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2 years on: The faces of Hurricane Katrina

Tamika Smith (left) and her husband Ricky Scales (right) are survivors of Hurricane Katrina who returned to New Orleans two years later.
Tamika Smith (left) and her husband Ricky Scales (right) are survivors of Hurricane Katrina who returned to New Orleans two years later. Tom Pennington/Fort Worth Star-Telegram

NEW ORLEANS — It has been a rough two years for Ricky Scales and his family, ever since Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters drove them from their home, sending them on a long journey of frustration, fright, uncertainty and joblessness.

Their troubles began even as they tried to escape the black water spilling from New Orleans' broken levees, when Ricky, wife Tamika and 10-year-old Alfrenisha were separated from the four other children in the family. The parents and daughter finally landed on the crest of a downtown bridge, collapsed in exhaustion, as they tried to make their way to shelter in the Superdome.

Then, as they continued on, Ricky waded into water over his head. When he re-emerged, Tamika and Alfrenisha had disappeared into the pandemonium of Katrina.

"I was terrified, exhausted," Ricky, now 40, said recently from his new, modest home in New Orleans, his family of five young children and stepchildren back intact, but still suffering the consequences of Katrina's assault that began on Aug. 29, 2005.

"It's real hard starting all over," Tamika, 28, said as she sat on her living room couch, several of her kids squirming beside her. "My children, they're suffering, dreaming nightmares. They get depressed thinking about Katrina," she said.

Her 13-year-old son, Darrell, blames Mother Nature. "There were a whole lot of places where that hurricane could have landed," he said. "Why did it have to land in the middle of our city?"

For nearly a month after the storm, Ricky did not know whether his wife, three children and two stepchildren had survived. He was evacuated to a military training base in Oklahoma, which had been converted into a shelter, while Tamika and the five children landed in a Dallas jail, which had been turned into an evacuee center.

Desperate to find her husband, Tamika gave her name and Dallas phone number to a radio station, which was attempting to reunite displaced Katrina victims from around the country. Ricky got the message two days later, and quickly caught a ride to Big D.

"Everybody was happy," said Darrell.

The children enrolled in Dallas schools, and seemed to make some progress. "I made a whole lot of friends," said Alfrenisha, now 12. "It was fun."

But her mother said Dallas was too different from New Orleans, and, without a car, it was hard for them to get around. "It was just a change, a difference, I didn't like," Tamika said.

After more than a year in Dallas, the family returned home to New Orleans in April, and within a month they moved into a small home, provided by the government, in a partially rebuilt neighborhood

A former security guard, Ricky has had trouble getting, and keeping, a job since the storm wrecked his home. He said he was most recently fired from a job, stacking pallets at a marine industrial site in New Orleans, because the city's still-fractured public transportation system made it hard for him to get to work on time.

"I'm looking for work now," he said.

The children, ages 5 to 13, share a small bedroom, stacked on bunk beds.

"I remember that day," Alfrenisha said, referring to the time she, her mother and stepfather collapsed on the bridge, trying to make it to the Superdome.

"I remember walking through that water," she said. "People were just dropping ... dead.

"I cried for a long, long time."

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When Katrina floodwaters overcame his home, swamped his neighborhood and carried away his new Lincoln, Johnnie Montgomery, then 82, decided to take a stroll in the chest-deep water, tethered to his grandchild's air-filled ball, just in case the water got too deep.

"It was hot and I was trying to stay cool," said Montgomery, now two years older, and still as spry as an old-fashioned preacher, which is exactly what he is, along with being a retired longshoreman and World War II veteran.

Montgomery is still keeping his cool, in a city still reeling in despair, with a determination to overcome his losses by keeping his faith.

"I give God the glory. He kept it so my mind stayed on him," he said, recalling the days after Aug. 29, 2005, when he hunkered down in his home — against the wishes of his wife — and let Katrina blow on by.

"I've overcome it," Montgomery said proudly, noting that he and his wife, Mildred, were among the first to rebuild in an Uptown neighborhood where some boarded-up houses remain on the brink of collapsing.

Never mind that Johnnie and Mildred have poured $135,000 into fixing their home, some but not all coming from insurance, and that another $65,000 is needed to finish out the upstairs. "I'm not sick and I'm not hungry. I'm just broke ... I'm broke as two left feet," he reasoned.

Montgomery has spent the last two years trying to hold together his tiny church, the Spain Street Church of God in Christ, where Katrina and its lasting effects have driven away 80 of the 100 members.

