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Sunday, October 09, 2005

Scattered in a Storm's Wake and Caught in a Clash of Cultures - New York Times

Scattered in a Storm's Wake and Caught in a Clash of Cultures - New York TimesOctober 9, 2005
Scattered in a Storm's Wake and Caught in a Clash of Cultures
By ISABEL WILKERSON

SALLISAW, Okla. - Word spread fast after the evacuees arrived. Everyone wanted to see one up close. Soon, the gravel driveways wending through the grounds of the old church mission were backed up with trucks and minivans filled with locals bearing bottled water or leftover clothes or just wanting to talk to the Louisiana people, tell them how sorry they were for what had happened to them.

The Methodists brought cribs. A dentist sent a box of toothbrushes. A Presbyterian was recruiting for the choir. Members of the Sequoyah Memorial Hospital Auxiliary showed up to take the evacuees shopping at Wal-Mart. A beautician wanted to do their hair. And someone donated a box of formal wear that, the volunteer sorters noted, the evacuees were not likely to need anytime soon.

In the beginning, it seemed that wherever the Louisianans went, people stopped them on the street, figuring that because they were black, they must be from the hurricane. A man went up to one of them, Gerald Cooper, a former merchant mariner, and said, "Here, put this in your pocket," as he stuffed a $20 bill into Mr. Cooper's hand.

"It was like we were a fad," Mr. Cooper said.

In the chaotic first weeks after Hurricane Katrina, several vanloads of Louisiana exiles, including Mr. Cooper, arrived disheveled and sleep-deprived at the old mission grounds here, miles from the edge of nowhere in the middle of eastern Oklahoma.

They were among the tens of thousands of people forced out of the Gulf Coast and into unaccustomed holding places where no one knew quite what to make of them. They had suddenly become nomads in their own country - pitied, gawked at and shuffled from place to place, stuck in the middle of a long journey that would take them through several states merely to get to this way station from which to plot the rest of their lives.

In time, they found themselves caught in a web of red tape and cultural miscues, clashing with locals over the tiniest of things, like how to cook grits or season meat, or over the life-and-death question of why they did not get out of harm's way in time.

Tensions rose, and by the end of the month, the Louisianans, grateful though they were, could not wait to get out. And the local people, well-meaning and overwhelmed, were just as relieved to see them go.

An Odyssey Begins

Their time at the mission would become both an object lesson in the psychic strains of disaster recovery and a laboratory for the challenges of sheltering victims so different from their caregivers.

This particular colony of exiles, thrown together at random, was first delivered by bus and military cargo plane to Fort Chaffee, an old Army base in westernmost Arkansas, which became a kind of Ellis Island, some 9,000 evacuees passing through its gates the first week after Hurricane Katrina. There, Red Cross workers assigned them to vans that would spirit them even farther away.

It was as if they had been hurled into another galaxy, a stubbled land of raccoon woods and Andy Griffith towns, Indian smoke shops and creased-faced cowboys in pickup trucks.

As they passed from Arkansas into Oklahoma, the evacuees made little comment to their cheerful Presbyterian drivers, too exhausted to register an opinion. The convoy exited the highway at the billboard that said "Jesus" in big cursive letters. It passed Hog Creek and the tractor supply shop and rumbled along unmarked roads.

The land was becoming sparser and drier. They had passed the last traffic light miles ago. There were no other cars on the road and no more stop signs or signs of life other than cows resting under the locust trees. They had seen no other black people since leaving Arkansas. Now they saw no people at all. Some of the evacuees began to grow fearful.

"Where is they taking us?" Nitayu Johnson, a hotel maid with a young daughter, remembered thinking. "They trying to slave us. They going to make us pick cotton. We gon' die."

In fact, they were bound for Dwight Mission, an old church outpost whose log cabins and stone dormitories were used as a boarding school for Indian children decades ago, and which now serves mainly as a campsite for local church groups.

There were 19 people in the first wave of arrivals, dominated by a blustery clan whose patriarch, Louis Green, a widower, was once a pool shark who had made a living breaking players with more money than sense in the pool halls of Louisiana.

