Katrina evacuees have found new lives — in Texas

DALLAS — Dr. Ivan Bank still has one foot in New Orleans and the other in Texas.

When the 54-year-old ophthalmologist finished work Wednesday at his clinic in New Orleans, he flew home to his wife and kids and new clinic in Dallas, where they landed when Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans five years ago today.

He has practiced for 25 years in New Orleans, but Texas is now home.

Bank works each Tuesday and Wednesday in New Orleans and the rest of the time at the Dallas clinic he opened in December.

"We love it here. The reception we received in Dallas has been amazing," he said. "I've never felt like an outsider here -- really warm people. That helped make the decision that we can do well here."

The Bank family was just one household swept up in the chaotic tide of what FEMA called the greatest mass relocation in American history.

The hurricane displaced more than a million people in the Gulf Coast region, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

Most of them evacuated to Texas. In Houston, which sheltered 150,000, the Astrodome became the epicenter of relief for thousands who didn't escape New Orleans until after it flooded.

At the same time, cities, counties, tiny towns and families across Texas opened shelters and their homes to thousands more.

Five percent of Houston's families took in evacuees, said Steve Kleinberg, a sociology professor at Rice University. Even more amazingly, 46 percent of the city's Vietnamese families opened their homes to 9,000 Vietnamese evacuees, he said.

At their peak, shelters nationwide housed 273,000 people. Many returned home quickly, but an estimated 600,000 were still displaced a month later, according to the data center.

A year after the storm, 251,000 were still in Texas, including 111,000 in Houston, 66,000 in Dallas-Fort Worth and 62,000 in Austin-San Antonio, according to a 2006 survey by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

By July 2009, New Orleans' population had rebounded to 354,850, or 78 percent of the pre-storm total. The metro area (1,189,981) has recovered 91 percent of its pre-Katrina level.

But no one knows how many evacuees started over in Texas.

And there has been little research into the long-term effects of the upheaval on evacuees who didn't return to New Orleans, said Dr. Avelardo Valdez of the University of Houston's Center for Drug and Social Policy Research.

Kleinberg, who has kept tabs on the exodus in his annual Houston Area Survey, estimates that 100,000 evacuees remain in Houston alone.

"Many of those who ended up in the Astrodome were the poorest members of society," Kleinberg said. "They didn't have transportation, so they were stuck here. Many of them were renters, and when those homes were destroyed, they had no place to go back to."

But in some ways, those desperately poor people might be better off for it, he said. Houston had more jobs and better schools.

Young Katrina evacuees have thrived in their new schools, outperforming native Texans of a similar ethnic and economic background, according to a study released in April by the Texas Department of Education.

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