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|Posted September 5, 2005|
In Tale of Two Families, a Chasm Between Haves and Have-nots
|Jim Wilson/The New York Times / Gaynell Porretto in the kitchen of her newly rented home. Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company|
By JODI WILGOREN
KENNER, La., Sept. 4 - It was moving day for the families of Gaynell Porretto and Tracy Jackson, the first page of the next chapter in their Hurricane Katrina horror stories.
Mrs. Porretto's four-car caravan crammed with a lifetime of photo albums, a few changes of clothes and coolers of drinks pulled up to a yellow house with a wide front porch that she had just rented for $600 in the humble hamlet of Arnaudville, La.
It is 125 miles from her storm-sacked home in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, half the size for twice as many people, but she can see the church steeple from the yard, and her son is signed up for football at the nearby high school.
"I have a ZIP code!" she said, exulting. "It's the happiest I've ever been."
Outside the New Orleans airport here, Ms. Jackson's four sickly and hungry children, ages 1, 3, 5 and 7, were sprawled on a skycap's cart as she slogged through the sweaty, snail-like line, the baby atop a blue plastic bin filled with what they had scrounged from strangers.
It is all they have, their $2,000 cash savings burned up with their belongings - including birth certificates - in a post-flood fire at their apartment in uptown New Orleans. Even as they waited to board a plane, they did not know where they were taking it.
"I'm just hoping it's a better place," she whispered. "I've never been on an airplane before, I'm afraid of heights."
Two families displaced by the same disaster, both facing uncertain futures as they moved forward on Saturday, but in completely divergent circumstances.
Just as it ripped through levees to send water pouring through New Orleans, the storm cleaved a harsh chasm among the region's refugees, providing a stark portrait of the vast divide between America's haves and have-nots.
The more than 100 members of Mrs. Porretto's extended family have cars that carried them out last Sunday morning, well before the hurricane hit.
Ms. Jackson, who does not know how to drive, escaped on foot only after the floodwaters started filling her apartment on Tuesday, walking first to a bridge, then to the squalid Superdome.
Mrs. Porretto, 51, has an American Express card that covered her $564.26 bill at the Hilton in Lafayette, La., where a cousin who works for AT&T secured a low corporate rate when she booked a block of rooms days before of the storm.
Ms. Jackson, 24, does not have a bank account, and her husband, Jerel Brown, spent their last $25 to buy fish and shrimp from men grilling on the street in the chaos, so now there is nothing in the pockets of his baggy jeans but a crushed pack of Benson & Hedges someone gave him to calm him down.
The Porrettos have cellphones and connections in city government and churches that not only helped them find one of the last available rental properties anywhere around here, but also let them sneak back into their neighborhood early this weekend to grab televisions and furnishings for their new house.
Mr. Brown, in tears, has no recourse but to ask a reporter to look for his missing brother, Wallace, and if he turned up, find out how they could get back in touch.
John Edwards, the former senator whose presidential primary campaign last year was based on the theme that America is a country torn in two by race and class, sent an e-mail to supporters last week, saying that the hurricane's destruction exposed "a harsher example of two Americas."
"Every single resident of New Orleans, regardless of their wealth or status, will have terrible losses and life-altering experiences," Mr. Edwards wrote. But poor people, he added, "suffered the most from Katrina because they always suffer the most."
Mrs. Porretto, a court clerk, and her husband, Joel, a retired police officer, are hardly rich. But as they embark on life in exile, they look like royalty compared with Mr. Brown, Ms. Jackson and their children, wandering to a destination unknown with little more than the clothes they have worn for a week.
"We don't know where we're going, we don't know how we're going to survive when we get there - we're starting all over," Mr. Brown said as he stood in line for three hours in the airport's heat. "I never been out of this city. I'm going to be a stranger."
Nearly one in four of New Orleans' 445,000 residents live in poverty, many of them in neighborhoods like the one where the Jackson-Brown clan huddled in a $350-a-month two-bedroom apartment across from a dilapidated and dangerous housing project; 69 percent of the city is black, and the median household income is $31,369. To the west in Metairie, where Ellen DeGeneres grew up, the median income is $41,265, just below the national average, 87 percent of the 145,000 residents are white, and fewer than 1 in 10 are poor.
But in the hurricane's wake, the poorest have turned desperately destitute, while the well-to-do make do with what they have left.
For the past week, the Porrettos and their many cousins converged at the Hilton, Lafayette's finest hotel, drinking red wine late into the night as they laughed in the lobby. The teenagers put a dollar on a string in front of the elevator, watching guests lunge for it as they yanked it away. The adults stayed up until 2 a.m. daring the dozens of dogs among the evacuated to strut their stuff.
