Transcript

297:

This Is Not My Beautiful House
Transcript

Originally aired 09.16.2005

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/297

Prologue.

Ira Glass

In Houston it's Tuesday at the Astrodome complex. We still had thousands of evacuees from New Orleans at that point. There were these tables with hand-lettered signs on poster board-- they read Florida, New York, Colorado-- basically offering to relocate evacuees to those states. This wasn't the state governments doing this. This was private charities and churches from those states, and they're making some incredibly generous offers.

Andrea Ames

I think that people should come to Colorado because we've got the best deal going.

Ira Glass

Andrea [? Ames ?] was manning the Colorado table on behalf of three different charities there. And the deal she's offering?

Andrea Ames

It's free housing that's been donated by citizens of Colorado for anywhere from six months to a year. They've also promised to furnish the houses, fill them with groceries for that six-month time, job training, and a job.

Ira Glass

But incredibly, even though this deal did seem to be the very best deal going at the Astrodome complex, people from New Orleans don't want this deal.

Andrea Ames

For the first two weeks our team was here, there was no one going at all. There was no one signing up. It took me three days-- I had one specific offer-- it took me three days to give away one free three-bedroom, two-bathroom house, free car, free insurance for a year, free schooling for the kids, one job at Coca Cola, one job with Wal-Mart. It took me three days to get someone to take it.

Ira Glass

And why?

Andrea Ames

Everybody said, if I come to Colorado, I'm going to freeze to death. Everyone thinks they're going to die. Everyone thinks we all live in Alaska and it snows every day all year around and that we're all going to freeze to death. They really say, I can't go there, I'm going to die. We aren't like you. We don't live like that. That's been the biggest conversation I've had probably the most.

Ira Glass

Which is all hard enough for Andrea to deal with on its face, but then there's the added indignity that her candidates then go two tables down and get snapped up by Florida.

Kevin Lillibride

Actually, we had a young lady-- as a matter of fact, the family just left today-- that we just flew out of here today.

Ira Glass

Kevin [? Lillibride ?] at the Florida table.

Kevin Lillibride

And they were considering Colorado, and that was the issue. It was the difference between snow and sun, and we just looked at them and said, really, what's holding you up? We have sun, and they have snow. So it helps us out when they go talk to Colorado, because then they come down here to talk to us. It works in our favor.

Ira Glass

The only problem with Florida, of course, is something that everybody from New Orleans pretty much has a low tolerance for at this point: hurricanes. Still, as of Tuesday, the guys at the Florida table got 43 families to relocate.

You're listening to This American Life from WBEZ Chicago, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

So this past week, somewhere between 400,000 and a million people, including an entire city, New Orleans, were scattered across the country, the biggest mass resettlement in our country since the Civil War. And we went out to document some of what was happening as these people tried to figure out what happens next in their lives, where they're going to live.

Two producers from our radio show, Lisa Pollak and Jane Feltes, and I flew from our home base in Chicago to Houston. Houston is where between 150,000 and 200,000 hurricane evacuees went after the hurricane. One man I talked to down there who was looking for housing said that he felt like he was living in a gold rush town, so many people scrambling for all the same things all at the same time. Today, we bring you stories from the Astrodome, and of people simply trying to find places to live.

Plus, back in New Orleans, certain business owners in certain areas are being allowed back this weekend. Nick Spitzer drives through deserted streets to his own house, where he feels like a stranger and a looter. Stay with us.

Act One. Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.

Ira Glass

It was actually Jane who talked to people at the various state tables, and she says eventually Colorado did actually manage to get some people to relocate.

Jane Feltes

They got 35 people after two weeks of trying. And the reason people finally said yes was desperation. FEMA let everyone know that the temporary housing was ending, hotel vouchers were ending for families that were in hotels, and people were being moved out of the Astrodome. First in line for the bus to Colorado were twin sisters, [? Coquin ?] and [? Kayla. ?] They're six. And here's what they know about the place they're about to move.

Girl 1

I know that it's beautiful. It's a beautiful place, and it has lots of mountains. And I know that it's so beautiful, anybody will want to go there.

Jane Feltes

Where did you hear that?

Girl 1

I heard it from a snow movie, like Snow Dogs. You know Snow Dogs? It took place in-- what's the name of the place again?

Girl 2

Colorado.

Girl 1

In Colorado.

Girl 2

Colorado.

Jane Feltes

How's the last couple of weeks been?

Girl 2

It's like [INTERPOSING VOICES] adventure. Let me say it. It's like an adventure. We been almost everywhere. We had so much fun. We went to Baton Rouge, went to the shelter, and then Alexandria, then back to Baton Rouge, then to Houston. We had to live in a hotel, the Scottish. Yeah, the Scottish Hotel and Suites. That's what it said.

Jane Feltes

When I talked to their mom, [? Coquina, ?] she said that they overheard her talking on the phone telling a friend that the last few weeks have really been an adventure. She was being sarcastic, but the girls picked it up. And just as well. It took a little more convincing for their mom.

Coquina

I saw that New York, the cost of living is too high to start there. And I thought, I don't want to go to Florida by any more storms, so Colorado seems safe.

Jane Feltes

And why not Houston?

Coquina

Well, I was trying to establish in Houston, but like I said, I only had 14 days to get everything done. Otherwise, we'd be on the street trying to get it done. So when I heard Colorado, I jumped on there.

Twins

Oh Jane, you ought to be ashamed, you let a boy kiss you and you don't know his name.

Jane Feltes

At this point, the girls decided I was done talking to their mom, and they wanted the microphone back, which they suddenly realized was real, and I actually was from the radio, and they had business.

Girl 1

About the hurricane and our sister and brother, we can't find them.

Jane Feltes

You can't find your brother and sister?

Girl 1

No. When Katrina hit, we never heard from since we left. If [? Kiana ?] and Jamal is listening to this, we love you and we miss you.

