- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2006


Jerry Reese sleeps on a sofa that is too short for his 6-foot-3-inch frame in the living room of his sister’s house, a place that has become a long-term shelter for eight other relatives displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

He lies on the sofa waiting for the crowd to disperse, awakened by the repeated, chipper strains of a toaster that sings the “Mickey Mouse Club” show theme song every time a relative’s toast is ready — five to 10 times per morning, sometimes before dawn.

Singing toasters are just the sort of quirky possessions that make any usual visit with relatives memorable, as long as it’s blissfully brief. But Katrina’s devastation has forced family visits to stretch over many months.

The arrangements can provide support for those who have lost so much, but they also can strain ties when basic routines, such as dinnertime and laundry, collide.

“At some point, you want your privacy back,” said Donald Henry, a family counseling clinic director whose mother-in-law has been living with him since the hurricane hit in August. “The honeymoon would certainly be over by now” for many families.

Federal authorities estimate that more than 182,000 occupied housing units in the New Orleans area suffered major damage or were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. That’s nearly 40 percent of the housing stock in the metro area.

Landlords and homeowners are repairing units as fast as they can, but many homes remain flooded and uninhabitable. In addition, competition and high prices keep some renters from finding homes; and lots have sometimes been deemed unsuitable, spoiling plans to bring in trailers.

Fewer than half of New Orleans’ 455,000 pre-Katrina residents have returned. Those who have, drawn back for jobs or other reasons, bunk with whomever they can.

“This whole thing has been challenging for all of us. We’re used to our own space,” said Stella Chase Reese, who has been living at her sister-in-law’s with her husband, teenage son and other relatives.

Nine persons in a three-bedroom house is spacious compared with the 16 crammed into the Baton Rouge home where the Reeses lived immediately after the storm. They returned to New Orleans when the school where her husband, Wayne Reese, teaches and coaches football reopened.

Mrs. Reese and her family thought they would stay with her sister-in-law for a couple of weeks, but as three rental deals fell through, the time together has stretched into months.

“Everyone we know lost their homes, with the exception of my sister-in-law, and she had a full house. She welcomed us. We didn’t have any place to go,” Mrs. Reese said, dabbing tears with a tissue.

The sister-in-law, Florida Reese Wyatt, said she never gave a second thought to opening the home she once shared only with her daughter. Among the relatives she took in was her 79-year-old mother.

“I know they would have done the same for me. The bottom line is this is what family really does,” said Mrs. Wyatt, surrounded by family members who filled the two sofas and chairs in her living room.

The Reese clan compares schedules each day, ensuring everyone can get a shower before work or school, beginning as early as 5 a.m. Mrs. Reese or Mrs. Wyatt cooks dinner. Someone else does the dishes.

Jerry Reese, Mrs. Wyatt’s brother, joined the clan when he took a break from his work as a contractor in Iraq. His New Orleans home was wiped out by floodwaters.

“It’s all good. It’s no problem,” he said, grinning. The singing toaster beats some of the noises that woke him in Iraq, he said.

Mr. Henry, clinic director of the nonprofit Youth Service Bureau, said living together after something as devastating as Katrina can be therapeutic. The security of close personal relationships and recognition that everyone is struggling together can help lessen the trauma of lost homes and dreams.

It has helped lawyer Wayne McGaw, who’s sharing a home with his wife, two adult daughters, a niece and her husband after the extended family lost three homes to flooding. Another relative with a flooded house lives next door.

“All of us have been up and down, not on the same pace. But there are people to help you with the bounds” of the emotions, Mr. McGaw said.

The family has used the cozy living arrangement to expand traditions and to comfort one another. A big family meal had long been a Sunday tradition because Mr. McGaw loves to cook, but they now sit down as a family to a full meal even on weeknights.

They might reminisce about the old neighborhood, debate movies or tease the youngest family member, a second-year law student, about schoolwork.

They’ve managed since moving into a friend’s vacant home in November to set up a routine for cooking and grocery shopping and a schedule for walking two dogs, who had barely met before Katrina forced them into the same household. A cat is sequestered upstairs.

The family has furniture from their flooded households crammed in with what the homeowners left. Crates and racks for clothes, nearly all acquired to replace destroyed wardrobes, sit stacked wherever they’ll fit. No one in the family knows when they will settle into their own digs.

From the beginning, “We were all aware or conscious of stepping on each other’s toes, setting that precedent of everyone chipping in,” said Traci Foster, Mr. McGaw’s niece.

They split household chores such as dishes and grocery shopping and divide the rent and utility costs. The McGaws pick up the cost of groceries, while Mrs. Foster and her husband cover other expenses around the house.

Still, the all-for-one, one-for-all attitude has limits. After a while, the need for privacy and space starts to wear on people accustomed to living on their own, said Judy Barnes-Cochran, a New Orleans psychotherapist.

“Most of the world lives the way we’re describing — or worse — but we’re Americans,” she said. “We want space. We want freedom. We want autonomy.”



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