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Katrina Evacuees in L.A. Find Connection to Home

Times Staff Writer

On this day, Todd Wicker needed to do something more than simply remember a storm that devastated his home.

So he met his mother and older sister Tuesday at a small warehouse on the corner of 98th and Main streets in South Los Angeles to connect with a place they left nearly a year ago.

The warehouse, home of His Promise Disaster Survivor Services, was packed with donated food and used clothing and furniture for families who lost everything last year when hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast.

Wicker, who now lives in the Miracle Mile district, picked up a few items -- a Bible, a calendar, a box of brownie mix, some juice and a couple of bags of potato chips -- but he wasn’t there just to replace belongings he lost in the storm. He was also looking to experience some of the life he left behind.

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“It was nice just to talk to people about my hometown,” he said while mingling with evacuees and others from New Orleans. “I grew up 20 minutes from New Orleans in a little place called Marrero. There were people there who knew it.”

The idea of holding the three-day giveaway around the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina came from Paul Warren, who directs the small nonprofit organization he formed with his wife, Alina.

“I was watching the disaster on television last year on Aug. 30 and decided I could volunteer for the Red Cross to help the families coming here from the Gulf Coast,” he said.

He delivered prepared meals to the displaced families living in hotels, and his wife did make-overs on some of the women.

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“They didn’t have food. They didn’t have money,” Warren said. “They needed to feel better about their lives.”

Eventually, Warren said he had enough information to contact evacuees directly. Then he set up a warehouse to store food and clothing donated for those families scattered throughout Los Angeles County. He also plans to ship supplies to New Orleans -- a truckload of help from “the West Coast to the Gulf Coast.”

For most of the thousands of families who made their way to California -- by June 6, about 7,300 Gulf Coast households had filed California change-of-address forms with the U.S. Postal Service -- life continues to be a struggle.

Many complain about the higher cost of living: Food, housing and transportation cost more here than in New Orleans. The adjustment is particularly hard on the elderly or disabled.

“I’m going back home really soon,” said Ruth Angelo, 72, a retired hospital worker who was brought out here by her son. “I like it here, but I miss home.”

Theodore Meyers, 43, has been confined to a wheelchair since a shooting in 1977 left him paralyzed. He sleeps on the sofa of a two-bedroom apartment he shares with his sister and father, who is also disabled. At the warehouse, Meyers picked up a couple of mattress pads, a comforter, a lamp, some juice and shampoo.

“We’ve gotten some money from the Red Cross and FEMA, but it’s not enough,” he said. “The apartment we live in is small, a tight fit, and the bathroom is not accessible to wheelchairs.”

Going home is something Sandra Humphrey, 50, would love to do, if she had a home to go back to.

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“I had a nice house, but the water ate it like paper,” she said.

She has nightmares about her journey to safety, and the marking of the anniversary with the constant replaying of television footage hasn’t helped.

“I can’t get it off my mind,” she said. “You don’t know. I see people walking in water. The rats. The coughing. I can’t sleep. I was having blackouts. The hurricanes were nature, but the flood was man-made.”

When Humphrey returned home for a visit, it reminded her of a ghost town. There was no going back.

Slowly, she has made her new home, an apartment off Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica, a place more to her liking. She painted it, got some new furniture and put up a year-round Christmas tree. But she still has needs and she’s bitter.

“I don’t have much money,” she said. “My icebox is empty, and I could use $50 for groceries. I don’t have no car; all I had got washed away. I’m hurt, I’m angry and I’m mad.”

Things are looking up for Jamar Franklin, who came to Los Angeles with his wife, Tirzah, and their 2-year-old daughter, Marley.

At this time of year, he would normally be teaching high school in New Orleans and preparing the basketball team for the upcoming season. When the family landed in Los Angeles, only Tirzah, a registered nurse, had work, and the family was living in a one-bedroom apartment.

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“Things are going better now,” said Franklin, 32, who has been working steadily in movie production. “We moved into a larger apartment, got our dog back and we are now a two-car family again.”

Life is also looking up for Wicker, who organizes closets and apartments for a living and is taking classes to become a real estate agent.

Even in a slump, he figures he could sell houses in Los Angeles.

“I’m from New Orleans,” he said with confidence. “I could sell an empty beer bottle.”

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Times staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this report.


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