Jane Feltes

We met lots of people at the Astrodome who were still missing friends and family. There's an office that reunites families, with lists of survivors and their locations, but their moms says the last time they saw Jamal and [? Kiana ?] was when she dropped them off with their dad and grandparents in New Orleans before evacuating, just before the storm. She's acting confident that they're OK, so the girls are acting confident too.

Act Two. No Place Like Dome.

Ira Glass

Act Two, There's No Place Like Dome. So what was it like this week in those huge buildings that were housing evacuees in Houston? Well, the first thing you noticed when you walked into the Astrodome or the Reliant Convention Center, where people were living, was the noise.

Pa Announcer

James Scott, James Scott, pick up at the front gate. Tyrone Scott is waiting for you.

Ira Glass

PA announcements went on all day and into the night. In the center of the Astrodome, the area there where the cots were, because you were right under the center of the dome itself, it echoed like crazy.

Pa Announcer

Please call Auntie Harry. Her number is 7067. Thank you.

Ira Glass

Louis [? Llewellyn ?] told me that you get used to it. He's a New Orleans evacuee.

Louis Llewellyn

Yeah, I take naps through the announcements. Yeah, you have to take naps. I'm not as young as I used to be. Yeah, the announcements won't stop me from taking a nap.

Ira Glass

One thing about living in a big room with thousands of people that you don't really think about until you're there is germs. There are little free bottles of antibacterial scrub all over the place that people were advised to use, but that didn't stop bugs from spreading.

Louis Llewellyn

I caught the virus that was going around. I had diarrhea, and I was vomiting, trying to get to a dumpster, and I couldn't. I couldn't make it. And I just vomited right in the middle of the floor.

Ira Glass

Bad place to get sick.

Louis Llewellyn

Yeah, bad place to get sick.

Ira Glass

Or maybe not such a bad place, since just a few feet from his cot was a 24-hour medical clinic. There was also a pediatric clinic and a pharmacy. He got better in just a day.

The lights were on all the time, though they dim them at night. It was so calm and orderly that the soldiers you saw inside the Reliant Convention Center were mostly on duty guarding the bathrooms, mainly, one said, to be sure that men and women weren't getting together in the bathrooms for some adult privacy, or, dare I say, domo-sexual activity.

In the late morning, the big convention floor where everybody was living looked like an apartment complex where all the walls had been lifted away. A little girl skipped around her family's cots, a teenager walked through bouncing a basketball. There was a free phone bank, and places to sign up for college, and all the offices to get insurance and government benefits, a big computer center with lots of volunteers ready to help you get online and navigate government websites.

Most of what was so striking was the overall competence of the whole thing, the care with which it was all put together. And nobody thought that more strongly than the people who were there who had been trapped at the New Orleans Convention Center, or the Superdome in New Orleans, after the flooding.

Phyllis Thompson

The Superdome was like, it was just total chaos. Rapes went on. One of the young men stole one of the soldier's gun and shot in the leg.

Ira Glass

This shooting, this was something you saw?

Phyllis Thompson

Yes. They killed, and killings were going on. It was just like, just horrible.

Ira Glass

This is Phyllis Thompson. I talked to her just as she and her son and her daughter and her grandkids were packing up their stuff to move into their new housing. The kids had one of those big plastic trash bags full of new stuffed animals that had been donated. Phyllis and her son both told me that after what they went through at the Superdome, they don't ever want to return to New Orleans.

Man

I'm not going back. I don't want to even see it no more. Uh-uh. I ain't going back to that.

Ira Glass

His mom, Phyllis, says that after the flood, the moment on the bus that they crossed the border into Texas, she felt safe for the first time. She felt peace.

Phyllis Thompson

Texas has opened their heart. The state troopers, the organizations that work here, the Red Cross, it's just everybody has just showed so much love and so much kindness. And all I can say is that I just thank God for it. Even the clean-up people are so nice and just kind, and just considerate.

Ira Glass

Not everybody was feeling quite as positive. I ran into Tony and Tiffany Davis as they were leaving the Reliant Center. An incredibly wholesome-looking young couple, they wore the color wristbands that get evacuees into the Astrodome complex, and they dragged a leopard print wheelie suitcase that had been donated by Wal-Mart, and a beat-up olive suitcase that came from an airline.

Tiffany Davis

Continental I think gave it to us.

Ira Glass

Just like somebody's lost luggage that never like--

Tiffany Davis

I think it was lost at the airport. Lost, yeah.

Ira Glass

So that's where it ends up?

Tiffany Davis

Yes. It's ours now.

Ira Glass

They're taking the free plane tickets offered by Continental and FEMA and moving to New Jersey, where Tony's brother has a house. So far the housing people in Texas haven't been able to get to their case, so they're leaving.

Ira Glass

So how's it been here? Like, do you come out of this experience feeling kind of impressed with what they've done here in Houston, or--?

Tiffany Davis

I think when we first arrived, that everything was pretty organized, and I think afterwards, I think they kind of got tired of us.

Ira Glass

Why? Why? What was the sign of that?

Tiffany Davis

Like, we went to the mall, and I think that they see us with the bands on, and everybody's like, oh my gosh, here they come, here they come, here they come, they're coming to steal, they're coming to do this, they do that. And it's not everybody. Everybody's not like that. And I think that it's partially the media's fault. They did portray us in a bad way. The news is showing us looting, and they're showing this, and they're showing that. And I think that it just adds to the fire, and I think that that's how everybody's judging us.

Ira Glass

In a shop at the Galleria mall, she says, a store employee followed her wherever she went. And just walking through town, she says, a man stepped completely off the sidewalk to avoid her and Tony. And in fact, white Texans did raise the issue with us, with me and Jane and Lisa, of what the presence of all these people from New Orleans would do to the crime rate. And the fact that it hadn't affected the crime rate was big enough news to be a front page story in the Houston Chronicle on Tuesday.