Still, he is comforted by the fact that the floodwaters never reached the church's doorsteps. "The Lord blessed us," Montgomery said.

So is he worried that another hurricane, one as strong as Katrina, could one day knock down everything he has rebuilt?

"It could, but I don't think it will. I don't worry about it," Montgomery said.

Besides, he feels he has a bigger challenge ahead of him — old age.

"I'm going to try to make 100," Montgomery said, grinning at the thought. "Ninety-nine and a half won't do."

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When Vaughn Mordenti stood in the middle of a rain-slick Bourbon Street — in flowered shorts, no shirt, his arms outstretched, mouth gaping — it was not clear whether he was angry at God, or relieved that Hurricane Rita did not do what Hurricane Katrina had done a month earlier.

It turns out Mordenti, now 61, was neither mad nor thankful as he stood in the rain on Sept. 22, 2005. He was simply trying to catch a shower in a city that could produce no clean running water.

A business owner in the historic French Quarter, Mordenti calls the last two years "very hard."

Katrina spared his T-shirt shop and a "party house" he operates upstairs. But the once-steady stream of tourists the business depended on has slowed to a trickle, largely, said Mordenti, because the media keep portraying the "Big Easy" as a place of big mistakes, wrought with crime, a downer for tourists who want to party.

Mordenti said he could not have survived financially after the hurricane had it not been for the "VIP" customers who rent out the party house, after paying "lifetime membership" fees of either $50,000 or $100,000, depending on how much partying they actually want to do. "If these walls could talk," he said, grinning as he stood in the upstairs quarters, decorated in Mardi Gras-gaudy style.

Mordenti has closed his 28-year-old T-shirt shop and is renovating it into a bar, with hopes that it will soon become the stage for a cable TV reality show. The stars of the show will be the bar employees, he said, and it will convey "what it's like to live here, work here, play here ... We want to show the rest of the world that our city, the tourist area, is safe to come back to."

But Mordenti has bickered with building permit officials over his renovation plans. "You go to City Hall, you're lucky to find someone with a brain," he said. And despite his air of confidence, Mordenti admitted, "I lost it several times. I'd walk around this courtyard crying, wondering what's going on."

Then the shop owner shakes off the gloom of the past two years and said: "Don't get me wrong, I love this city. This is my city ... "Now, I'm coming back, brother."___

On a recent hot day, Luther Johnson stood in the shell of his childhood home, recalling the days when it had walls.

"My grandmother drowned in here," said Johnson, 23, with a flat tone of acceptance that comes after two years of coping with the losses brought on by Hurricane Katrina.

Nearby, a T-shirt hung from an exposed rafter, adorned with the friendly face of a woman and a caption, "Why Geraldine Why?"

It is a question that haunted Johnson, as he tried to tidy up what's left of the Ninth Ward home where he had lived until the flooding stripped it clean.

No one knows why Geraldine Johnson, 57, who was safe on the second floor with two family members and a friend, decided to go downstairs as Katrina's murky floodwaters began to fill up her home. She was found dead three weeks later, after the water had receded, her body cradled under a stairwell. The other people in the house were rescued.

"I'll always be thinking, "Why?"' Luther said of his grandmother's fatal walk down the stairs.

Like so many other New Orleans residents, Luther is still trying to deal with a nightmare that is two years old. The T-shirt is a memorial to a loved one.

"Gone, but not forgotten," the inscription says. "Sorry it had to be you."___

Vira Fulton learned her lesson 42 years ago, when Hurricane Betsy came knocking on her door. She had decided to stay that day, in 1965, when the killer storm hit, leveling much of its power on her neighborhood, the Lower Ninth Ward.

So when Hurricane Katrina approached the city, Fulton, at the time 81, fled to her grandson's apartment in Baton Rouge, La., where she slept on the floor with a half-dozen other family members.

Last December, as she waited for her New Orleans home of 50 years to be rebuilt, Fulton was diagnosed with lung cancer. "I've had all my radium and all of my chemo," Fulton, who stopped smoking 25 years ago, said optimistically.

She said she now only has to see doctors every six months "because they think I'm doing just fine."

Fulton has only recently begun living in her Ninth Ward home. She can only stay a few nights at a time because there is still no gas hookup to the house.

"There's nobody else on the block but me, just me and the grass. It gets kind of lonely," Fulton said. "I'm hoping and praying for somebody to come move in the area. I need the company."

