After fleeing Hurricane Katrina, Doris Banks has returned to New Orleans. Was it a mistake?

Lisa Belkin
Chief National Correspondent
Doris Banks on the levee a few blocks from her apartment complex in New Orleans East, La. (Photo: Bryan Tarnowski for Yahoo News)

NEW ORLEANS –– Doris Banks was born in New Orleans. Her mother and father were born here, too, and she is pretty sure all four of her grandparents were as well, though the family history gets murky any further back than that.

Until 10 years ago, it had never occurred to any of her relatives — a wide and complicated web of siblings, nieces, nephews, partners, spouses and exes — that any of them would ever live anyplace else. Even as Katrina’s waters rose in the public housing project most of them called home, some, at first, refused to leave. They eventually had to, of course, scattering around the country for a few years. Then, one by one, they came back.

To return, or not. The choice that faced Doris Banks — who now has a job managing a Taco Bell near the New Orleans airport — is one that still faces many who fled with her in August 2005. There were 480,000 people living in New Orleans before the levees broke, and now there are about 380,000. Given that many current residents are not returnees but newcomers (recent college graduates is the fastest growing group right now) that leaves well over 100,000 still out in the diaspora. And of those, the people least likely to return are people like Doris — African-American, lower income — who lost what little they had to the floodwaters.

As the 10th anniversary of the hurricane nears, Banks, while back home in body, is still deciding whether she is here in spirit — and whether she will ultimately stay. “It feels like home, but it doesn’t,” she says. “It’s the same but different.”

Banks's story, distinctly hers but also emblematic of a slice of displaced society, shows how far New Orleans has come in the decade since Banks and her young son fled. And her choices, entwined with those of the many who have returned and the many others who have not, will shape the future of this still fragile place.

******

It started out as just another storm. Doris Banks had been through many in her 20 years, and like most natives, she assumed she was hurricane-proof. “I thought the power would go out and that it would get hot and uncomfortable but then it would be normal,” she says. “I never thought we’d have to leave home.”

Home at the time was the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, in the Lafitte housing project where she had lived most of her life. Her father was a roofer, her mother stayed home with four children, of whom Doris was the youngest by many years. By the time she was old enough for school, her sister and one brother were addicted to crack cocaine and her other brother to alcohol. So “with me, my mama got strict,” she says. “I think she felt like she made enough mistakes with the previous children and I was her only chance to get it right.”

Doris had to be home early, tell her mother where she was at all times, do her homework, stay away from boys. But when her parents separated in 2000 and she began to split her time between their two apartments in the project, “I managed to sneak things by her,” Banks says. At 16, she became pregnant with Michael, Jr., named for his Dad, “Big Mike,” who was himself only 17 at the time.

An abandoned part of the old Lafitte housing projects in 2012 in New Orleans, right, is seen near new public assisted housing that replaces it.  (Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP)

When she first realized she was pregnant, Banks feared her mother’s wrath. She had no money for an abortion, but she’d heard that drinking bleach would end a pregnancy, so she tried a few sips—“It was so nasty I couldn’t do any more,” she says. She was six months along when she confessed, and her mother immediately threw her out of the house. “My mama said, ‘I’m not helping you for one second with that baby. How could you do this? You on your own,’” Banks remembers. “Then, as soon as he was born, she fell head over crazy for him. I had to take him from her arms and say, ‘You mind if I spend time with my own son now?’”

Banks stayed with her boyfriend and their baby in the two-bedroom apartment where she’d grown up, while her mother traded down to a one-bedroom in the next building over. At about the time little Michael was born, Banks’s sister hit bottom, essentially living on the streets, and leaving three of her six children with Doris. The 16-year–old new mother was suddenly caring for four minors, some only a year or two younger than she was. Her mother came over to help, but still it was overwhelming. “I tried to keep going to school,” says Banks, “but I missed a lot of days.”

Over the next four years, she effectively dropped out, broke up with her baby’s father, and started dating another man from the projects who was selling drugs, she says. “He kept some at my house and the cops raided and found them,” Banks says of the night she was arrested. “It was the first time I was in a police station ever.” She pled not guilty and was released on an ankle monitor to her mother’s apartment, meaning she could not leave there after 10 p.m., not even to go sleep in her own place a building away. “That’s when I decided I had to take control of my life for real,” she says.