But at the same time, what's most striking as you go around Houston is how many people are putting themselves out for days and weeks at a time for strangers from Louisiana. At Grace Community Church, for example, the congregation not only came up with over $200,000 for relief supplies and gas cards for Katrina victims, over 1,000 of them volunteered day after day, some working 12- and 14-hour days, sending out faxes to every hotel in the area offering assistance to survivors, calling apartment complexes all over the city so they could compile every day a daily list of available apartments, specifying which ones were giving special breaks to Katrina survivors. They were serving a huge population that barely made it on to the news, and didn't make it into the Astrodome. That is, people who evacuated before the hurricane, who had some resources of their own. Lori Buxton works at the church.

Lori Buxton

Yes, primarily the people that we experienced were people that left when the storm was approaching, came here, got their hotel rooms, expecting they'd be here for three to four days while the storm went through. Of course, that turned out to be a very different situation. A week later, 10 days, 14 days later, they started running out of money. They started running out of places to stay. I had a call the day before yesterday, and I quote, "I have to be out of here in 20 minutes, and I have nowhere to go and no way to get there."

Ira Glass

Exactly where all these evacuees are going to live is the next serious question that this exodus is going to face. And though the Astrodome officially emptied out at the end of this week, several thousand people are still in the Reliant Arena just next door, with no particular end in sight. And beyond that group, it doesn't seem like anybody knows how many tens of thousands of people are staying in Houston paying for their own hotels, or on two-week government hotel vouchers that are now running out, or with family or friends, who are going to need permanent housing, and may need government help to help pay for it.

There's a voucher program that the city of Houston has set up that gives you six months free rent, no security deposit, two months utilities, furniture for your apartment, stuff like a shower curtain, in pre-selected apartments that have been inspected to be sure they're OK. Which of course sounds great, but matching the apartments with all the people who need them is complicated. And that is actually the subject of Act Three of our show.

Act Three. Land Grab.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Land Grab. Lisa Pollak, one of our program's producers, went to the housing center at the Reliant Arena this week.

Lisa Pollak

It's 3:00 PM when we get to the housing center, and it's not a happy place. There are hundreds of people here, slumped in folding chairs, jostling in lines, pleading for volunteers to help them. Tense-looking cops are everywhere, and soldiers in camouflage fatigues. It makes the DMV look like a day spa. In the section of chairs where we're standing, there's this sudden wave of movement. People stand up, and there's some yelling. It turns out an official with a bullhorn just told a whole group to leave and come back tomorrow. They won't get apartments today. And one of the women standing near us has clearly reached her limit.

Ida Mae

You should have apartments first before you bring the people in. You're bringing the people in before the apartments is available. Now we stand in line.

Lisa Pollak

Her name is [? Ida Mae. ?] She's been here since early this morning, she says, just like she was told to be, looking for a place for herself and her teenage sons. And at this point, the only way to manage her frustration is to share it with everyone she sees, including, apparently, one of the less-tolerant cops in the room.

Ida Mae

The police just told me that they will arrest me and put me out. Put me out where? Where they going to put me out at? That's a threat.

Lisa Pollak

Why did the police threaten you?

Ida Mae

Oh, if we get loud and all this kind of stuff, they going to put us to jail. If we have any problems, they going to put us in jail and all. Man, come on. Give us a break. Man, give us a break. If we get loud, we not going to let you holler at us. Well, I feel like screaming. What you mean, holler at you? I could scream to the top of my-- do he understand the pressure I'm under? Well, right now, mister, you holding me up right now, because the people-- I'm getting in line.

Lisa Pollak

Ida Mae goes to stand in another line, the line to sign up for tomorrow's line, which turns out to be the wrong line. A volunteer points her in the right direction.

Volunteer

Excuse me ma'am, the two-bedroom line is this line. There is the four-bedroom. I am sorry, OK? It was confusing, yeah. Thank you.

Guy Rankin

I don't know what happened. As soon as they walk in in the morning, we're getting buses, and we're taking people out to their homes. It is a success story beyond their imagination that you may need to print or say something about on radio.

Lisa Pollak

This is Guy Rankin, the man with the unenviable job of running this place. When I stumble on to him in the middle of the arena, he says things are actually going pretty well here, and he means it.

Guy Rankin

There were 25,000 people that are in dome. Now we're down to 3,000. They had to go somewhere. We housed most of them. We had 3,144 people taken to housing over the last five to seven days right off the dome floor. 800 seniors we took right off the dome floor, provided transportation, social services, and a full aspect of training, nurses, doctors, and all of that. I just got back--

Lisa Pollak

If all these numbers don't quite match up to the chaos around us, it's for a reason. The housing voucher program, like so much of the Katrina aid, is a work in progress, being assembled on the fly. At first, when hurricane victims showed up, they were told to sign up, and then they'd be called when housing came available for them. Lots of people never got calls. And because that system was moving too slowly, it was changed midstream.

Now how it works is what we're seeing today. People come to the housing center and wait for buses that will take them directly to the apartments that had been chosen for them. But the system is still messy. Ida Mae, for instance, needed a three-bedroom apartment, and not enough of those were ready today.

Guy Rankin

But the one- and two-bedrooms, we didn't have enough people to fill the one- and two-bedrooms. It was empty. I know, I see that look on your face, but we've been housing people day after day, minute after minute, taking buses out, full buses. Those are the stories you need to tell the world, and what we're housing, and those are the units you need to go see.

Lisa Pollak

Well, how can we come out and see some of it? I know there was a bus just leaving now that we were hoping we might come along on.

Guy Rankin

Yeah, you missed the bus.

Lisa Pollak

Did I?

Guy Rankin

Yeah.

Lashawn Price

All right, I'm going to call y'all when I make it in and I know how it looks. They told me they are lovely. It's the Timber Ridge Apartments.

Lisa Pollak

As it turned out, the bus he said we missed was running late, and we caught the last one just as it was loading. The people lined up didn't really know where they were going, just that they'd have an apartment when they got there. There were seven families, mostly couples, one little boy, and a very, very pregnant woman named [? Lashawn ?] Price who said she didn't want to have to bring a new baby back to the Astrodome. I ask her when she's due, and she says any day, which turns out to be an understatement.