Before the storm, Fulton often visited across the street with her long-time neighbors, George and Rosetta Williams, and their adult daughter, Yolanda. Standing on her porch, looking over at the Williams' boarded-up home, Fulton said sadly, "They wouldn't leave."

Fulton said she is reminded that they drowned in the Katrina flood every time she sees their house.

"You don't have a choice but to look at it," she said, adding: "We were good church members together."

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New Orleans police officer David Hunter hung up his badge in April after being on the city force for 28 years, the last 20 months of which were spent attempting to help people who were hurt and stranded by Hurricane Katrina.

At the same time, Hunter was trying to replace his own home, destroyed by the storm. His wife and newborn daughter became seriously ill. And he banged up his personal boat when someone shot at him while he was helping pluck victims from the flooding.

It only got worse: An insurance company denied Hunter's claim after learning he had damaged his party barge while using it for police work — to help people — rather than to party on.

Police were still working out of trailers, some without bathroom facilities, because their precinct stations were shuttered.

Bulletproof vests were in short supply. And the department was having a hard time recruiting and keeping officers, partly because of reports of corruption and abuse, much of it played out in the press.

Then Hunter, who was with the mounted patrol in the often-rowdy French Quarters, broke his hand when a horse turned the wrong way in a stall.

With the culmination of sick loved ones, a hurt hand, a broken boat, and ugly newscasts, "I just decided it was time to go," Hunter, 49, said in a telephone interview from his new home in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans.

Free of the worries of police work, Hunter said "it's been the best summer of my life," having spent time with his wife and five children, age 2 to 21, all of whom are now in good health.

He said he will never return to police work, though he is proud of his nearly three decades as a New Orleans cop.

"I think the department is just kind of floundering. It's just an awfully slow recovery," Hunter said.

"In your heart, you want it to recover in a month," he said. But instead, the ex-patrolman predicted, the New Orleans Police Department will likely not get back to pre-Katrina strength for another 10 years.

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HOUSTON — New Orleans doesn't feel like home anymore for Leroy Fair Jr.

After living in Houston for two years, he says has no desire to go back to New Orleans.

"I can't miss a place that doesn't exist anymore," Fair said. "There are no hospitals, no grocery stores, no people. And your cost of living is five or six times what it was before the storm. Why would I go back to that?"

Fair spent three days in his attic with a gun, a portable television, a cell phone and some bottled water. When he first saw the water coming down his street, he had no idea what was happening.

"I thought it was a broken water line and in less than 15 minutes I had to get into my attic," Fair said.

He could talk to two men trapped in a neighboring attic and he knew that another neighbor, who never made it to her attic, had drowned in the flood.

He refused several attempts to be rescued but finally agreed to leave in a Louisiana Fisheries boat when he ran out of bottled water.

"I stepped right out of my attic into the boat," Fair said.After three days in the Superdome and a week at the Astrodome, Fair was moved to the brand-new Primrose Casa Bella seniors apartment complex a few miles north of downtown Houston. He's been there ever since.

So at age 64, Fair is rebuilding his life in Houston. He's off to a good start with a new girlfriend and a new pickup truck. He is even considering buying a house.

The woeful condition of his old neighborhood made his decision to stay in Texas a little easier.

"There are only three or four people living on my old block. If I rebuild my house and the rest of the people don't rebuild I would be living in a house that wouldn't be worth living in. I just can't take the hassle anymore. I want to live my final days in peace."

The retired seaman hasn't completely cut the cord with his hometown.

He is trying to make his New Orleans home habitable so his 17-year-old grandson, Walter Fair, will have a place to live."His mother has left and now he's moved in with some guy I don't approve of," Leroy Fair said. "I can't get rid of my house, there's nowhere else for him to stay. I want to at least give him a chance in life."

Fair admits he's one of the lucky ones. He received an insurance settlement of about $147,000 for his house and contents.

And like thousands of other Houston evacuees, his rent is still being paid by the federal government.

"When they ask to me to pay rent, I'm willing to pay my share," Fair said. "If the hurricane had never happened I would be living real good. Life would have been easy. Right now, I'm trying to figure out if I'm better off renting for the rest of my life or buying a place."

But while Katrina survivors have had trouble adjusting to the sprawl of Houston, Fair said he feels at home.

And he'll always be grateful to the help he received from his new home.

"I'm a Texan now and Texas has been a real blessing for me," Fair said. "It's better than what I expected. I'm grateful to Texas. When I was on that bus coming from Louisiana, all I could see is people coming ... to help us. I'll never forget that

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