As she watched reports of Hurricane Isaac inching toward the Louisiana coastline, Vonnie Ward of Dorchester couldn’t help but recall the dread she felt as Hurricane Katrina loomed seven years ago. She and other New Orleans residents had considered taking refuge at the Superdome but found the line was too long. They fled the storm and ended up homeless in Meridian, Miss.
Many of her family members still live in New Orleans. She has urged them to evacuate as Isaac closed in.
“I want them to leave but they’re saying they don’t want to leave,” said Ward, 53. “They say they’re going ride it out.”
For Massachusetts residents with connections to Hurricane Katrina — those who relocated here after the storm, or worked with evacuees from New Orleans — watching Hurricane Isaac zero in on the Crescent City has been eerie in its familiarity.
“It’s frightening to look at this next one coming that way, and to know that’s such a vulnerable place,” said Allison Alewine, vice president for program operations at the Housing Assistance Corporation on Cape Cod. She worked to resettle people displaced by Katrina. “I don’t feel that New Orleans is necessarily in much better shape today around the force of a hurricane than it was back then.”
‘I want them to leave but they’re saying they don’t want to leave. ... They say they’re going to ride it out.’
Of the thousands who lost their homes, 235 lived temporarily at Camp Edwards in Bourne as they struggled to get back on their feet. After the camp closed, many were housed in towns around Massachusetts.
But officials who helped run the camp, such as the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, say no more than a handful have stayed in the state. For many, the Cape was an alien place. And it was cold — by the time the weather hit 60 degrees, Brown recalled, the camp’s residents were wearing winter coats. Almost all left the state before the end of the first winter.
Brown said he worries that another hurricane headed for the Gulf of Mexico may traumatize the same people all over again, and could hamper continued efforts at reconstruction.
“It just doesn’t seem like [New Orleans] was coming back the way it should,” Brown said. “My fear is that this storm comes along and it just sort of adds to the burden of trying to rebuild the city.”
For Ward, Hurricane Isaac’s steady path toward New Orleans has brought back painful memories. Her uncle drowned in the flood waters. Two sisters and a brother were stranded on top of their house for three days before they were rescued, barbecuing food on their roof.
Her mother, a stroke victim, lived in a nursing home and had lost the ability to speak before the storm hit. Relatives were not allowed to stay with her. It took a month to find her after the storm.
One month after Katrina savaged her hometown, Ward accepted a one-way ticket to Boston, where her daughter lived.
“I just left it all and made a new life,” Ward said. “It wasn’t worth even trying to get it to go back to whatever it was.”
Ward visited New Orleans a few weeks ago to see family. So much was still gone — streets of her old neighborhood without corner stores, swaths of neighborhood overgrown with weeds.
“I went down there, but I don’t think I want to go back because there ain’t nothing to go back for,” Ward said.
Still, she says, life has been difficult in Boston. People cock their heads when they hear her accent. She has few friends.
“I was struggling. I’m still struggling,” Ward said. “Things never went back the same.”