Lisa Pollak

Do you have a doctor here or anything?

Lashawn Price

No, I'm too far along to get a health care doctor. I just have to wait it out.

Lisa Pollak

And they'll just tell you to go to the ER when you go into labor?

Lashawn Price

Yeah, I'm already three centimeters, so I'm just waiting on the next centimeter.

Lisa Pollak

You're in labor.

Lashawn Price

But they can't keep me until I'm four.

Lisa Pollak

We all get on the bus. Lashawn, still completely calm, is having contractions at this point, and the housing official who's coming with us hands out the voucher forms. We drive for a while on the freeway, and people are starting to get nervous. We seemed really far from the Astrodome. Finally, after 45 minutes, we get there.

Lashawn Price

Is this it? [CHEERING]

Lisa Pollak

It's a nice-looking townhouse development, with garages and tidy landscaping and new brick and siding. And for the first time all day, there's a sense that things are getting better.

Lashawn Price

Boy, we got lucky. We got lucky. We got so lucky, because they have to [INAUDIBLE]

Well, the inside looks very, very beautiful.

Lisa Pollak

We're in the clubhouse now. It's big, kind of like the lobby of a Hampton Inn, and there's a loveseat and wingback chairs and a fancy flower arrangement on the front table. Out the back through the glass doors, you can see a pool and basketball courts. The families line up as if out of habit. They all stand there looking around, flipping through the brochures. A few minutes go by, a few more. In the back corner of the room are two young women. They obviously work there, and they see we're here, but they don't come up to us or even say hello. They're talking about what to do, and everyone knows it. And [? Lashawn ?] says what everyone's thinking.

Lashawn Price

Is there a problem?

Lisa Pollak

But the women don't hear her, and the waiting continues. Finally, after 15 minutes, one of them comes forward. She's the assistant manager, though she doesn't introduce herself. She asks everyone to get out their social security cards and birth certificates, and she gets some incredulous looks.

Lashawn Price

I don't have a social security card. We just came from a flood in New Orleans. Where are you going to put that at? That's just so stupid.

Lisa Pollak

She hands out the applications. Everyone can get an apartment tonight, she says, as long as they have no previous evictions and a clean criminal record. There's an awkward silence in the room, and then the questions begin.

Lashawn Price

So if the people have a bad criminal check, they just have to be homeless?

Assistant Manager

If you know that you have a criminal background, and when I say criminal background, I mean no felonies whatsoever, no matter what it is or how old they are, misdemeanors for any drug-related, sex-related crime, or violence against person or property. So that's what I mean by criminal. So if those four things do not apply to you, or if you do not have an eviction, or if you do not owe a property any money, then yes, you will be in.

Lisa Pollak

[? Lashawn ?] turns to me.

Lashawn Price

This is BS. This is straight--

Lisa Pollak

Do you have one?

Lashawn Price

Do I have a conviction? Yeah, I have a conviction.

Lisa Pollak

But a felony or misdemeanor?

Lashawn Price

It's a felony, but it still doesn't stop me from working. I picked up a charge for my sister. That's not fair.

Lisa Pollak

Now it's getting really tense. The Housing Department guy is arguing with the assistant manager. People are pulling out their cell phones. There's some yelling. In a way, it's no different than things have been for weeks now. The rules keep changing, and no one tells them, and nothing ends up quite how it's supposed to be.

Remember last week, when the big story was the FEMA debit cards? Some people got them, others didn't. Next to me, [? Lashawn's ?] getting more agitated by the minute. I can't believe she's not four centimeters dilated by now. Her old life, with her own apartment and her job as a medical records assistant, seems as far away as ever.

Lashawn Price

That's the part that you're about to go insane behind. You're not in your right frame of mind no more, because if you think about everywhere you go, you're standing in the line for six, seven damn hours to get up there for somebody to give the damn runaround. After a while, it's starting to be-- then you can't even go home to somewhere and relax. You're going back to the damn center with 15,000, 20,000 people in it. You can't even sit out and have a peace of mind for a second.

Assistant Manager

I wish I had an answer for it myself right now, but I don't.

Lisa Pollak

Lisa, the assistant manager, seems a little overwhelmed.

Assistant Manager

And basically what happened is that they were supposed to be here earlier in the day, and they came five minutes before we were supposed to close. And then the bus driver's giving them 15 minutes to get back on the bus, and that's just not adequate time enough for us to be able to get them in and out. I feel really bad.

Lisa Pollak

A regional manager shows up, promising to help people, but it's too late. Everyone feels discriminated against. Here's [? Lashawn ?] and another woman as they get back on the bus.

Woman

Them bastards looked at us like we was misfits, and y'all negroes ain't getting in here.

Lashawn Price

That's not right

Woman

You're coming from nowhere. You have nothing. They know you don't have nothing. And then for you to turn around and try to makeshift throw little stepping stones in front of you like that? That's not right. That's not right.

Lisa Pollak

The housing official, he's back on the bus too, tells me he doesn't know why this has happened. It's his first day, he says. But there's another complex open tonight which also accepts the vouchers.

So the bus gets back on the freeway and drives to a neighborhood on the northwest side of the city. Out the bus windows, more and more of the store names are in Spanish. Someone spots a man pedaling a little food cart, and a bunch of people snicker. By the time the bus stops in front of a weathered two-story apartment complex called Villa del Sol, most of the passengers seem a little freaked out. One thing's for sure: this isn't Timber Ridge. For starters, when we get inside they're ready for us.

Manager

We have a really nice kids center here.

Lashawn Price

[UNINTELLIGIBLE]

Manager

We have a great kids center here that has five new computers in it.

Lisa Pollak

We crowd into the rental office. It's more basement rec room than Hampton Inn, with mismatched furniture and no slick brochures. But it's clean and comfortable, and a table in the center of the room is piled high with food: pizzas, sodas, chips. Pick as much as you want, people are saying. On the wall is a photo collage: the neighborhood kids at summer day camp.

