“I Ain’t Ready”: A Katrina Survivor Eyes the Next Plunge
October 15, 2005
By Alex Tizon
“I ain’t ready, I ain’t ready, I ain’t ready.”
The woman ambling down the corridor of Judson Baptist Church is talking to herself, not crazy but scared. More than a hundred Hurricane Katrina evacuees ended up in a church in Walker, Louisiana, a farming-town-turned-suburb west of Baton Rouge.
One by one, they left the church for trailer parks and apartments, for places far and wide where family or friends or government workers awaited them. Almost seven weeks after Katrina, most of the 270,000 people evacuated to shelters have moved beyond the first stop on their journey to new lives. But not Rosezina Jefferson and her two young sons. They’re stuck.
President Bush had set a mid-October deadline to empty all the shelters, but more than 22,000 evacuees still have not found a way out. Many, like Jefferson, are stuck in every way people can be — with no car, no marketable skills, no place to go. And most significantly, no means to overcome the paralyzing fear of taking the next step. She’s still recovering from the last step she took: a plunge into floodwaters that could have cost her life.
“I ain’t ready,” Jefferson whispers again. She shuts her eyes as if to pray to the angels that she believes wander the corridors of this church that has been her shelter since the storm. “But I have to be.”
Sooner or later, she and her boys are going to have to leave. The parishioners haven’t said so directly, but there have been gentle hints.
“It’ll be nice for you to have your own place again, huh, dear?” one white-haired lady asked her recently. This congregation will want its Sunday-school classroom back. The classroom has been “Rosezina’s Suite,” as it’s come to be known, for longer than anyone expected.
It is a long corridor, and Jefferson can walk only one way: slowly. She finally makes it to her door. Jefferson is a heavy woman, like her mother who died of a heart attack at age 35. She fills doorways. She sleeps in a special bed that can support her weight. Her baby, Keith Hall Jr., is sleeping in it now. She goes over to check on him.
“How’s my miracle baby?” she coos.
Keith Jr. is how she ended up here in Walker. If he hadn’t been in such a hurry to get born, she would have ended up somewhere else — maybe Texas, maybe in the morgue like some of her neighbors. The day the levees in New Orleans broke, Jefferson, 26, and her other son, 5-year-old Ashton, became stranded on the second floor of a neighbor’s apartment house.
She didn’t evacuate, she says, because she didn’t think the storm would be that bad. But when the floodwaters overtook the first floor, Jefferson knew she’d made a mistake. Then Ashton began having an asthma attack. She had to get help. At the very least, she needed to get some medicine. Jefferson had heard that Coast Guard boats were picking up people at Interstate 610, about half a mile away. There was only one way to get there.
Leaving Ashton with the neighbor, Jefferson, who was 8 1/2 months pregnant, jumped out of a window into churning waters and swam toward the freeway. While swimming and pushing herself off from car to car, she went into labor. The pain almost paralyzed her. A passing Coast Guard boat picked her up, and rescuers airlifted her 75 miles to Woman’s Hospital in Baton Rouge, where Keith Jr. was born at 4 a.m. on Aug. 31.
Jefferson was overjoyed at the birth of her new son but nearly hysterical with worry over the son she left behind. “Confused” is how she describes her state of mind in the hospital room.
Woman’s Hospital took in dozens of expectant women who had been evacuated. In the week after Katrina, the hospital recorded 49 births in a single day. Many of the women, like Jefferson, went into early labor because of trauma.
A secretary at the hospital, Shannon Easley, realizing that the mothers and their newborns had nowhere to go, arranged for many of them to stay at her church until they found other housing.
Classrooms and closets at Judson Baptist Church were converted into nurseries and studio apartments. Jefferson and her newborn were among the first to arrive. Ashton, who was taken by the neighbor to the Houston Astrodome, was picked up five days later by a parishioner and brought to the church to reunite with his mother.
It was a screaming, crying, clinging reunion. Parishioners and fellow evacuees rejoiced with them. For a while, the church was like every other shelter: crowded and chaotic, but also strangely unifying. Many evacuees bonded in the crisis. Then, as the days passed, they began leaving.
Today, only Jefferson and her family remain. Jefferson says the Judson Baptist parishioners are the kindest people she’s ever met. They’ve helped her fill out forms, donated clothes and furniture, and allowed her to spend her days unwinding in front of a television in a guest house behind the church. Volunteers, using the church kitchen, have fixed the family three meals a day.