Mr. Green, 65, arrived with 5 of his 19 children, 5 of his 29 grandchildren and four smaller households who had banded together with his family for protection in a fetid school gymnasium outside New Orleans in the darkest days during and after the storm.

Soon afterward, Eugene and Helen Johnson arrived, a retired couple, unrelated to Nitayu Johnson, who had lost each other at the Superdome when Mrs. Johnson, in the early stages of dementia, never made it back from a trip to the restroom.

For four days Mr. Johnson searched for her in vain. In the chaos of the evacuation, she was airlifted to Arkansas, and he to San Antonio. They were reunited at the mission in Oklahoma after the Red Cross, along with their grandson Charles, located Mrs. Johnson in Arkansas.

"Money couldn't buy that when I seen her," Mr. Johnson said. "After all what we went through, I said, 'Bring me to a dry place.' "

Among the other arrivals were the wife of Mr. Cooper, Antionette McNeely, a frail diabetic who was hospitalized upon landing in Arkansas; Dejawhn Riggs, a college student in wire-rimmed glasses and a polo shirt, who had attached himself to the Green family but stayed to himself and rarely looked up from his single hot rod magazine; Mr. Green's father-in-law, Richard Harris, a gaunt, mysterious figure who preferred to sit in a metal folding chair with a cigarette rather than speak of whatever he had seen at the Convention Center in New Orleans; Corille Johnson, Nitayu Johnson's pigtailed, 10-year-old daughter, who talked about rapes and dead bodies over Jell-O at dinner; and Charles Johnson, the elder Johnsons' 20-year-old grandson, who was counting the minutes until he could get out.

The first night, people either slept better than they had in days (the elder Mr. Johnson said anything was better than sitting upright at the Superdome) or could not sleep at all. Bats circled the night sky beating their wings, coyotes howled in the woods by the creek, turkey vultures and chicken hawks cawed in the distance, and inside the dormitory, coughs and footfalls echoed down the bare wood corridors.

Charles Johnson, who had been a hotel clerk on Bourbon Street, could not rest knowing that the dormitory's front doors were not locked. The doors to the rooms were not locked either; they did not even have doorknobs. Mr. Riggs, the reclusive college student, locked his door with a spoon.

"We out here in the woods," Charles Johnson said, "and anybody could get in."

The staff assured its guests that they were perfectly safe. "We are providing a sanctuary for God's people," said Haan Phelps, the director of the mission. "You don't hear sirens and police cars going up and down around here."

Settling Into a Routine

Because of the complexity of the lives that had to be sorted out, what was supposed to be a three- to five-day stay turned into weeks. Everyone settled into a routine that no one seemed especially happy with but was the best anyone could do under the circumstances. It made for testiness on all sides.

The three mission staff members - trained not as the social workers, job counselors or triage nurses the catastrophe called upon them to be but rather as camp directors - treated the visitors as they would summer campers. They set out a schedule of breakfast at 8:00, lunch at noon and so on, allowing about half an hour per meal.

But many of the evacuees chafed under the rules. They were exhausted, some were sick, and they wanted to sleep late and move about in their own time. They were working people - hotel maids, maintenance men, cashiers and nursing assistants - who were used to cooking for themselves on their own schedule and did not like being told what to do and when to do it.

But if they failed to make it to a meal in time, there was nowhere else to go.

In the initial euphoria, there were grilled steaks and potatoes, pancakes at breakfast, hot meals three times a day. But the staff, stretched thin, could not keep it up and never expected it would have to.

Breakfast became cold cereal, packets of instant oatmeal that nobody seemed to open, see-through coffee and the occasional bowl of grits. Lunch was cold cuts on white bread. And dinner, the only hot meal, might be sausages and rice or canned spaghetti.

If the evacuees had come from any other city in the country, it might not have mattered so much. But food became the topic of every day's conversation and the cause of many rolled eyes. The blander the food got, the fewer people showed up and the less they ate, and the more disillusioned the staff got.