Laura Rodriguez

It's a big party. I'm going to need your initials right here please.

Lisa Pollak

Lashawn sits down at the manager's desk and picks up a pen. She looks exhausted.

Laura Rodriguez

And right here, right there, one more, right there too, and I'm going to need your signature here.

Lisa Pollak

It was that simple. She had an apartment, six months rent free.

Lisa Pollak

So how were you feeling while you were writing that?

Lashawn Price

I don't know. It's just, whatever. Whatever. It's got a roof and a door, and I can sanitize it and have a new baby. That's all I'm looking for now.

Lisa Pollak

No one else from our group even fills out the paperwork. They eat the pizza and drift back to the bus. They'll find something better, they say. I grab one of them.

Lisa Pollak

Can I ask you why you don't want to stay?

Woman

Why I'm not staying? Because look how far we are from here. Just look around you. You see yourself. Ain't no good environment. Mexicans are the only people around here.

Lisa Pollak

It's hard to miss the fact that some of the same people who were complaining the loudest about discrimination at Timber Ridge were the quickest to say they didn't want to live around a bunch of Mexicans. One of them told me later, if you were in our shoes, wouldn't you feel out of place? It's a different community, a community you're not a part of. Our kids might get picked on or ridiculed. They'll be outsiders.

Laura Rodriguez

You've got a kid, right?

Lashawn Price

Yeah.

Lisa Pollak

Laura Rodriguez, the assistant manager, is going to give [? Lashawn ?] a tour. Jane, my co-producer, walks over to the apartment with them, and halfway there [? Lashawn ?] grabs Jane's hand.

Jane Feltes

Going to feel a contraction? You're having one?

Lashawn Price

Yeah.

Jane Feltes

Now?

Lashawn Price

[LABORED WHISTLING]

Laura Rodriguez

This is your apartment. This is a two-bedroom apartment, and one bath. It's real nice. It has a walk-in closet. Let me show you. They're nice and big. You can fit a bed in there. I think you're going to be happy here. People here are very friendly. I've been in this property for five years. People is nice.

Lashawn Price

It's nice. I'm glad. Thank you.

Lisa Pollak

To their credit, the people running this housing program are still working on it, still adjusting it each day, still trying to figure out how to get more people into apartments more quickly. The next morning, we go back to the housing center. Things are a lot the same.

Woman

Telling us to come back tomorrow. I was here yesterday with my proof. This is my proof. I was here yesterday.

Lisa Pollak

I try to talk to Guy Rankin, the guy in charge, but he's busy. He's walking around the arena, going from section to section with a bullhorn, listening to people's complaints and trying to answer their questions.

Guy Rankin

But let me first explain the Housing Choice Center. Some of you may have heard it before, but we need to do it again for everybody who's here.

Lisa Pollak

The system's still got some problems. Lots of people are asking why they just can't rent their own apartments with the voucher money instead of taking the places chosen for them in neighborhoods they don't know and don't feel comfortable with. It might sound picky, but when I talked to a New Orleans mom whose son has already started elementary school here and is happy there and doesn't want to move again, I'm reminded of how complicated this all is.

I listen for a while to Rankin. He tells the crowd he's heard that complaint, and that maybe soon there will be a way to let people choose their own places. It's still being worked out, he says, even as he speaks. Later today, he says, there might even be a line for that.

Guy Rankin

That system will be set up today, and we'll be lining up for that, lining up for that. I can only take one more question from this group, and please be patient with us, because we're very, very busy. I know you've been here 17 days. Some of us have been here 17 days with 20 hours a day. I'm going to answer each of your questions.

Ira Glass

Lisa Pollak. In the few days since the middle of the week when she left the housing center, they've made other improvements, like they've given people wristbands to keep their place in line. The biggest hold-up is still finding acceptable apartments, inspecting them, and then getting people out to see them. That will continue to be slow, especially for people who want three-, and four-, and five-bedroom apartments, which are scarce. By Friday, the number of families that the city had put into the six-month free apartments had climbed from 3,100 to 4,800.

Right outside the housing center, on the parking lot between the Astrodome and the Reliant Center, the YMCA set up a huge recreation area for kids and adults. Basketball courts. There's blow-up things that little kids bounce on at fairs. There's one tent of arcade video machines, and Dance Dance Revolution for kids, and a second tent of arcade games for adults, all set up so no quarters were needed. On one machine I saw a message that I had never seen before: game never over.

At a plastic table in the tent, two kids have drumsticks, and one was teaching the other how to play. Volunteers from Seattle and North Carolina and all over the place walked through, tending the kids and chatting happily like they'd known each other for years. On the Ms. Pac-Man machine, I see a man take a break from standing in line for government help by playing the fastest, greatest game of Ms. Pac-Man I have ever witnessed in my life.

Man

Yeah, when I was at my house in New Orleans, yeah, I used to play it on my TV. So I got a little bit of skills behind this thing.

Ira Glass

Outside, a cool late afternoon breeze starts to kick in, and I watch as a pediatric doctor in scrubs, a volunteer who flew in from Baltimore, tries to cross the playground, and gets stopped first by a six-year-old who has to borrow the doctor's camera to take her picture.

Doctor

You know how to do it now right, because you're a professional photographer? Let me fix it for you.

Ira Glass

And then she lends her cell phone to an older girl who needs to call a parent, even though she's having trouble.

Girl

It's his phone.

Doctor

Do you want to try it again? Same number? Is it not ringing?

Girl

823--

Ira Glass

As the sun started to go down on Tuesday, it was hard to believe that this whole complex would soon be gone, this city built in a day, like Brigadoon. 27,000 people were just two weeks ago, down to a few thousand this week. The past few weeks have been horrific for people here, traumatic, and the next six months are going to be incredibly hard, too, as people set up new lives, and homes, and jobs. This place was a waystation where sometimes it was possible to pause and rest.