In a moment of daydreaming one afternoon, Jefferson said that when she has her own kitchen again, the first meal she’s going to cook is pork chops and creamed corn. “I ain’t ever gone this long without poke chops,” she said.
Rosezina’s Suite has been quiet most of the afternoon, and the main reason is that Ashton is at school. Across the room from slumbering Keith Jr. is his father, Keith Hall Sr. Hall, 50, who had been stranded in the 9th Ward during the flood, made it to New Orleans’ convention center, where someone told him that Jefferson had jumped from a window and was missing. Along with thousands of other evacuees, he rode a bus to the Houston Astrodome, where he found Ashton and the neighbor. He followed Ashton to Louisiana a few days later and joined the family at Judson Baptist.
He has been reading a People magazine, waiting for Jefferson to return so they can resume their argument. Their way of talking is arguing; it’s their style.
Hall and Jefferson have been together for two years, although he lived in his own place in the 9th Ward. This week, Hall landed a job as a deckhand for a tugboat based out of New Orleans. He’ll be heading south any day. The job and work schedule — 28 days on, 14 days off — will keep him separated from Jefferson for long periods, and he wants her to be more independent.
Hall wants Jefferson to get used to the idea that she will probably end up in Houston, 260 miles west of Baton Rouge. That’s where her best friend, Monique Moses, also an evacuee, is scouting apartments for her.
Jefferson will be able to use her money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency — evacuees each received a $2,000 grant — to make the necessary deposits. FEMA has also given her a voucher to pay up to a year’s rent once a landlord has agreed to take her.
“I ain’t never been to Houston. I don’t know nobody in Houston. I don’t know how to get around in Houston,” Jefferson says to Hall. “I don’t want to get lost.”
Hall flips a page. “You can’t look at it like that,” he says. “You can’t be afraid.”
“What if someone tells me to get on the wrong bus, and I end up somewhere else and something happens to me?” Jefferson continues. “Who’s going to take care of my babies?”
Hall flips another page.
Moses had located an apartment for Jefferson, near the one she found for herself, but the application got bogged down in bureaucracy — a background check in New Orleans was taking too long. Another mother who has since left Judson Baptist said one landlord had her fill out a 40-page application in addition to undergoing a background check.
“I know they don’t make it easy,” Hall says.
Jefferson had an opportunity to move in with Hall’s relatives in Mississippi, but she declined, explaining that a woman of her proportions needs her space. She couldn’t live in a house with too many people and no private quarters; it would be like living in an aquarium. Church leaders also offered to place Jefferson in an apartment in Walker, but that wouldn’t work either. Jefferson doesn’t drive, and this town of 5,000 has no public transportation. The family would be isolated.
Being stuck was never an issue in New Orleans; it was the way Jefferson liked to live — pegged to one place. She was born and raised in the city and rarely left the 7th Ward, where she got as far as the fifth grade. She’s never visited anywhere else except Mississippi once to see relatives after her mother died. Her father has never been part of her life. One brother is in prison for murder, and she’s got two other siblings whom she hasn’t spoken to in years. She thinks they may live in California.
Jefferson felt comfortable not leaving her apartment in the St. Bernard Housing Project for days at a time. Public assistance and baby-sitting money, which she earned watching kids at home, came to her. Jefferson did not budge even when the mayor ordered residents to evacuate. When the levees broke, she and Hall got into an argument then too. Hall phoned and pleaded with her to pack up and go. “You ain’t nothing but a punk, you wanna leave,” she recalls telling him.
But then Ashton started wheezing. She remembers the dream-like moment when she stepped onto the fire-escape ladder outside the second-floor window. She stood there for the briefest time, looking down at the water, and then back at her son, who was crying and pleading with her not to jump.
“Mama, you can’t go!” she recalls him screaming.
When she leaped, she didn’t know what would happen next. She didn’t know whether she would live or die; she knew only that she had to do it.
“I’m there again,” Jefferson now says under her breath.
She and her boys can’t hide from the rest of life too much longer. You can live on the kindness of strangers for only so long. Besides, a classroom isn’t a place to raise kids.
As soon as somebody somewhere — her friend in Houston, a social worker, a good Samaritan, even one of the angels in the corridor — arranges a tolerable situation, they are going to have to take the plunge to the next place they will call home. That is the position they are in, Jefferson says, just like on the fire escape: Standing at the edge of a great unknown, trying to look ahead but not seeing very far, and waiting and watching for the right moment to jump.