She tried. In early August of 2005, Banks was leaving the courthouse after one of many appointments with the parole officer who tracked her life, when she spotted a “Help Wanted” sign at a Taco Bell across the street. She got the job, and while she didn’t lie during the interview, she also didn’t tell the complete truth. “To this day, Taco Bell still doesn’t know I had an ankle monitor on my leg,” she says. “I told them I couldn’t work any shift past 10, but I didn’t say it was because I had a curfew.”

She worked for a week or two while her mother or a neighbor watched her son, but was off from work on Aug. 29, when it began to rain.

“We knew it was a hurricane coming,” says Banks, “but we had no reason to leave, in our heads it was just one more of the same.”

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: A family sits on their porch in the Treme area of New Orleans on August 29, 2005. (Photo: Rick Wilking/Reuters)

Big Mike was back in her life again, and he went out and stocked up on things like bread, sandwich meat, water, flashlights and playing cards. The power soon went out, as expected, and everyone in the building gathered on their covered balconies, shouting a little to be heard over the rain as they talked to friends on different floors through the night.

After two days of this, they had eaten most of their food. There was a foot or more of water in the streets, but no water pressure in their building, and their only source of news was a battery-operated radio someone had turned way up on one of the balconies. Hearing that there was looting at a nearby Winn-Dixie, some of the men went and joined in. Big Mike came back with “jars of pickles, chips, Pampers — and we didn’t even have a baby that needed Pampers — canned juice, tons of cookies,” Doris says. “We didn’t need everything that we got, so we shared it,” she says.

The water kept rising, slowly at first and then furiously. Her mother left her own ground-floor apartment when the furniture began to float, wading through the muck to Banks’ place on the second floor. When the water started to come into that apartment, “we realized we had to get out,” Banks says, through tears, which is how so many evacuees speak of those days even all these years later.

The young parents put 4-year-old Michael in a plastic basin he’d used for baths when he was a baby. Banks, who did not know how to swim, prepared to put her arms around her boyfriend’s neck then “kick my legs and hang on.” At 5’5”, she was nowhere near able to touch bottom. Her mother, some neighbors and some cousins decided they would rather stay put than venture out, and Banks, still in tears, says she is still not sure why they stayed. Perhaps because they wanted to protect what little was theirs, or because they felt safer on familiar ground, even when it was covered by water. After trying to change her mother’s mind, Banks told her, “I have a baby to live for,” and she set off into the flood. Before she did she popped off her anklet and put it in her pocket. “I wanted to keep it with me so no one would say I broke the rules,” she says.

The trio made it to a traffic bridge five blocks away which was clear of the flood, but barely. There they happened to run into Big Mike’s grandmother, who was aiming to rendezvous uptown with a car that would drive her to her own mother’s house in Alabama. She could take little Michael, she said, but the rest of them would not fit. So Banks handed over her son.

New Orleans residents sit outside the city's convention center in September 2005, where thousands waited for several days for evacuation without food, water or sanitary facilities. (Photo: Matthew Cavanaugh/EPA)

Eventually she and her boyfriend would make their way to the Morial Convention Center, where they became part of a desperate crowd of what would later be estimated at 30,000. Asked about conditions there, Banks — who had been open about her teen pregnancy, her arrest on drug charges, her siblings’ addictions – refuses to answer. “I can’t even talk about it,” she says of the two nights she spent there. “It was that nasty. There was no food or water, nothing for anyone. If you were with your family, all you could do was love one another, that’s all.”

She says she isn’t sure where the cars came from — just that they were abandoned when her boyfriend and some others found them, and that a police officer had helped hotwire them because the world had turned that upside down. Just before she got into one of the cars, Banks saw her mother in the crowd — airlifted from the roof of her building by helicopter, sweltering in the convention center crowd. “I said, ‘I don’t know how she is going to fit in this car, but she is going to fit in this car,’ “ Banks says, noting that her mother had never, in the 20 years her daughter had known her, ventured outside of New Orleans. “But she just refused. In her head she was thinking, ‘Soon I’m going back home.’”