[MUSIC - "PROMISED LAND" BY CHUCK BERRY]

Coming up: yes, the streets of New Orleans are still restricted. So what's it like to drive around there right now? That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Four. The Long Way Home.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, This is not My Beautiful House, stories about the hundreds of thousands of people sent into exodus since Hurricane Katrina. We've arrived at Act Four of our show. Act Four The Long Way Home.

Well, the mayor of New Orleans has announced that this weekend certain parts of New Orleans will reopen, first to business owners and then to residents, this weekend and in the coming week. Nick Spitzer is part of the New Orleans diaspora. He's also the host of the Public Radio International music show, American Routes. He's living now with his wife and his two little kids in Lafayette, living with friends. He has a press pass, so it's actually been legal for him to drive through the city of New Orleans. The streets are restricted, of course. So he finally tried it.

Nick Spitzer

This is, I think it's September the 7th. It is September the 7th, in downtown New Orleans, sitting on Canal Street right now inside my car. I'm about to take a ride uptown, and I'm just going to narrate what I see as I go.

So I've been told to go by way of Tchoupitoulas Street, and I'm told that it's fairly clear going up Tchoupitoulas. It makes sense. It's the old high ground in the city. So here we go. Certainly there are a lot of security guards everywhere who aren't very friendly, lots of guys in black with Kevlar vests and different things that say Security ICE, and security this, and security that. And then of course there's just the good old garden variety New Orleans cops. And then there's cops from all over, which is really, really strange: cops from Dublin, Ohio, cops from New Mexico.

I'm going to see-- there's no traffic lights working. I think I'm going to cut through here. I think I can do it. Yes, I can do it. And I'm off and running. And no one's shooting at me, for which I'm thankful. There's a guy with a machine gun there. I think actually there's a corpse up this way. Somebody told me.

I'm heading up Tchoupitoulas Street here. Everywhere you turn there's just garbage lying everywhere, garbage and old signs. There's electric generators running on diesel. Place reeks of diesel in addition to the smell of corpses and dead animals and rotting vegetation, and this stinking water everywhere, just oil, toxic crap.

Boy, here we are on St. Joseph and Commerce, and there's just garbage in all directions. Shopping carts-- oh, this must be where all the looting took place. That's exactly what this is. Oh, it is so strange and so sad.

There's the D-Day Museum. Jeez, looks like they've looted the D-Day museum. That is really strange, looting the gift shop of the D-Day museum.

This really smells bad out here. Unfortunately, it's because there are quite a few bodies over there by the edge of the Convention Center. Oh God, this is just awful.

Now we're heading uptown on Tchoupitoulas. Jeez, I've got to be careful for these tires, too, now that I think about it. I do have another tire back there, but I'm told there's a lot of roof tacks in the street. There's a lot of glass everywhere, a lot of metal shards, and just the streets are in bad, bad, bad shape.

Wow, there's people walking. Maybe I can even talk to--

Nick Spitzer

Hey man, how you doing? So you working with?

Man

FEMA, FEMA. We was working across the river today. As you can see, we cleared up all of St. Charles. We cleared out all Louisiana. We clearing up everywhere. We're just cleaning up, man. And it's giving me something to do, keep me from thinking about my family most, sitting down, just concentrating on doing something constructive.

Nick Spitzer

I've found that by putting your mind on work, you don't feel bad about anything else going on.

Man

They was trying to run us out of the houses and stuff, talking about evacuating. But why shall I leave? They got people coming in from out of town working. I talked to a guy before I got the job where I'm working at now. This guy was from Houston, Texas, a temporary worker working on it. Why the citizens that live here can't stay down here and work? It doesn't make sense. They got so much money coming up.

Nick Spitzer

Let the locals rebuild the city.

Man

Yeah, let the locals rebuild it. And he want to run us out.

And then, I didn't want to leave this animal here to die. I didn't want her to die. I didn't want to leave her out on the street to get hit or none of that. I couldn't leave her, and my daughters never would have forgiven me. When they come home, Lord blessed me to still be here, I'm going to surprise them. I'm going to hide that dog. I'm going to say, Destiny gone. I couldn't keep her. And I'm going to come out with her. And I know how they're going to feel. I know how they going-- I got it all planned too. I'm going to see my family again.

Nick Spitzer

When do you think you'll get your family back in town?

Man

Oh, I don't know. They're talking about like two to three months, something like that. It's going to be really hard, because I shed a few tears because I miss them, but I know they in a better place than where I'm at. But I don't know where they at. I don't know where anyone at.

Nick Spitzer

And you can't even talk to them.

Man

I can't even talk to my mother. She left before the storm. The day before the storm she was in Mississippi. I haven't talked to her since.

Nick Spitzer

Well, you take care, man. It's a pleasure to talk to you.

Man

You have a safe trip. Watch yourself, because the army people just told me they got some bad guys running around.

Nick Spitzer

Running around uptown here?

Man

Yeah, he say they in the area.

Nick Spitzer

Guys with guns, huh?

Man

Must be.

Nick Spitzer

I got to go a little further uptown. I hope I don't see any. Bye-bye.

Hmm, those guys look a little suspicious in that truck. It's a little spooky up here. It's about 5:45 in the afternoon here, Wednesday afternoon.

Coming up to the intersection of Tchoupitoulas and Napoleon, famous for the Tipitina's nightclub. I had heard there'd been some musicians sleeping here. I don't know what the deal is, though.

Oh, here's a landmark: Hansen's Sno-Bliz, the snowball shop that I love so much. And it looks OK.

Now I'm coming to Magazine Street, which is, of course, a major thoroughfare. I don't want them to think this microphone is a gun. There's some cops kind of eyeing me, but I'm going to wave to them. Hey, guys.

See my house in the distance, just can barely see it in the distance now. There's a SUV going by it. Jeez, I'm kind of nervous just coming back, worried. A lot of trees down right near the house. Oh God, it's my house. Looks like one window might have blown down in the dining room, unless somebody busted in there. I don't know.

