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New Orleans-area Honduran residents have extra burden

KENNER, La.—When darkness falls on the Redwood Apartments, Maria Medina lights a candle and sits idly in her living room.

There's no electricity. The ceiling leaks when it rains. The familiar chatter from her fellow native Hondurans, who once filled the complex, is gone.

Hurricane Katrina tore the roofs off, blew out windows and left mold on the walls. But Medina and a handful of others return at night to sleep.

"I don't know where to go," Medina, 67, said in Spanish. "I heard FEMA has trailers for us in Mississippi, but how would I get there?"

She's one of an estimated 80,000 Hondurans who were living among the 1.3 million residents of greater New Orleans when Katrina hit. Three months later, many Hondurans say language barriers, fear of deportation and confusion over the relief process make life difficult.

The Honduran government last week announced plans to start a relief center in New Orleans with $100,000 from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration.

"This will help a lot," said Maria Lobo, consul general of Honduras in New Orleans. "We will provide training for jobs, guidance to those who lost businesses and show them how to claim on insurance. Things they need to know."

The need appears steady. Hundreds of Hondurans showed up at a Honduran doctor's office Sunday in Kenner, where Lobo helped them apply for passports. Some asked for help filling out forms from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"I lost my clothes, my furniture, everything," said Gustabo Herrera, 22. "I don't have any papers so I can't get help."

Herrera, who doesn't speak English, said he, his wife and their 2-year-old fled their flooded apartment and wound up in a crowded emergency shelter in Monroe, where they found only one bilingual relief worker, he said.

"We didn't know what to do," he said. "We're still not sure."

Brenda Muniz, a spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic advocacy organization in the nation, said a shortage of bilingual relief workers has caused obstacles.

Wuilmer Manzanares, 26, who speaks fair English, said he'd called FEMA's Spanish-language help line, but found himself waiting for hours. He said he called the English line and got through more quickly.

"It seems like things moved a little slower for Spanish-speakers," he said.

Mayra Lopez-De-Victoria, a FEMA spokeswoman, said that because there were massive numbers of people calling agency help lines, waits often were lengthy. She said FEMA teams had canvassed Hispanic neighborhoods, churches, charities and other organizations, passing out fliers and brochures in Spanish.

"We feel very comfortable that we are doing everything we can to reach a large number of them," she said. "We are out trying to find them."

There were reports of Honduran evacuees in emergency shelters rounded up by authorities, who thought they were out-of-state workers getting a free place to stay, Muniz said.

"They were actually people who had lost their homes," she said.

Honduras' ties to the Gulf Coast date to the early 1900s, when New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., were big ports for banana exports, Lobo said. Hondurans started arriving in larger numbers in the 1960s, seeking jobs in construction, restaurants, casinos and the ports.

Thousands of Hondurans were granted temporary legal status after Hurricane Mitch tore into Central America in 1998, Muniz said.

Federal authorities' promise to focus on recovery, not immigration status, after the storm was viewed skeptically by some Hispanics.

"A lot of people from Hurricane Mitch were joined by family members after the deadline for legal status," Muniz said. "So I think some citizens were afraid to come forward for help because they didn't want to get their relatives deported. We don't know where they ended up."

Some Hondurans said they, like all locals, felt the crunch from newly arriving workers.

Manzanares, who's done landscaping jobs after losing the tools he'd used to repair house foundations, finds himself working mostly with people from out-of-state.

Maria Tejeda, who came to Louisiana with her parents in 1965, earns her living cleaning houses. She said the competition for jobs had grown fierce.

Some have given up on rebuilding. At the Redwood Apartments, Mario Reyes, 65, picked items from the debris in his apartment. His roof is gone, and so are all his neighbors. He's moving to Mississippi, where he's found a job cleaning a factory.

Reyes pointed to more than a dozen pairs of shoes, waterlogged and filthy. He'd been saving them to send to relatives in Honduras.

"Now, I don't think so," he said. "I start over."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): STORMS-HONDURANS

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051121 HONDURANS

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