“I’m on my knees on the ground begging her to come,” she says. “A neighbor is with her and says, ‘Ms. Eleanor, go with your daughter, we’ll be OK.’ But Mama wouldn’t budge.”

*****

The Houston Astrodome was a cleaner more organized version of the Convention Center — the same shell-shocked pandemonium but with cots, working bathrooms and donations of food and clothes. With no way to communicate with the rest of her family, Banks lay awake that first night, exhausted and out of her mind with worry. Was her son safe? Was her mother alive?

The next morning she decided to go out and look for a job. “I started thinking that home wasn’t there anymore, so maybe now this was home,” she says. In the Texas heat, she walked for miles looking for Taco Bells, and found two or three, but none that had openings. Hours later she trudged back to the Astrodome and collapsed on her cot, her first sleep in days.

Evacuees from Hurricane Katrina damaged areas are sheltered at  Houston's Reliant Astrodome in September 2005. (Photo: Dave Einsel/Getty Images)

When she awoke, she saw a line of several dozen people waiting to talk to a blonde woman at one edge of the room. Doris wandered over and saw that the woman was holding a hand-lettered sign that said “Do you need a job?” and having patient conversations with each refugee who approached. When it came time to tell her own story, Banks got to the part about not knowing how to begin to find her family and she began to weep. “I’ll help you,” the woman told her. “Meet me out front at 6 a.m. tomorrow. I’ll pick you up and we’ll get started.”

The woman, Tory Johnson, would, over the next 10 years, go on to become a bestselling self-help author and a “Good Morning America” correspondent. But back then she was a new entrepreneur, running a business that helped women find jobs. Like the rest of the country, she had watched the televised aftermath of Katrina with horror. Unlike most of the country, she bought herself a plane ticket and headed to Houston to do something. 

She spent her first day fielding questions and giving the best information she had: Harrah's had an 800 number for employees to check in; Walgreens would transfer New Orleans jobs to other locations. Taco Bell? That company had said they would guarantee jobs for New Orleans evacuees at any company-owned location. The stores Banks had visited, as it happened, were all franchises.

By the time Banks approached, Johnson had become overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand. Now that she was on site she realized there was nothing she could do that could really make a difference for all of the people who were filling the cavernous arena. But she could make a difference for at least one, and when Banks began to cry, Johnson chose her.

By the next morning, Johnson had used her hotel computer to print a list of company-owned Taco Bell locations in Houston and had cross-referenced their locations with a second list of available subsidized housing vacancies in town. By the end of the day, Banks had the key to an apartment near the Galleria shopping mall, a job at the Taco Bell three blocks away, and $4,000 worth of furniture, clothing, linens, kitchen utensils, a TV and a cellphone with a liberal calling plan, all thanks to Johnson.

With that cellphone, Banks could finally check on her son, who had in fact reached Alabama. It would take another month before she would also use it to find her mother.

“Tory called and said, ‘Call this number,’” Banks remembers of the Dallas area code. “When my mama answered, at first I didn’t have words.”

Doris Banks and Tory Johnson framed in her living room in New Orleans East, La. Tori has helped Banks with finding jobs and general mentor type help as Banks transitioned back to life in New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina. (Photo: Bryan Tarnowski for Yahoo News)

For the next several years the family stayed scattered around the country, living mostly where they’d landed: in Texas, Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia. Michael started pre-K in Alabama and was thriving, so Banks delayed having him join her in a place where she had no child-care support. Her mother, who had boarded a bus out of the convention center that took her to Dallas, lived in a hotel there with some nieces until her FEMA vouchers ran out. Then both she and Michael came to stay with Banks in Houston for a month before leaving together to live with a relative who’d settled in Atlanta.

“I wanted him back with me,” Banks says of the boy, “but I couldn’t see how to raise him in a place where I was alone.” She and Big Mike had separated for good. She’d spent several months working at Taco Bell, earning $9 an hour — two dollars an hour more than she’d been paid in New Orleans — and getting used to being the only African-American on a crew of mostly Hispanic employees. Then she found an even better job, for $9.75 an hour, at the photo department of a nearby CVS.

Johnson bought her a computer for her 21st birthday in December, and she took online courses that earned her a GED. She made friends, missed her family, felt safer in Houston than she had in New Orleans, but wondered where she actually belonged.