"Every dog that did a trick, we drank a beer," Mrs. Porretto explained.
But some days, she stayed in bed depressed through the afternoon, or burst into tears out of nowhere. Their house has roof damage, and they do not yet know what the water has wrought inside. A Ford Taurus full of prized possessions that her husband parked outside Macy's to ride out the storm has been ravaged. The court where she has worked for 25 years is closed indefinitely. Her sister Kathy Skeins, whose family of four will share the little house along with Mrs. Porretto's 78-year-old mother-in-law, is worried about how her boys, 15 and 11, will fare in public school for the first time, and what will happen to the $3,500 tuition she already paid at the Catholic school back home.
"It hit us Monday that we were homeless," Mrs. Porretto said. "We have meltdowns. You just have nothing to look forward to."
Until they found the shotgun-style house in Arnaudville, a town of 1,400 down a long country road north of Lafayette.
On Saturday, as the two sisters unpacked the storm-survival arsenal they had amassed at the hotel - pounds of ham for sandwiches and a new toaster oven, all manner of snacks and condiments, even a bottle of olives to ease Mrs. Porretto's arthritis - a neighbor stopped by with a box of cleaning supplies.
The landlord, who is lending an air mattress and queen bed, drew a map to the nearby restaurant and movie theater. The women debated whether they need a land line, but agreed cable television was a must, and set out shopping to stock their new shelves.
"We need to make a list, Gay," Mrs. Skeins said. "We need a mop and a broom, so we can keep up the kitchen."
Mrs. Porretto propped a photo collage of her son's first year on a bedroom windowsill, and imagined the morning sun streaming in through the living room. The sisters stocked the refrigerator with bottles of Coors Light they had brought.
"Gotta relax some way," Mrs. Skeins said. "We'll sit on the porch and have a cold beer." "We've got a porch, Kathy, I can't wait!" Mrs. Porretto said, forgetting the hurricane for a minute.
"We grew up with a porch!"
On moving day, Mrs. Porretto wore a clean T-shirt and fresh lipstick. Two hours' drive away at the airport, Ms. Jackson was braless under her soiled shirt and had a blue bandana covering her unwashed hair.
The Skeins' 125-pound Rottweiler, Buster, galloped across the grass in Arnaudville to drink from a spigot, after a week squished in a hotel bathroom; the Jackson children are without their mutt, Max, last seen as their apartment began to burn.
"We heard the dog barking," Ms. Jackson said. "I think he's dead."
Like the Porrettos, Ms. Jackson, Mr. Brown, their children, a nephew and a friend they call Auntie left New Orleans last Sunday morning, to stay with a friend. But they went back on Tuesday, and as the water rose to waist level, they fled with no provisions. After two nights shielding the baby's eyes from dead bodies at the feces-infested Superdome, they set out for the convention center, where rumors of rapes and worse left them taking turns sleeping on the floor in fear for their children's safety.
"Last night I heard a baby screaming, 'Stop, stop, get off me, don't touch me,' " Ms. Jackson recalled.
Their blue plastic bin is filled not with family treasures, but with scraps that other refugees and relief workers have handed out: three rolls of toilet paper, a box of Teddy Grahams, toddlers blue plastic sandals, two apples, a gallon of milk.
Mr. Brown was barefoot until a friend gave him a pair of sneakers that remain unlaced because they are too small; he has no socks. An elderly lady gave Ms. Jackson a quilted handbag to hold diapers and the pink pills the triage nurse gave to 7-year-old Waynenisha, who suffers from febrile seizures.
"It has some perfume and some body spray," she said thankfully. "I'm a lady. I can't walk around smelling like a grown man."
|The poorest have become desperately destitute.|
Now, Ms. Jackson is wondering whether she will be able to enroll her children in school without identification - even her own Social Security card is gone. Mr. Brown, who had been making do washing 18-wheelers and running errands for a convenience store, said he will "go there and get a job if they let me," though he is still unsure where there might be.
"We just started life's journey together," he said, gesturing at the little ones on the luggage cart. "As we're building, it just all fell apart at one time."
Standing in the sweltering line, Mr. Brown occasionally lashed out, slapping the leg of a child on the move or barking at others in line for pushing. When an older woman passed out on the curb, he pushed through the crowd to pour water down her head and back. "Where's the help?" he called out. "We need help! Give her some air, please."
A few minutes later, the Rev. Jesse Jackson turned up with three buses. The Jackson-Browns leaped out of line to rush aboard with their blue plastic bin and grabbed the last row in the air-conditioned coach, leaving the skycap's cart behind.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, National, of Monday, September 5, 2005.
Related articles: What Happens to a Race Deferred / Slavery in the Family / Class Matters / From Margins of Society to Center of the Tragedy
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