It was 3 a.m. on Sept. 7 last year when John Dede earned his label as an evacuee.
That was the moment that he and 56 others set foot in nearby Maywood after being shuffled from various staging points in their hurried escape from the city of New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina was wreaking havoc. One year later those who remain in Forest Park and the western suburbs have encountered a mix of tragedies and triumphs. The stress of displacement coupled with an uncertain future has taken a greater toll on some. For Dede, life is a continual struggle.
“I have nightmares,” Dede said. “There’s many nights I sit on that couch and think about all the things that have happened to me and cry. I watch TV and feel sorry for people in Iraq, but it doesn’t get to me like when I see scenes of what happened in New Orleans. When they show people in the water I can’t look at it.”
Dede and his fellow evacuees were brought to the Madden Mental Health Center in Maywood by bus after being flown to Chicago. The facility was chosen not for its services, but simply because there were beds available. The evacuees had been rescued from rooftops, a flooded hotel and the Superdome.
Lynda Schueler is the director of Public Action to Deliver Shelter (PADS) and has worked with the evacuees. To this day, Schueler said it’s not clear which government agency-if any-is taking responsibility for the evacuees. Schueler said she is still not sure who loaded the evacuees onto the plane bound for Chicago.
“That is the $64,000 question,” Schueler said.
Dede has moved to a studio apartment in Forest Park off Madison Street where his landlord allowed him to stay six months for free. The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave Dede $2,000, to cover the next three months, but in September all his housing assistance ran out.
To date he is still in his apartment.
Dede’s friend and fellow evacuee Patrick Donaldson said his experience with Katrina has brought on high blood pressure, panic attacks, anxiety and nightmares. Donaldson has also found a studio apartment, his near West Suburban Hospital.
“I can’t work no more,” Donaldson said. “[Katrina] is messing with me.”
In New Orleans Donaldson said he was the assistant manager of a gas station. Immediately following the hurricane he was trapped for eight days with 30 other residents in a hotel.
“I thought it was the end of the world,” Donaldson said. “I really did. We were attacked by water moccasins that came into the hotel-three big ones. We fought them off with sticks. I saw bodies of people floating in the flood water that had been partly eaten by alligators.”
Donaldson too, has relied on FEMA for rent money, but said that will end soon. His food stamps have already been cut off and his disability checks do not cover his living expenses, Donaldson said. He plans on applying for Section 8 housing but is aware there are no guarantees.
“The roughest thing I’m dealing with right now is money,” Donaldson said. “I’m barely surviving right now.”
Dede estimated there are 35 evacuees from the original 57 who are still living in the western suburbs. Their efforts to fit into the communities they now call home are not always successful, but they are attempting to integrate.
Earl Netter is another evacuee living in Forest Park. Netter is a licensed practical nurse and for a while held a job with an area nursing home.
Netter said he has found a support community at the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Maywood.
Since leaving his home in New Orleans, Maurice George has found an apartment in Maywood and is enrolled in barber school. Ken Gilson also lives in Maywood and finds fulfillment in mentoring children at the Maywood Library.
Debbie Cannatella, an artist who was in the process of moving to Oak Park from Baton Rouge, La., with her husband when Hurricane Katrina hit, is making progress too.
“We love Oak Park,” Cannatella said. “I’m enjoying re-establishing myself as an artist here, though it is difficult at times because without an established business the paintings aren’t selling as I’d like. But I’m getting more and more opportunities around here.”
Cannatella said her memories of Katrina still bring her sadness.
“The hurricane itself was scary,” Cannatella said. “I remember watching out my window as the pine trees nearly bent in half in the wind.”
Cannatella returned to New Orleans the second week of September to visit friends, many of whom she calls “weekend warriors” who are trying to rebuild the city. She said she plans to go back and “spend a little money” in the French Quarter.
Gilson, likewise, is optimistic about the future. He plans to continue living in Maywood and give back to the community that took him in.
“I want to continue to volunteer at the library to help the community that has helped me,” Gilson said.
Dede too, said he would rather live in Forest Park than return to New Orleans, but that means finding a steady income. His family in the Crescent City can help him with housing, Dede said, whereas here is at the mercy of the market.
Regardless of their struggles to adjust to life in Chicago’s western suburbs, many of the evacuees said they are grateful for the people who volunteered to help them.
Christie Hunt of River Forest said she felt compelled to help when she learned that evacuees were being housed at Madden. Hunt began her volunteer work by sorting clothes and then helped purchase deodorant, snacks and drinks for the evacuees. She searched the Internet helping displaced parents look for the children from whom they were separated.
“Volunteering with the evacuees definitely changed my life,” Hunt said. “It showed me and my daughters how a little caring can make a huge difference in someone’s life. It also showed us that although we may have different backgrounds and life experiences, we’re all people deep down inside, and we should help one another.”
Dede refers to Hunt as his angel and said he recognizes how much time she has devoted to the evacuees. Hunt would work from early in the morning until her children came home from school, Dede said. After dinner she would bring her daughters to the shelter and continue helping.
Dale Nowicki and Carla Lawless invited a Katrina evacuee to live with them in their Berwyn home for three weeks. Nowicki was volunteering at Madden when he met Armand Houston. Three months after arriving at Madden, Houston returned to New Orleans, but came back in July after discovering New Orleans was still on its knees. Most of the businesses remained closed, there were no jobs and the city still had no evacuation plan for when the next hurricane would hit.
So, Houston moved into Nowicki’s home for three weeks.
“It is for me a very symbiotic relationship,” Nowicki said of volunteering. “I would encourage anyone with a little time to give to spend it with those who really need it. We are all children of God, and I believe we are here to take care of one another.”