Long Way From Home: Katrina Evacuee Lands In The Icy North
March 7, 2006
By Alex Tizon
She didn’t know diaper wipes could freeze so fast. One moment they were a stack of moist towelettes, next they were an icy white brick. Patti Tobias had left her infant’s wipes in the back seat of the car on a morning when the temperature dipped to 7 degrees below zero. “Huh,” she said, inspecting the block and grinning. Her relatives in New Orleans would get a kick out of this.
She would share it as part of the chronicle of “a little black girl in Alaska,” the story of her new life as told to friends and family in daily long-distance phone conversations. Her dispatches included stories of moose and mountains and white people. Patti, 39, had never been around so many white people. Most have been quite nice. No one refers to her as a little black girl; it’s Patti’s tag for herself, partly a joke and partly a declaration of her exile. She is a Hurricane Katrina evacuee, as far from home as she could be in the continental United States.
“This is me,” she says, “a little black girl with three kids and three suitcases, in Alaska, wearing three layers of clothing!”
Most Katrina evacuees stayed within a day’s drive of their hometowns in the Gulf Coast. A few ventured to the West and East coasts. The Red Cross counted about 90 evacuee families that made the 5,000-mile journey to the Last Frontier. They came because of family and church connections; they came, as in the Tobiases’ case, because a stranger beckoned. The evacuees scattered throughout the state, with the highest concentration in Anchorage. Six months after Katrina, though, many have returned to the Lower 48, leaving only the die-hards — no one knows exactly how many. The Tobias family is one of eight left in Anchorage public housing.
Patti says she would like to stay in Alaska for the adventure. But some states need all four seasons to reveal themselves fully. Driving on ice, for example, has become a part of daily life. With a cold snap upon them, and more to come, Patti and her children are only now learning what it takes to be Alaskan.
Patti wears a hat inside her cottage. It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and she’s pacing the living room with a cellphone to her ear. Her 1-year-old, Ginsi, sleeps on the couch, so bundled she looks like a pillow. Outside, son Tokobey, 12, pushes his 6-year-old sister’s face in the snow. Her name is Gionni. She later reports that her brother did it three times that afternoon. Tokobey believes it to be an Alaskan pastime. “It’s supposed to be minus 10 tonight,” Patti says. She’s talking to someone in Texas. She makes and gets calls all day. “Oh yeah, you feel it. You feel it to your bones. I was bringing in the groceries and my knuckles were frozen.”
She had never lived anywhere else but New Orleans, a place where people wear tank tops in winter. The family (Patti is divorced) occupied a duplex in New Orleans East, seven houses away from one of the broken levees. The floods took everything, including Patti’s job as a receptionist. She and her children fled to a Red Cross shelter in nearby Lake Charles, La., where a volunteer behind a computer asked where she wanted to go. “Alaska,” Patti said. She had always fantasized about Alaska, seduced by pictures of glaciers and mountains; it seemed so exotic, so different from any place she had ever been.
The first listing that popped up on the computer was from an Anchorage couple willing to take in an evacuee family. A flurry of e-mails and phone calls followed. An Idaho man donated his mileage points to buy airline tickets. Two weeks after the hurricane, the Tobias family landed in Anchorage at 1 a.m., dazed, ragged and wary.
“We didn’t know [the host couple],” Patti said. “We didn’t know if we were going into Jeffrey Dahmer’s house,” referring to the serial killer who ate some of his victims. Dahmer was white and most of his victims were black or Asian. Their hosts, it turned out, were not cannibals. Their names are Chantel Ayers-Kalish, 37, and Rob Kalish, 49. They are white and longtime Alaskans. She owns and operates a small pottery studio near the airport. He works as a geologist for an oil company. They have three children, ages 4, 6 and 7, and a big house with two vacant bedrooms and an extra bathroom.
The couple had been moved to tears by images of hurricane victims in the news. Their offer of temporary housing was, Chantel said, a kind of “karmic insurance: because you never know when you might be in the same situation.”
The Tobias family lived with the Kalish family for two months — a melding, Chantel said, “of two families, two cultures, two races.” The kids dived right in, and within days were playing and fighting like siblings. The adults were more cautious. Rob, a soft-spoken, easygoing man, got along with everybody. Chantel had never had a close black friend. Patti had never had a close white friend. One trait bonded them instantly: a knack for gabbing.
After some weeks, the women were comfortable enough for Chantel to call Patti “sweetie” and for Patti to call Chantel “Chan” or “white girl,” as in: “What do you want to eat for breakfast, white girl?” During the days, the children went to school, came home and played. Chantel and Rob went to work, while Patti stayed at the house, watching movies, baking cookies and occasionally cleaning house.