"I don't like to throw food away," Mr. Phelps said. "It's frustrating when somebody takes three biscuits and only eats two."

He took to going table to table, chiding the children to eat all their food, which only irritated the parents and made them less likely to come and eat.

"This is not a restaurant," Mr. Phelps said. "They can't come in here and order New Orleans shrimp, because I don't know I'm going to get reimbursed for it."

Homesick, Mr. Green's daughter Serrita picked at her cornflakes, while her 2-year-old son, Terrell, splashed milk out of his Cheerios. Charles Johnson stabbed at his dry sausage and rice over dinner. They were missing sweet cornbread, stuffed bell peppers, gumbo, pickled pigs' lips.

It was all some of them could do to sit on the other side of the kitchen and watch what was coming out without getting an apron and a skillet themselves. Someone found them hot sauce, and nearly a month into their stay, the cook finally got the hang of the red pepper requirements and made some faux jambalaya with a gallon of hot sauce that nobody but a Louisianan could eat. But few were around to try it because they had already given up.

Eugene Johnson told his wife not to meddle. "That's they kitchen," he said. "What they doing is all right."

For her part, the cook, Maxine Moore, was doing the best she could. She could work only part time and only on certain days. She was a single mother raising three disabled children, holding down another full-time job and driving 300 miles round trip to get there from her hometown, Possum Holler.

Oklahomans just eat differently from Louisianans, Ms. Moore said: "Rednecks and cowboys are meat-and-potatoes people."

Meanwhile, Mr. Riggs, the college student, was missing not just the food. "I hate not being able to get me a shot every now and then," he said.

Somehow, the visitors had to find a way to coexist until they could figure out where to go next. The quieter people sequestered themselves on the more secluded second floor. They took rooms at opposite ends from one another for privacy's sake.

They did not all get along and did not pretend to. The upstairs people had little patience for the spirited cacophony of the extended Green family, whose sniffling little ones skittered down the corridors, dodging piles of donated clothes and accumulated trash while a mix of Ashanti and Ray Charles bounced between multiple boomboxes.

Mr. Cooper and Ms. McNeely, the former merchant mariner and his wife, kept their distance, and the elder Mr. Johnson made a point of letting Mr. Phelps, the mission director, know he was not raised like the Green children.

As for the Greens, they were a world unto themselves, and took pains to make it clear that they were working people who were accustomed to doing as they pleased.

"I had money in the bank and a big-screen TV," Mr. Green said. "I didn't wear nothing but Austin Reeds."

He walked with a limp owing to a fall he took at the racetrack, and slept on a brown plaid sofa in his street clothes in the dormitory's living room. His room was where the building's only television was. He did not want anyone to sit on his bed, meaning the sofa, so most residents did not feel comfortable going in there. It was hard for anyone to watch the grainy images of Dr. Phil or college football, knowing Mr. Green was sitting there feeling invaded.

"Whose name it is on the door?" he would ask anyone who took liberties in his space.

With his gray stubble and baseball cap, he made it his business to root out slovenly habits and had regular run-ins with the people on the second floor.

"You done left your trash by the stairs," Mr. Green once said to Nitayu Johnson, a second-floor resident.

"You a damn lie," she shot back at him.

They had all become an accidental family, and everyone was going stir crazy. One day ran into another.

"After we eat," Mr. Cooper said, describing his day, "we go straight up our room and lay across the bed. We be looking at the clock and say, man, it's just seven o'clock. We trying to figure out how to go to sleep at seven o'clock. You read, you talk, you thinking you burned off an hour, and it's just 15 minutes."

Mr. Cooper was dying for a newspaper to know what was going on in the world since he could not watch the news in the living room. In the next room, Charles Johnson was arguing with his grandfather over the date.

"We don't know what day it is," the younger Mr. Johnson said. "We don't know what time it is. We don't know nothing."

"They do so tell us the time," the elder Mr. Johnson said, defending the mission. "And I got a calendar in my bag somewhere to look up the day it is."

