Stranded in the Sticks

Los Angeles Times
November 1, 2005
By Alex Tizon

GREENSBURG, Louisiana – At the end of a long gravel driveway, up a few steps on a wide wooden porch, a mother and son discuss their conundrum. Gladys Brown, 66, and Maurice Brown, 47, praise God for keeping them safe through the ordeal. But two months after Hurricane Katrina tore up their homes and chased them out of New Orleans, they find themselves resettled in a place to which they feel — mildly put — unsuited. Like catfish in a cornfield.

“Look here,” Maurice says. “I lived my whole life in a neighborhood where you could stretch your finger and touch the house next door. Everything you needed was, like, right there. Grocery, doctor, post office, church. If it wasn’t, you got the bus.

“This place — ” Maurice continues, looking out at a vacant field that just a few months ago fairly glimmered with strawberries, and beyond that, to a grove of pine trees and, farther, to pastures with grazing cows. Lots and lots of cows. “What am I going to do here?”

So the dilemma: How can one be grateful and dissatisfied at the same time? Maurice tends to lean toward dissatisfaction. Gladys, a gray-haired matron who calls herself first and foremost “a praying person,” would rather focus on being thankful, not just to God but to her daughter, Arise Hitchen, who took them in. At times, though, Gladys too wonders how she’s going to forge a life here.

Of the estimated 1.5 million people dispersed by Katrina, about three-fourths stayed within 250 miles of New Orleans. Most of them remained in Louisiana, many in sparsely populated areas.

The Browns, like tens of thousands of other evacuees who spent their whole lives in New Orleans, have found that their home state is mostly forest, farm and swamp. Evacuees resettled in far-flung towns and hamlets, here and around the country, have moved from trauma to culture shock as they face the day-to-day realities of rural life.

Recently, a group of evacuees who had been housed in shelters in Hammond, east of Baton Rouge, revolted against federal officials who were trying to place them in a trailer city near Mt. Hermon, not far from here. One evacuee spoke for many when she said she’d rather go to jail than live “in the middle of nowhere.”

Volunteers with the Federal Emergency Management Agency say they have heard similar grumbling at new trailer cities in the rural communities of Slidell, Baker and St. Tammany.

Gladys and Maurice Brown, on the other hand, believe it impolite to complain publicly in the face of charity. Even Maurice says his misgivings are a private matter. They are mother and son passing the day on a porch, talking about their futures, letting the breeze bring what conversation it may.

They have not spent this much time so close together in years. In New Orleans, Gladys, who lived on disability benefits, split her time between home and church, while Maurice, who lived in another part of town, busied himself with work and friends. Sometimes weeks or months would pass without contact. Both their homes were destroyed by the floods after Katrina.

“The Lord brought us here for a reason,” Gladys says. “The Lord will guide us.”

When Katrina hit, mother and son and six others who lived near the French Quarter hitched a ride with a neighbor in his rattle-trap pickup. They headed out with no more specific a destination than north.

During a stop in Baton Rouge, Gladys called her daughter, and Hitchen came to pick them up. Hitchen brought as many as she could to her home just outside Greensburg, 92 miles from New Orleans. Greensburg, population 631, is the county seat of St. Helena Parish, the most sparsely populated parish in the state’s most rural corner — the southeast.

St. Helena Police Chief Nat Williams says there isn’t a single stoplight in the parish. Pine and hardwood forests and dairy farms cover 95% of the parish’s 408 square miles. In charge of keeping the peace is Williams’ boss, Sheriff “Gun” Ficklin, whose name adorns the department’s front entrance, with the emphasis on “Gun.”

Greensburg is essentially a one-road town; Highway 10 winds among rolling hills. The biggest and best-kept buildings are the churches, most of them painted some variation of white. Some of Hitchen’s passengers on that fateful night noticed that the churches appeared to glow as they passed by.

