Ten years after New Orleans flooded following Hurricane Katrina, the city has regained roughly 79 percent of its population. But that doesn’t mean it has 79 percent of the same people.
Much has changed about where New Orleanians live, but one of the biggest is that 97,000 fewer black people live in Orleans Parish than before the storm. It’s hard to pin down exactly where everyone went, but you can get a glimpse of why on one particular street corner. Eve Abrams investigats how who gets on the Megabus tells the story of New Orleans’ diaspora.
Megabus is the company behind the blue, discount-rate, double-decker buses. They arrived in New Orleans in 2012, and so far the most popular destinations are Houston and Atlanta. That makes sense, given that around 35,000 New Orleanians settled in Atlanta after the storm and an estimated 40,000 – 110,000 moved to Houston.
The stop in New Orleans is on Elysian Fields Ave., near the corner of Saint Claude Ave. — just outside the parking lot of the old Shwegmann’s, which became Robert’s, which became an empty green concrete building after the storm.
There’s no sign that says “Megabus,” but a line forms early along the chain link fence that newly separates the old grocery store parking lot from the sidewalk.
I watched Erica Mitchell pull up in the passenger seat of her friend Phil’s car. She was busy unloading her stuff — a pillow, a bag — getting ready to hop on the bus to Atlanta, which was already idling on the curb.
“I’m from the 7th Ward, actually right on Gentilly, and I’m visiting,” says Mitchell, who’s 33 and grew up in New Orleans.
“I had a theory,” I tell her, “that a lot of people traveling to Atlanta and Houston are people that used to live in New Orleans but left because of Katrina.”
“I have family that lives here,” replies Mitchell, “and I have family that live in Atlanta. They’ve been there since Katrina, but I’ve been moving back and forth.”
Mitchell says her family lost their home in Gentilly to flooding after the storm.
“They was living in Texas for just a moment, but then they moved to Georgia. I moved there too for a little while. I was trying to follow them, because it’s good to be around family all the time.”
New Orleans, of course, is legendary for its networks of extended families. A 2011 RAND Corporation study found that prior to Hurricane Katrina, different generations living together was about 50 percent more common in New Orleans than nationally. But, just a year after Katrina, in 2006, that number was cut in half.
Renata Toney grew up in the Lower 9th Ward; since the storm she lives in Violet, in St. Bernard Parish. She was at the Megabus stop dropping off her aunt, who was headed to stay with a cousin — also in Atlanta.
“Before the storm everyone was here, the whole family in New Orleans,” says Toney. “It might be across the river, but now it’s different states. It’s Texas, it’s Kansas, it’s North Carolina. Texas is the most, and Atlanta. So we have people like literally everywhere now.”
Toney and her partner Robert Evans say that even though their family is scattered, New Orleans is their home town.
“They might move, but they will always love New Orleans,” insists Toney. “Even I say that. Even if I move from here, I will always come back.”
Toney and Evans landed outside of St. Paul, Minnesota after the storm. They said it was beautiful there — even though they couldn’t get red beans or hot sausage. But eventually it got cold and started to snow. And even though everyone was really nice, Minnesota didn’t have certain things.
“The second lines, the jazz bands, the bus down the street, the DJ’s, the block parties,” lists Evans. “We missed all that.”
“New Orleans is New Orleans baby, you know?” says Syzon Bernease, who, with her husband, relocated to Houston after the storm. Bernease says she doesn’t want to live back in New Orleans, but she enjoys visiting.
“Even though Houston is pretty friendly, but New Orleans even friendlier,” reports Bernease. “People say 'Hi, how you doing,' they don’t know you. What’s going on? They don’t do that everywhere you go.”
One of the bags she was bringing back to Houston? Stuffed with New Orleans loot.
“I have Zapp’s Spicy Cajun Crawtaters and Zapp’s Sweet Creole Onion” potato chips, reports Bernease.
Bernease’s husband Donald is less nostalgic. He says it feels different in New Orleans since Katrina. He doesn’t like the conditions, or the hospitals.
“It’s not worth it to come back,” he says. “It’s not the same. I have a 100 percent better life in Houston. And you get more for your money with the houses than here. And so I love it.”
“Since the storm, people from New Orleans is everywhere,” says Roy Simon, who lives in Hollygrove. “And a lot of them doing better and not coming back and that’s good cause you don’t know it’s better for you ‘til you leave.”
On Roy Simon’s block, he and his wife — and just one other guy — are the only people left from before Katrina. It’s the same with Roy’s family.
“Everybody gone,” says Simon. “Actually. Yeah. They all left. Hey! I’m happy for them. I mean, you can go somewhere to do better, do better. You go do better.”
“Do you think New Orleans though has changed because those people aren’t here anymore?” I ask.
“I know it has,” replies Simon. “I know it has, and I’m not going to say for the better because I don’t believe that because you running people out — natives of New Orleans — from New Orleans. And they left because New Orleans wasn’t good enough for them. They didn’t know it until they went somewhere else and saw it.”
His grandchildren saw it. Most of them live in Houston. Simon was waiting on his bus to go visit them.
“I prefer them being where they at, doing better,” says Simon. “Got this Megabus. They come here; I go there. Hey, I love it. I love it; they ain’t got to worry about being shot up, and its smart. Fact I tell them: 'if you come through, just come through to visit. Don’t stay.'”
Yet, Simon stayed. For him, New Orleans is still home. For others, it’s the other end of a bus ride.
Music in this story, "We Made It Through That Water," is by The Free Agents Brass Band.