Everyone was trying to figure out the next step, hoping it would be permanent or at least the last stop before their return to New Orleans. They had to think about where they knew people, where they could get work, where relatives and friends were going. Some were stuck in their decision-making because they had not yet heard what had become of certain loved ones.

The elder Mr. Johnson still had not reached his sons. Nitayu Johnson had an aunt who had been airlifted to Texas. But the aunt was in a shelter, too, and did not know where she was going next. So Ms. Johnson did not know whether to join her aunt in Texas or wait for her to get settled somewhere else. All she knew was she was not staying in Oklahoma.

The Greens were trying to make the best of it in the area. They had decided to settle in Arkansas, in Fort Smith, the biggest town near the mission, about an hour's drive east, partly because of the complexities of moving so many people somewhere else at once. But they were having a hard time finding a place to live. The sheer number of evacuees who had come through Fort Chaffee after the storm meant a lot of competition and red tape.

Meanwhile, the Green daughters were hearing that evacuees were getting all kinds of help in Atlanta. Their older sister, Phoebe, had fled there with her family before the storm and had already settled in a house in the suburbs.

Suddenly, the decisions people had made in the fateful hours before and after the storm, which shelter they had happened upon to ride it out, who had happened to pick them up from their rooftop and the destination of a bus or plane they had happened to be shuffled onto, began to hit them, and the Greens began to feel they were in a less fortunate position. Whenever a lead in Arkansas fell through, as was often the case, all they could talk about was getting to Atlanta.

The elder Johnsons were more determined than anyone to get to their home in the engulfed Lower Ninth Ward. They never considered not going back. They did not let other cities or states distract them. They never veered from a decision to get to San Antonio, near some of Mrs. Johnson's relatives, and to plot a course home from there.

Mr. Cooper and Ms. McNeely, both in their 50's, were equally focused. They were talking about going to New York. A place called Schenectady. Somewhere near Albany, Mr. Cooper said. He had a contact there and knew he could find work.

It was a purely practical choice, and he was grateful to have it. But he was grieving the loss of the familiar.

"You were in your little world," said Mr. Cooper, a lean man with a shaved head and a salt-and-pepper beard. "You know where to go and what to watch out for. You know the people you can count on and the people to leave alone.

"Now you got to make new friends, build up new trusts, learn to blend in," he continued. "If I was a young man, I would never go back. But we just young enough to where we can start over and just old enough to where a few more years down the road we couldn't adjust."

He did not arrive in Oklahoma with Schenectady on his mind. "You uprooted," Mr. Cooper said. "It takes you a while to figure out what the hell happened to you. It's going to take months to realize, My life was wiped out."

But after a few days, he had had a chance to think. He remembered the Episcopal priest he had worked for in New Orleans who had moved to Schenectady years ago. The priest said he would always have a job there if he wanted to come.

One day, he was sorting through some scraps of papers in his room at the mission. "I said, 'I wish I could find his number,' " Mr. Cooper recalled. "As I was dumping some trash out, a piece of paper with his phone number fell out. It was telling me to go to Schenectady."

He paused and looked down. "We was comfortable," he said. "My little job was right up the street. We were around friends. We had family. In Schenectady, there's no family, only one friend. But Schenectady is just slow enough to where we can be comfortable and fast enough to where we can be happy."

His face brightened, as if he was trying to make himself feel better about the move.

But he was worried about his wife. Ms. McNeely was so frail that she was having trouble getting up the steps. Diabetes had taken all her teeth. "She can't take too much cold," he said, "but I guess she gon' have to learn to live with it."

The Hunt for a Home

In time, two groups formed at the mission: those who were looking to stay in the area, and those who were not. Those who were staying had first dibs at getting into Fort Smith whenever a van showed up.

One morning as the van prepared to leave, Charles Johnson climbed aboard. He said he wanted to go into town with the group looking at houses. He was not looking at houses. He was biding his time until he could get to Texas. On this day, he just wanted to see traffic and people again. He wanted to go for the ride.

Mr. Green hit the ceiling. "Go for a ride?" he said. "This ain't no excursion. This ain't no picnic. We going to do business."