Hitchen’s home, a double-wide trailer, sits on 30 acres about five miles west of town. At one point, 11 evacuees — relatives and friends of relatives — came to stay in her home, squeezing into an already crowded trailer that is home to Hitchen, her husband and three children.

Five evacuees have left; the others have not decided what to do, although a few are thinking of staying — perhaps in a second trailer on Hitchen’s property or somewhere in town. Of those who remain, Maurice seems the most restless.

“Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great place, but it ain’t my kind of place,” he says.

For one thing, the quiet out here is real quiet. In New Orleans, even the dead of night had a buzz to it. There was always something going on, even if it was just the distant sound of cars. And during the days, there was always somebody’s refrigerator or washing machine that needed fixing. Maurice had made his living as an appliance repairman.

“How am I going to find work here?” he asks. There aren’t enough people to support his trade, and farm folk with a broken appliance tend to fix it themselves.

By far the hardest part of living here is the isolation, he says, and that is where Gladys agrees with her son.

“You do feel a little stranded,” she says. Gladys suffers from high blood pressure and arthritis. She worries that she won’t reach a hospital in an emergency. Just to buy a carton of milk, she has “to go begging for a ride.” The nearest store is on the highway, about a mile away. She has never owned a car, and Maurice lost his in the hurricane. So whenever either needs to go anywhere, they rely on God to provide. Someone usually shows up.

Arise Hitchen, 45, was born and raised in New Orleans, along with Maurice, but she left for good just after high school. Had she stayed, she says, she would have ended up in a dead-end life like so many of her childhood friends. She knew people in St. Helena and drove here on a whim. Today, she works at the Wal-Mart in Hammond, about 25 miles away. She leaves for work in the early morning and returns in the late afternoon.

Hitchen says there are two kinds of isolation — the kind you don’t want and the kind you need. Hitchen says she prefers to keep her relatives on her property “to protect them” from hostile elements in town.

Police estimate that after Katrina, 2,000 to 3,000 evacuees came to stay with family and friends in St. Helena Parish, and the rush alarmed some residents. The concern was heightened by news that FEMA was considering building a trailer city just outside Greensburg. Residents demanded public hearings. Two were held in mid-September.

Hitchen and Chief Williams attended both. According to them and newspaper accounts, several white residents vehemently opposed the trailer city for fear that it would destroy Greensburg. Most of the residents of Greensburg are white. The rest of the parish population is roughly half-white and half-black. During the second meeting, a white resident stood in front of more than 150 people — most of them black — and said that half of the evacuees from New Orleans were rapists, thugs and murderers, according to Hitchen, Williams and others who were present.

Others, like Hitchen, spoke passionately about helping those in need. “It could have been us” hit by the hurricane, she told the crowd. A few “amens” were uttered. The meetings became superheated, and parish leaders ended them before a consensus was reached.

Williams later said he was surprised by the level of anger at the meeting. “It was fear talking, not racism,” he concluded. He said he knew just about everyone in the parish, and it was his opinion that the silent majority of residents — whites included — wanted to help the evacuees. Hitchen is still stinging from some of her neighbors’ words.

“I don’t know if they were being racist or just being stupid,” she says.

Before those meetings, Hitchen says, she was beginning to believe the region was finally distancing itself from its racist past. Before the Civil War, according to historical records, half of the parish’s households owned slaves, a larger percentage than most of the South. The Ku Klux Klan was active in the area until the 1960s. Hitchen says that, in the 25 years she has lived here, most whites in the parish have been decent to her and her family. But she says there’s still an element out there that scares her.

Meanwhile, Gladys and Maurice continue to have their mother-son talks on the porch. If it weren’t for that porch, Gladys says, there’d be too strong an inclination to spend all day watching television.

On another afternoon, Maurice tells her of his plans to go up north to look for a job. Gladys warns about the fragility of man-made designs. “There I was planning to change the curtains in my living room, and here comes Katrina, changing all my plans,” she says, with a soft laugh.

“Only God’s plans survive,” she tells her restless son. “Only God’s.”