I'm going to go in the house with a-- drop the cargo. Go in the house with a flashlight. I got to be the first one back in the hood. This is really strange. There's those insects in the trees. It's so bloody quiet.

[KNOCKS] I don't think anybody's in here. I sure hope not. The alarm was left on. Doesn't look like anybody's been fooling with this place. Ooh, doesn't smell too good. Hello, anybody home? I always keep this little bell here by the door. [BELL CHIMES] Service.

It does smell a little bit of rotten food in here. I'm almost afraid to open the refrigerator, because it's been about-- Phew. Oh. Oh. Oh God, that will make you puke.

We're back in the back downstairs bathroom. There's my little boy's stool. Gets up to wash his hands. Yeah, I heard the water was on, but--

The whole window is beautiful. The window pane is an ovular window pane with with stained glass. I'm just going to take the damn tape off. It saved it. Let's assume there won't be another hurricane here anytime soon.

I am so lucky. I am just so lucky. Real question is will we ever live here again. Let's go into my son's room. This is Perry's room. The doors seem to be sealed shut. It won't-- there it goes. This is his brother Gardner's room. He hasn't moved into it yet, because he's only four months old. And it looks like it's OK.

No one living here, and it's just incredibly sad. If I started thinking about it, I'd get upset. It's better just to keep moving, get the list, pack, and leave, I think, at this point. I don't want to stay here. It's too creepy. There's just nobody around for miles.

Margaret's given me a list here. Hope I can do all of it. Guest room, quilt on the guest bed: I got that. The LP records, jazz boxes, her Elvis Costello collection. I don't know if I can carry all that. In the bathroom downstairs, I'd better get that Wiggles towel for my son, Perry. He misses it. The scuzzy, I think it's called, or snuggly that goes into the jogger for little baby Gardner. Maybe I can get that jogger out. There's the old Mardi Gras flag, Muses flag. I don't know why she wants that. She didn't even ride that yet, but who knows? Thomas trains, videos, Dora, Ringling Brothers circus, and the little blue jacket.

Upstairs in the sun room, all the memento boxes and pictures. Running shoes, Nine West shoes. I haven't even gotten anything on the list for me, but I'll figure it out.

Just about got the last stuff in the car. Now I'm using the light of the tape recorder to find my flashlight.

Well, I'm back in the car. It's really dark. I feel like I've been a looter in my own house. I came to get possessions to last how long? A month? Two? Three? It's just hard to know what to take. You just take bits and pieces. It's like your whole life was just washing by you, and you feel like a cat burglar walking around, and every sound is pretty scary.

Well, I'm going to go back down to the compound for the night. So I'm all alone on St. Charles Avenue. It's very dark. It's like being on a country road going through the middle of a very big city. Yeah, here comes a car. He's turning across my bow. Let's see what this guy is. Let's hope we don't have a problem here. It's like a military kind of a guy. That's what they told me to be careful about was, when you come down the street, that if somebody turns in front of you in a large vehicle, they could block you. You've got to be really careful.

Nick Spitzer

Hi, gentlemen.

Man

Don't come creeping up that fast again, OK?

Nick Spitzer

Sorry, I didn't see you.

Man

That's fine. When somebody does that, you stop.

Nick Spitzer

Yes, sir.

Man

We don't know who you are.

Nick Spitzer

Yeah, I understand.

Man

I appreciate that.

Nick Spitzer

No problem.

Man

Seen anything that we need to know about around here?

Nick Spitzer

Not really. I've been up at, basically, Prytania and Jefferson area, and I have not seen or heard a peep.

Man

All right, we appreciate it. Just be safe, all right?

Nick Spitzer

Yeah, man.

Wow. Well that was fun. Those guys were on some kind of operation looking for the thieves, because they had all their lights down. And I don't think they were too happy that I showed up. Their guns were drawn. I think that jogging stroller up top probably makes me look pretty nondescript. They bought my story, anyway.

Now I'm cutting back over to Prytania, and there's a big rat crossing the street here. Oh, jeez [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. Oh, there's a kitty cat. Oh, that's so sad. He's alive, but barely. The animals are starving in this city.

Ira Glass

Nick Spitzer. You can hear his great music show, or find out what time it's on the radio, at www.americanroutes.org.

[MUSIC - "DON'T EVER BE AFRAID TO GO HOME" BY FRANK SINATRA]

Act Five. Water Bed.

Ira Glass

Act Five, Water Bed. Well, we have one last story about homes and houses in New Orleans. Louann Mims is 78 years old, and never paid much attention to the annual hurricane and storm warnings in New Orleans where she lives. But this year, this year was different. The morning of August 29, the day the hurricane hit, she got everything ready to pack her car to go to the Superdome to take refuge from the incoming flood. From a temporary housing facility in Maywood, Illinois, where she is now, she talked to Alex Kotlowitz about that day.

Louann Mims

I got up in the morning and I looked out, and it looked fairly ordinary. I said, well, I'm going to have a bowl of cereal and a banana. I put the cereal in and poured on the milk and had two bites, and I looked, and the water was just coming in from the patio. So I got up, looked to the front part of the house. Water was coming in the front door.

Oh, my God, what do I do? But then it came so quickly, and within five to eight minutes there was almost five feet of water in the house. So I'm now, God, what am I going to do? And everything is floating. I sat on the top of the ladder, and I realized then it was getting a little later in the afternoon, and I had better just see if there was anything that I could sleep on that night, because I couldn't get out. I couldn't go walking in all this water.

Alex Kotlowitz

Your house is one story?

Louann Mims

Uh-huh. It's a 10-room ranch. So I walked past the spare room, and the mattress is about to go under, so no sleeping on that one. I go to my bedroom, and my mattress was floating. I say, hey, I'll go get my ladder. I can climb up there. And I did, and that's where I was for eight days and eight nights. And this mattress is a Stearns & Foster, and I had just received it the end of April. I bought the extra firm, so it must have a lot of wood in it.