Marquita Carter, an evacuee whom the Greens had taken under their wing during the storm, looked down her handwritten list of rentals in the dog-eared folder she carried with her everywhere. "Here's a triplex with a washer and dryer hookup that's newly renovated," Ms. Carter told Kandice Green, one of Mr. Green's daughters, who was reserving judgment.

Somewhere between the abandoned Texaco station and the battered sign to Badger Lee Baptist Church, spontaneous chirping broke out all over the van. The cellphones were in receiving range again.

"We back in civilization!" Ms. Carter said.

Day after day, armed with the federal Section 8 vouchers given to hurricane victims, the Greens searched for apartments. Some places looked to be falling apart. Some looked fine but had a deposit already or did not take Section 8. One day, they found the perfect arrangement: a brick duplex, newer construction, with plenty of space.

"Daddy, this is beautiful," the Green daughters said as they picked out rooms.

"I finally feel hopeful," Ms. Carter said.

Mr. Green said he would take it. His voucher would cover the $750 rent for his unit, and his daughters' vouchers would take care of theirs.

But the next day, they found out the vouchers were of little use. The local housing authority would not permit the Greens to use the vouchers to rent the duplex because it said the units were overpriced. With the arrival of several thousand evacuees to a town of 80,000, landlords were jacking up the rents all over town, the authorities said.

"They think just because these people have vouchers, they can charge New Orleans prices," said Michael Fuchtman, a counselor at the Fort Smith-Sebastian County Housing Authority. "We had a lady charging $980 for a three-bedroom house that would normally go for half that. That was a total no way."

Later that day, Kandice Green and Ms. Carter ran into trouble with two apartments they thought were theirs.

"We'll need a credit check and a criminal background check," Cyndi Glass, the resident manager, said. "Any felonies, we can't rent to you. It's going to take three days to get that information back from Louisiana."

With the stacks of other applications on Ms. Glass's desk, the apartments would probably be rented by then.

"Well, it's not my fault," Ms. Glass said. "It's not your fault. It's nobody's fault. We've been told not to veer from the policy."

Ms. Carter got up and left. She was insulted at the very suggestion that she was a felon. "I wanted to climb behind that desk and knock that woman out," she said.

After so many near misses, the two women were heartbroken.

On the ride back to the mission, they sat slumped in their seats, quiet. Ms. Carter rubbed her eyes. Kandice Green stared out the window at the cows and hay bales in the pasture.

The happiest evacuees at the mission were the Johnsons - Eugene Johnson, in particular. A slightly built man of 72, he was so happy to have found his wife and to have a bed to sleep in, it did not much matter where it was so long as it was not his house in the Ninth Ward.

"This is my world right in here," Mr. Johnson said of his corner of a dorm room, a double mattress on the bottom bunk with donated suitcases filled with donated clothes neatly stacked in the corner.

But when he rested his eyes during breaks in the day, he relived his regrets, second-guessing himself on the minutest decisions.

Perhaps they could have fled sooner if he had not set the radio on the dresser. It ran on batteries, and they were depending on it for news after the television went out. But the dresser tilted over, and the radio fell in the water. They ended up being rescued through a vent in the roof.

Then he "misplaced" his wife, as he put it. When the Superdome was emptied, he had no choice but to do as he was told: board the plane to San Antonio and hope she made it there, too. But she didn't.

Their eventual reunion did not quiet his mind. "I be laying here 'fore I fall asleep," he said. "I be thinking about things. You think about little things, what I have to do when I get back. What I'm gon' find. I think about my sons. I haven't talked to them, but I know they safe."

"My mind is on what I'm gon' do when I get back," he continued. "I want to find her wedding band. I had some silver dimes I want to find."

"And my mink coat," Mrs. Johnson interjected.

"Oh, you can forget about that," he said. "You can just put that out your mind."

A New Subject Matter

Life began to stir every morning at 6:00 when the five little girls in the group roused themselves to go to school. They got up in the dark, hours before they would have back home, to board a yellow bus to a little country school in Marble City, Okla., about five miles down the road.

