As a couple?

Their answer: blue skies, open space, sunshine, mountains – and no hurricanes.

New Mexico.

White had spent a ski season living and working in Santa Fe and loves having mountains just 30 minutes away. An Albuquerque Starbucks had an opening; he is now an assistant manager. Dorner’s sister lives in the Duke City and the two of them want to open a facility rescuing abandoned or abused horses.

Already two of the animals – Loki and Toulouse – reign over a stretch of dusty backyard behind Dorner’s and White’s Rio Rancho house. There are also two dogs, a cat and a ferret.

“I think to Adam’s dismay, I tend to collect all kinds of pets,” says Dorner, who’s bartending now to make a living. “I just love them.”

She says it’s unlikely their family of three could have afforded the modest house – bought about six months ago – without federal loan help for hurricane evacuees.

“A lot of bad things came from the hurricane, but a lot of people will tell you it afforded them a fresh start all over again,” she says. “It was a nice opportunity.”

Though she loves the hiking, the mountains and the space to ride her horses, she misses the greenery of Louisiana.

“I don’t know if we’ll stay here permanently,” she says. “I think we’ll probably go somewhere where there’s a little bit more grass and forest terrain.”

And White, though a fan of the outdoors and happily inspired by New Mexico’s landscapes to get more deeply involved in his photography hobby, says rural living is more for his fiancee than for him.

“We’re still trying to figure that out,” he says. “My only concern is what’s going to be best for Hannah.”

Finding the blessings

In Maxine Williams’ New Orleans home, Hurricane Katrina pushed water 7 feet up the walls. The 74-year-old transplant from Louisiana to Albuquerque recalls the mold – emboldened by the water – creeping even higher.

Holes dotted the roof and the porch, and a section of ceiling caved in. Her sewing machines – a source of income – were destroyed. Her car, loaded with supplies, went missing – stolen, perhaps – as she considered and then abandoned an early evacuation.

From her seat next to a tiny dining table given to her after she moved to Albuquerque in September 2005, the well-groomed woman who assembles a jigsaw puzzle of fall trees as she talks, says this: “God is good.”

God was good to her, Williams says, when she crouched over her two great-grandchildren on a New Orleans sidewalk as panicked people ran around her. Only one hard kick connected with her head, she recalls thankfully, and the children went blessedly untouched.

And it’s blessings she sees now as she discusses the gift of her rent-free apartment in southwest Albuquerque, points to the gift of another sewing machine on a stand against a wall.

“When I look around, I’m surrounded by blessings,” she says.

Williams has heard that New Orleans city officials might take her house if she does nothing with it, but it will cost several thousand dollars for repairs to make it market-ready.

She doesn’t know if it’s worth it, and she feels overwhelmed by the confusion in the city she was born and raised in.

She worries about her great-grandchildren.

“I call it indecision at the moment,” Williams says. “It’s like you’re up against the wall and everything is crushing into you.”

But there was the gift of the television in her new bedroom. She has found a church and continues to teach people to read and write, just as she had done in New Orleans. She started sewing herself a pink dress. Much of her family is here. Her great-grandchildren made it out of New Orleans with her. She hopes to buy a house.

Williams grabs a pin off her table and holds it up.

Around the image of a cross in its middle circle the words, “Too blessed to be stressed.”

“Too blessed,” she repeats, “to be stressed.”

A good fit

It wasn’t planned this way.

James Bevill and his wife, Leslie Dawson-Bevill, wanted to start their family in New Orleans. They knew it. They were ready.

That was two weeks before Hurricane Katrina.

Seeing a city under siege by winds more than 100 mph changed their minds, but it was too late.

Their child, who eventually would be named Barbara Patricia Bevill, was on her way and that made it time to move out of the city they called home for six years.

“We just couldn’t see trying to raise a family under what they were saying was a decadelong threat of more Katrinas,” James Bevill says. “At the same time, they were saying it would be 25 or 30 years rebuilding the city. It didn’t seem like the appropriate place to be raising children to us.”

Helped along by $2,000 from the Red Cross, the couple moved into a rented Rio Rancho home in June, a month after Barbara’s birth.

No regrets, James Bevill says.

“I can go an hour from here and ski and snowboard and break my neck because I’ve never done anything like that,” he says. “Hot-air balloons every morning when I wake up for coffee.”

It’s all new to him, he says, and that fact thrills him because he has a perspective on life similar to his daughter’s.

“I’m in a place where every day my daughter opens her eyes, looks around, and she’s seeing and experiencing the same thing I am – new experiences that have never been done before,” he says. “You can’t put a price on that.”

He and his wife chose New Mexico for many reasons.

There was the climate. He learned unemployment is low compared to New Orleans, and many residents are about the same ages as he and wife, 33 and 31, respectively. The University of New Mexico has a writing and theatrical program that interests him.

There were good jobs, too. He’s a circulation clerk at the main branch of the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Library System and his wife teaches special education in Rio Rancho public schools. His wife’s parents moved to Corrales in May.

It’s going so well that he sees another child down the road in the next few years, and can see staying in New Mexico beyond that.

“Life here in the three months we’ve been here has been incredible,” he says. “Everything here fit.”

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