Banks might have decided the answer was Texas, had the New Orleans court system—which had all but ceased to function during two years of recovery—not churned back to life. There was still that outstanding drug possession charge. She no longer had to wear an ankle monitor (though she still had the busted one) but she did have to appear regularly for court dates, which were usually then postponed for another month or so. Each trip cost bus fare and time off from work, until eventually it seemed to make more sense to just move back.

Banks did, at the end of 2007. One month later, the charges against her were completely dismissed.

*****

The New Orleans to which Banks returned was but a vague approximation of the one she had left. The Lafitte Projects, which she visited on her first court date, stood moldy and abandoned two years after she’d fled. The only thing worth salvaging in her old apartment was the new pair of shoes that she’d bought for what should have been Michael’s first day of school, though they were far too small by the time she came back for them. Eventually the whole complex would be rehabbed and she would be offered a chance to move back in, but she declined. Even brand new, the apartments were filled with too many memories. Mostly, she realized, she would be haunted by what wasn’t there — the network of familiar faces whom she’d known since childhood.

Doris Banks in front of her apartment in New Olreans East with her dog and niece and grand nephew, Erika and Kanye Banks. (Photo: Bryan Tarnowski for Yahoo News)

Instead, she took a place across town, on the east side, a government-subsidized apartment amid market- level ones, where the rent was $950 a month, but $300 of that was covered by a federal housing voucher. It made no sense, she knows, to live here — where the waters came even higher than where she’d lived before. Now a levee runs right behind her street, and during hard rains she huddles in her second-floor bedroom, and worries.

The Taco Bell where she worked is gone, too. It was razed and is now a parking lot. She’s working at a different location now. Shortly after she returned, she ran into a manager from her original job who offered her a position as a cashier — hourly jobs are plentiful in New Orleans, where there are still too few workers to fill them — and she quickly worked her way up to assistant manager and then manager, with a salary of $32,000 and full benefits. She owns her first car, a 2012 Chevy Cruze, and just adopted a Yorkshire terrier puppy. She is taking business and leadership courses through Taco Bell, and plans to find a way to go to college sometime soon.

Soon after she returned, her son did, too, joined gradually her mother, her aunts, her siblings and several nieces, nephews and cousins. As before, they began to care for each other’s children, gather for Sunday dinners, provide couches when others were between apartments or, in the case of her brother for a few months last year, just out of jail.

That families like the Banks have returned is a point of pride for the civic leaders of New Orleans. As the anniversary of Katrina neared, Mayor Mitch Landrieu went on a national tour of sorts to the cities where most New Orleans ex-pats remain — Atlanta, Houston — meeting with leaders there to thank them for taking people in, and with the people themselves, inviting them to come home. He cited statistics: $1.63 billion invested in new roads, parks and playgrounds; $1.51 billion in new recreation facilities, $320 million in transportation, 170,000 potholes filled, rehabbed housing, improved schools.

What the numbers can’t measure, though, is the slackening of the ties that keep residents connected to their city. Michael started high school this week, and Banks is pleased with the place — particularly the marching band, which he loves. But she had to fight a dense bureaucracy to get him accepted to that school, and it is a 20-minute bus ride away.

Doris Banks comes to drop off her son's, Michael Banks, marching band boots and money for his instrument locker at McMain Secondary School in Mid-City, New Orleans, La. (Photo: Bryan Tarnowski for Yahoo News)

Her mother died a few months ago. The rest of her family feels temporary now, where before they felt entrenched. On a recent afternoon, with storm clouds on the horizon and the air as dense and damp as it gets only in New Orleans, she and several cousins sat in the Banks’s living room, with toddlers playing around them, and talked about whether or not they would stay.

One niece dreams of moving with her four children to Atlanta; she has never visited, but has heard from relatives who spent years of exile there that it is an easy place to live. Another dreams of a farm somewhere. And Banks dreams too. Of an apartment near the Galleria and a neighborhood with less dirt, less crime and fewer memories. Of New York City, where Johnson brought her to visit once or twice over the years.

“I never thought of living anyplace else, but now I think this is not my final destination,” she says. “I’m not unhappy here, but I’m not 100 percent happy, and now I know that I can be. Katrina changed everything.”

 

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