The teachers and principal were overjoyed at their arrival. The school had lost half its student population in the last generation as people had left the strip-mining and cattle country for better jobs elsewhere.

The school had been hoping for maybe a hundred new students from the storm, but fate had brought them only five. They arrived a month into the school year, and there was no telling how long they would attend. Still, there was an assembly to announce that children from Louisiana were arriving. Teachers warned their students not to talk about the hurricane unless the new students brought it up first.

The children piled quarters and nickels on the new students' desks for them to buy soda pop with. Despite the warnings, one student could not help asking Corille Johnson if she had come from the "tsunami."

Corille did not talk much about the hurricane in class or with other students. She clung to her teacher, Amy Blalock, and sat in the third row right next to the teacher's desk.

When the math lesson rolled around, it was as if everything was normal again. Corille was good in math and became one of the children, like Sam and Winter and Dakota, who kept their hands in the air when numbers were on the blackboard.

"Ooh, I know, I know!" she said, her arm stretched high.

Things were different in reading.

They were studying nouns. The children were to give examples of nouns. The other children said "school" or "gym."

"Her nouns were 'Convention Center' and 'Superdome,' " Mrs. Blalock said.

In art, Corille drew pictures of a tornado and said, "This is what happened to New Orleans."

"And every once in a while, out of the blue," Mrs. Blalock said, "she'll blurt out, 'We don't know where my brother is.' "

By late September, Mr. Green was rethinking his game plan. He was coming off another empty-handed day of looking. He had tried to make himself feel better about Arkansas, but things were not working out.

"I'm thinking about New York," he said. "Or California. Or Indiana. I'll just get me a ticket and get on out of here. This always was a rotten state for blacks. I remember when old Orval Faubus blocked the school doors in Little Rock."

A white Arkansan sitting on a nearby bench overheard his ranting. "I think Fort Smith is one of the best places you could live in this country," he said.

"Yeah?" Mr. Green said. "What factories they got here?"

"Whirlpool," the man said. "Planters Peanuts."

Mr. Green, still steaming, seemed not to hear him. "I knew this was a rotten state," he said.

The local man got up. "We've treated those people terrific over here," he said, and walked away.

With each passing day, Mr. Green could feel the sympathy draining away. His daughter Serrita had a run-in at the bus station when she went to pick up her two oldest children, who were with their father during the storm. A man looked at them and said, loud enough for them to hear, "Why didn't they just get out?"

Serrita had to keep from cursing the man. Her family had done exactly what the authorities had told them to do. They rode out the hurricane in a school gymnasium and still found themselves vagabonds. "We would love nothing more than to go back to our homes," she said.

They were beginning to feel that because of the growing impatience of the locals, the conflicting government relief rules and the competition from other evacuees, everything was conspiring against them. To add to their anger and disappointment, they were hearing rumors that the governor and the president had told businesses to do everything they could to help them get situated, but they did not see where that call was being lived up to.

Kandice Green called her sister Phoebe in Atlanta. "They straight up look you in the face," she began, "and say, 'I don't care what the governor say, I don't care what the president say, you not getting it.' "

Each day, as he rustled up church vans to get them into town or made canned spaghetti they chose not to eat, Mr. Phelps, the mission director, had mainly one thing on his mind: how much this was costing and how he would get reimbursed from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Red Cross or whoever had the authority.

The electric bill for running the dormitory in September would be $400 or $500. And his wife, Sue, the part-time office manager, had been putting in 30 extra hours a week. "That's a cost I hope we can recoup," he said.

There was also the cost of the part-time cook and the salary and benefits for Allison Beavers, the program director, who seemingly took care of everything, including consoling the babies and helping to navigate the housing bureaucracy.

"It's a real energy taker," Mr. Phelps said. "It's not our job to do this. It's not that we don't want to do it, but it's also important to get a thank you back. All it would take would be one thank you."

Everything had taken up more of his time than he had anticipated. "I spent four hours trying to coordinate transportation for Serrita's two children from Louisiana on the Greyhound bus," he said. "Four hours. That's not in my schedule."

