Families Struggle in Louisiana
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SPOKESPERSON: Go right on in there. He’s waiting for you –
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Eric Wright has been going on job interviews all over southern Louisiana. Last week, just in time for Thanksgiving, Wright nailed a position.
ERIC WRIGHT (on cell phone): They hired me. Yeah, as a manager trainee.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But managing a New Orleans RadioShack is not what the 29-year-old law school graduate originally had in mind. He and his wife, Troynell, currently a third-year law student at Southern University in Baton Rouge, were looking forward to careers as attorneys in New Orleans. Then along came Katrina and their dreams were swept away.
ERIC WRIGHT: I was born and raised here and I’m an attorney. Well, I passed the Louisiana bar exam; my plan is to practice law in this state. And if I open my business here, there’s no people to be an attorney for. You know, everybody who I know has either left or evacuated.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Eric hopes eventually he will still practice law, but he needs money now. In order to pay for law school and support their three children, the Wrights owned and managed two duplex rental properties in New Orleans. Both were severely damaged by the hurricane, and when their tenants were evacuated, the rent went with them.
ERIC WRIGHT: I have this property here that I can’t live in. I can’t rent it out I can’t do anything with right now that I still have to pay the mortgage on. Plus, I have to pay my rent where I’m staying now, so, I mean, I am just as confused and just as lost as anybody.
TROYNEL WRIGHT: The mortgages are backing up on the houses, and the mortgage companies are going to expect these mortgages to get paid at the first of next month, and we really don’t have the money right now to pay.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The new job will help. But it came on the heels of other personal and financial chaos in the Wright household.
The NewsHour first met Eric and Troynell just days after Katrina struck. The couple had taken 20 members of his family who were flooded out into their tiny two-bedroom apartment in Baton Rouge.
For two months people were practically living on top of each other, and there was just one bathroom.
WOMAN: You’ve to, like, get a number to get in there. (Laughter) Get a number.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The relatives were eating in shifts, sleeping on the floor –
GIRL: The pregnant girl, the grandmother, some of the children.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: — and creating a logjam in front of the TV set.
The Wrights’ electric bill went up. The cost of feeding everybody went through the roof. There were fights and disagreements with so many people living in such a small space.
Eric had to drop out of his MBA program because he couldn’t study. And in the end said their generosity was not returned.
TROYNELL WRIGHT: They were here. They were, you know, eating the food, using the electricity. But when you leave, then we’re left with the bills. And that’s when it gets hard because we don’t have any income coming in with the houses, you know, being down right now. So they were getting –they got their FEMA money, and they just left.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The FEMA money Troynell is talking about is the $2,000 allotment the federal government gave to Katrina families that evacuated. No government money was given to people who took relatives in.
The Wrights aren’t the only ones in their immediate circle of friends who have had a full house. Fellow law school students Michelle Charles and Shontel Terrance also took in flood victims. At one point 40 people were sleeping in their tiny two-bedroom apartment.
SHONTELL TERRANCE: We welcomed everyone with open arms because a lot of people didn’t have a place to go. At first we thought it was going to be just a few days, and a few days turned into a few weeks, which turned into a few months.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Now most of them are gone, but the two women are still housing and feeding six, including Shontel’s sister and her boyfriend. They had attended college in New Orleans but had to transfer to Baton Rouge because their school closed after the flood.
Shontell’s mother, Shelly Wing, also lives with them during the work week. Her house survived Katrina, but the dairy where she works was heavily damaged and has temporarily moved to Baton Rouge. She is proud of what her daughter and Michelle have done.
SHELLY WING: They never looked back and said “How many people?” Or “That’s enough, no more.” They kept opening the door and say, “Come on, we’ll find a spot. We’ll find a place. Don’t worry about eating. Don’t worry about nothing.” They did. They’re true blessings, and I pray that God just opens the doors and just showers them with everything they need.
SHELLING WING (talking to granddaughter): Color this. Color that.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: On top of all that Wing is now caring for her granddaughter, Jarielle, while her other daughter is serving in the Army in Iraq. That means an active three-year-old is now part of the equation in this tiny apartment.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: How do you get any studying done?
MICHELLE CHARLES: Oh, you don’t get studying done in this house. I’ve tried; it does not work. Like once — like once Jarielle gets home, you basically are done. I usually go to the library or I’ll go to, like, a coffee shop or Starbucks.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And at times, the pressure of the past few months has been almost overwhelming for Shontell.
SHONTELL TERRANCE: It was really rough you know, like, there was a lot of people – and there was a lot of — (crying) — some people wasn’t comfortable. Some didn’t want others because they are not our family. It was a lot going on. It wasn’t peaches and cream, you know.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But even with all the chaos and confusion, the financial burden and the lack of privacy, the Wrights and the two young law students say they would do the same thing all over again.
TROYNEL WRIGHT: We’re still going to get blessed for helping those people, because you never know, one day we may be in that same situation. You never turn your back on people in their need.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Even if they take advantage of you?
TROYNELL WRIGHT: Yeah, yeah. And I can honestly say I still would’ve helped them.
MICHELLE CHARLES: I wouldn’t have thought twice about doing what I did again. I’m just glad that people — that I was here to help people that didn’t have a place to go, so I just thank God that I was in a position to help.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And having survived Hurricane Katrina, Shontel’s mother is thankful for something else.
SHELLY WING: Life. Life. That’s the most precious thing that you can ever have because when it’s gone, it’s gone and you can’t get it back. So we’re thankful for just having each other and the family is still — even though we’re displaced in different places, we’re still together. So we thank God for that. Material things you can always get it — get it back.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But for many families being together this year will be in spirit only. It is estimated more than half a million people from the Gulf Coast are scattered around the country on this Thanksgiving Day.