The families ate dinner together, except for Patti. While Chantel might prepare a turkey-breast meal with fruit and salad, Patti would stay in her room and later cook up some red beans and fried fish for herself. Tokobey found a way to make Rob and Chantel crack up: He would talk like black comedian Dave Chappelle, spouting raw street language in a little-boy way. It worked every time, but Chantel eventually told him the girls might overhear and start imitating him. Tokobey stopped.
There were bumps. Chantel’s 6-year-old, Olivia, once kicked Gionni in the back. The two girls had similar temperaments, theatrical and strong-willed — a couple of tiny drama queens. When they got along it was bliss; when they fought, it was no-holds-barred. Olivia was bigger. Tokobey accidentally started a small fire in the kitchen, setting off an alarm that brought fire trucks. Chantel’s other two children, Gabrielle and Gwyneth, looked on in glee, as they did for much of the two months.
All three adults came to parent all six children. One day, Patti yelled at Olivia for “being manipulative” after Olivia had started a group game in which she engineered a way to leave Gionni out. Another day, Chantel got furious at Tokobey for wearing his muddy boots in the house for “the ten-thousandth time.” Each mother resented the other’s tone toward her children, but tolerated it.
By the middle of November, the Kalish family was ready to get their space back, and Patti and her children were ready to move into their own place. The parting was emotional and affectionate. The families keep in close contact. “We would do it again in a heartbeat,” Chantel said. There were challenges but nothing insurmountable. Race became irrelevant. She said she couldn’t imagine not keeping in touch with Patti’s three kids as they grew up.
For Patti, it was the end of her first phase of realizing that most of Alaska was inhabited by white people. “I didn’t know,” she said. “I thought Alaska would be full of Native Alaskans.” New Orleans was two-thirds black; Anchorage is about three-fourths white. Whites make up about 70% of the state’s population, natives about 15% and blacks 3%.
Gionni and Tokobey attend a public elementary school where each is the only black child in class. The family attends a predominantly white church, whose members, Patti says, have been welcoming and generous. But it’s definitely not like her church in New Orleans — Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church — where the parishioners were black, the singing was raucous and the preaching was so fiery that members had to fan themselves after the service. Patti says her new church in Anchorage is … quieter.
Their apartment — a narrow, two-story, three-bedroom cottage painted sunflower yellow — resembles a birdhouse in a row of birdhouses in a part of town called Jewell Lake. The back patio door looks out at a snow-covered field, and beyond that, to an evergreen forest. Above the trees loom the Chugach Mountains.
“I opened the blinds and there was a moose. He was looking at me, and I was looking at him,” Patti says into her cellphone. She’s telling someone in New Orleans about a recent visitor on her patio. It was about 8 feet tall and 1,000 pounds. She took four close-up pictures of the largest nostrils she had ever seen and sent them to relatives. “If I’d have opened the door, he would have walked right in,” Patti says.
Every day brings something new, she says to another visitor, her cellphone tucked back in her pocket. The other day “they shot a bear in town.” She took a boat ride in Cook Inlet and checked out some glaciers. The glaciers looked much grander before she and her kids all got seasick. She would like to learn how to ski. She’s also looking into nursing courses at the University of Alaska. Patti’s housing is paid until the summer of 2007, thanks to a state emergency-assistance voucher. Between savings and child support from her ex-husband, she has enough to live on until she decides on school or work.
Day by day, Patti is learning about the one essential trait required to survive in Alaska: an independent spirit. It might even help to be a bit of a loner. Isolation from the rest of the country is one of the state’s great offerings, but not everyone is cut out for it. “It takes commitment to live in Alaska,” Chantel once told Patti.
She’s finding out what her friend meant. You can’t just get in a car, drive to your hometown and shoot the breeze with old friends and family. A visit like that, if you can’t afford airline tickets, amounts to an epic journey. “I get a little lonely sometimes,” Patti admits. But she says she doesn’t like to dwell on it. There’s too much adventure waiting to waste time being glum.
Outside, Tokobey tinkers with a new all-terrain vehicle that someone gave him for his birthday. Gionni plays with Ginsi in the snow. Tiny flakes have begun falling, and the housing project has taken on a snowy glow. “What does that look like to you?” Patti says, looking out at her neighborhood. “Doesn’t that look like a picture of Christmas?” Here it is, months after the fact, and it still feels like the holiest day of the year. Her family would get a kick out of that. The cellphone rings. She grins. Someone back home must have been reading her mind.