Generosity Wearing Thin

Just as the needs grew more complex, the help began to wane. "Everybody was pumped up the first week," Mr. Phelps said. "We had lots of volunteers in the beginning. Now the sense of dropping everything to come help is not as great as at the beginning. Volunteers are driving great distances and having to pay their own gas and tolls. I don't think it's our responsibility to give, give, give and not see motivation on the evacuees' level."

Every so often, the frustration on both sides came to a boil.

Mr. Phelps approached Mr. Green in the cafeteria one morning after a typically low turnout and asked if his daughters were up at the dorm. They needed to get into town for their children's immunization shots.

"I don't know," Mr. Green said. "I'm here and they're there. They grown. I don't tell them what to do. They got minds of their own."

"Well, they're your relatives," Mr. Phelps said, "not mine."

Mr. Phelps walked back to the kitchen, and Mr. Green rolled his eyes.

It was clear as the fourth week approached that the arrangement could not last much longer. "We want to get them placed so they can go on with their lives," Mr. Phelps said, "and we can go on with ours."

He said as much to Mr. Green when he asked what he was doing to find an apartment. To Mr. Phelps, the Greens were not looking hard enough, and the options were becoming fewer because other evacuees were taking what was left.

"Why are you waiting?" Mr. Phelps asked. "You have to be out there looking. If you're sitting there waiting for something to be handed to you, it's not going to happen."

"Look," Mr. Green told him, "I want to get out of here just as bad as you want me out of here."

Later that week, after another discouraging visit to the housing authority, Mr. Green was so fed up, he told Mr. Phelps, "If I'm not out of here by Wednesday, get me a bus ticket anywhere."

It was going on an entire month since the day they had arrived. Pressure was brewing on the Gulf Coast from a new wave of evacuees from Hurricane Rita. Those at the mission who had figured out where they were going next began peeling off.

The Johnsons were told that the Red Cross was arranging for them to fly to San Antonio. Word came that Mr. Cooper and Ms. McNeely were going to have to travel to Schenectady by bus. It could take a day and a half. There was a question as to whether Ms. McNeely could make it and how to keep her insulin refrigerated all that time. "It's 26 stops," she said. "But to get up out of here, I'll get my insulin and I'll chance it."

The Johnsons had to leave the mission in a hurry. They would be staying in a Motel 6 off the expressway in Fort Smith. With more evacuees headed their way, Mr. Phelps said, there was a fear they might not get a room close to the airport if they waited too much longer.

When it was time, Jim Potts, a volunteer in a T-shirt with the letters "CIA" printed on it, for "Christ Is Alive," drove up to take them away.

"Oh lord, this is a mess," Mrs. Johnson said as her husband wound down the steps loaded with donated luggage to yet another temporary destination not of their choosing and still not home.

Mr. Cooper, baseball cap on backward, lighted a cigarette and stood watching them load up the red church van, which said "New Beginnings."

Mr. Johnson went from person to person on the porch and hugged everyone. His eyes welled up.

"All right, brother, you be good," Mr. Cooper said.

"I'm a miss you, man," Mr. Johnson said to his floor mate. "I'm a miss all of y'all."

He turned to Nitayu Johnson, who lived at the opposite end of the hall. "I'll see you, babe," he said. "I'll see you again."

He walked across the porch. "Take it easy," he told Mr. Harris, Mr. Green's wordless father-in-law, who barely looked up.

As the driver turned on the engine, Charles Johnson blew Corille, Nitayu's daughter, a kiss. Nitayu did not turn in her seat. Mr. Harris just sat hunched over in his metal folding chair, a cigarette burning between his fingers.

"I'll see you, man," Mr. Cooper said. "I'll see you when we get home."

Corille went running alongside the van. She waved both arms in the air as it rolled along the dirt path and onto the concrete road beyond. She slumped as she walked away and headed back to the dorm, neither she nor anyone else knowing when their turns would come or where they might lead, or, more important, when Mr. Cooper's words might be true for them all.

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