Alex Kotlowitz

So you're sitting, you're floating on your mattress. King size or--?

Louann Mims

A queen size.

Alex Kotlowitz

Are you lying on your bed all day?

Louann Mims

Well, I had no choice.

Alex Kotlowitz

You're just reclining, or sitting on it, or?

Louann Mims

I was just lying. Now, I had two pillows, and they were very wet, but that was all right. I was used to that.

Alex Kotlowitz

Up to where on your body, the water?

Louann Mims

Well, there was times when it was about mid-thigh. There was one time the first day, my chest of drawers turned so that the back was up, and I stepped on it in hopes of climbing on the bed. And it just flipped me right into the water, and I went under the water for a second. And I just held my breath a little bit and floated right on up.

My refrigerator in the kitchen went belly-up. I couldn't open the door. My refrigerator had that little door outside that has the water and the juice and the milk on the door. So I opened that, and I was able to get some orange juice out. And then I took off my meat cleaver, and I kind of broke one side of that little thing. I got some raisins, some cheese, and each morning I have a few bites because I didn't know how long I'd be there. And I said, I have to have a few bites every day. And then, late in the day when I got hungry, well, I just kind of ignored it.

And to my great disappointment, when I came here and I had my physical, I had not lost one ounce. I was really disappointed there, because I was counting on, at least I want to get something out of this. I want to lose a few pounds, but I didn't.

Alex Kotlowitz

What did you do about water?

Louann Mims

Well, I had a full gallon. I decided 12 ounces was enough for the day. I'd have 12 ounces of water, and that kept my kidneys healthy enough.

Alex Kotlowitz

It sounds like you had survival experience. How would you know?

Louann Mims

Well, the reason-- I was in nursing for 42 years, and I kind of knew how some things would be. People say, weren't you frightened that this was happening to you? Not really. It's just the will to say I will not succumb to this. But I wasn't even thinking like that. I was just thinking of all practical things, because I knew eventually someone would find me.

Alex Kotlowitz

Sounds like you were awfully calm. What else would you do to keep your spirits up?

Louann Mims

When I was just lying there, I just kind of said, well, Louann, you know, you have this furniture, some of it about 40 years, and time to get some more anyway. I watch garden and-- what is that HGTV thing? And I watch that a lot. I enjoy that. When I'm bored with something else on TV and there's stupid stuff, I go to that.

So they're talking about color all the time, beautiful colors. Oranges-- well, I wouldn't want red or anything like that, but maybe a pale orange or a pale yellow. And then I thought, well, now I have a chance, and I never really liked the Formica they had on my countertops, so I thought, now I'll get marble. And I did not like the floor covering they had on it, now I'll get ceramic tile. The carpet, of course, has got to be thrown out. But I said, now I'll have hardwood floors, because that's what I want anyway. Saying, oh, that looks pretty good.

Alex Kotlowitz

So you're on your mattress every day, just lying there, and you're thinking about redecorating your house?

Louann Mims

Well, yeah, I did. That's the way I was motivating myself. If I was going to say, oh poor me, I might die here of this or that, or why don't somebody come and get me? I figured they would eventually make rounds, and they would find me.

Alex Kotlowitz

During those eight days, what did you miss the most?

Louann Mims

I have so many TVs in my house, because I love television. I have six. I had one in each bedroom. In the great room was like two in there, because I had a very large one, 53, for sports. I'm an avid sports fan, so I love all the tennis, all the golf, and all the basketball. So I enjoy that on my large screen. But I never missed it one time, and I could not understand why I didn't miss it. I really did not miss it.

Alex Kotlowitz

And what were you wearing during all this time?

Louann Mims

A bra. That's all, because everything else got so wet. I mean, I didn't have anything anyway. I had that old muumuu that I wore outside. I had that on the first day of the storm, and that was wet. After that, through these eight days, I just had on a bra, nothing more.

Alex Kotlowitz

Did you learn anything about yourself that you didn't know before?

Louann Mims

Well, always my upcoming, I was terribly, terribly, terribly poor when I was growing up. And I thought that there was a white world and a black world. I thought white people had things that black people didn't have because of the two worlds, and blacks were not permitted those things. Well, when I grew up, and I left Louisiana when I was 17 years old and ended up in Michigan, I discovered, oh, money was the problem.

So when I discovered that, then I said-- I don't know, I can say I set out to prove that I could be equal. And so I educated myself. I set out to improve myself. I was the kind of person, I have so many clothes. No one woman ever needed as many clothes as I've had in my life. I had pajamas that I had never worn: silk, beautiful pajamas. I have two full-length mink coats, and I have a beautiful Persian.

It was just ironic that, when I arrived here, I came here in an old muumuu which I didn't notice that was on the wrong side. I had no underclothes on, and I had no shoes. I've had 100 pairs of shoes in my lifetime. So I never want to own all that stuff again.

Alex Kotlowitz

So you realized you just didn't need all of that?

Louann Mims

Right, I didn't need all of that.

Ira Glass

After her rescue, Louann Mims was put on a plane to Chicago wearing only the muumuu she was rescued in and a pair of socks that a relief worker gave her. She's currently at a facility run by the state of Illinois, hoping to get a new apartment somewhere near her daughter. The daughter plans to write a thank you letter to the mattress company, Stearns & Foster, at some point. She talked with Alex Kotlowitz, author of Never a City So Real, There Are No Children Here, and other books.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Sarah Koenig, Julie Snyder, and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Jane Feltes, Amy O'Leary, and Lisa Pollak. Julie's also our senior producer. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Chris Ladd.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to any of our programs for absolutely free, or buy CDs of them. Or you know you can download today's program, or our archives, at audible.com/thisamericanlife. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who most weeks has this reaction when he hears our show:

Nick Spitzer

Phew. Oh. Oh. Oh God, that will make you puke.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of this American life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.