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How One of Katrina's Feel-Good Stories Turned Bad

When Kathy Phipps was relocated to a suburban Utah neighborhood after the storm, she was hailed by the media as an example of how the tragedy could turn into opportunity. But 10 years later, Kathy is back in Louisiana, scarred by what happened after the cameras went away.

Ten years ago, Kathy Phipps seemed happy. After Hurricane Katrina forced her family from New Orleans and into the federal government’s hands, and eventually to a white, suburban, Mormon community in Utah, where her story was told again and again on national television and in local papers, Kathy seemed not only resilient, but joyful.

“This storm was the best thing that could have ever happened to my family,” she told one CBS reporter.

Kathy may not have wanted her house to be destroyed by floodwaters, or to board a FEMA-funded plane to Utah and be separated from her family, but once there she seemed to make the best of it. Amid the vastness of its snowy mountains and tranquil suburbs, she said felt like she had peace of mind. Her kids had a chance to escape the poverty and terrible schools of New Orleans. Her husband found a job.

The positivity of Kathy’s story fit in well with the narrative the mainstream media latched onto post-Katrina. At some point, television screens and newspapers stopped being filled with stories of disaster and instead offered stories of hope, redemption, and lives made better through tragedy. Former first lady Barbara Bush perhaps best exemplified the dissonance when just a few days after the storm she visited Houston’s Astrodome, where many of the storm’s evacuees were staying. “What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas,” she said. “And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them." Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about how New Orleans could be made a better city after the storm. Oprah Winfrey, after donating $10 million to construct a community for Katrina survivors in Houston, dedicated several episodes of her show to detailing the ways in which their lives had improved. And there were countless stories about people like Kathy Phipps — people who seemed to have made it despite the long odds.

Then the cameras left.

These stories were undoubtedly true — many people did survive Katrina and go on to lead better lives. But they also obfuscated other, more complex truths about the difficulties tens of thousands faced in being transported far away from home, to cultures and communities nothing like what they knew. In the television reports and newspaper articles about Kathy Phipps, race, trauma, depression, and anxiety are hardly mentioned, despite the fact that those are the things that consumed Kathy’s life shortly after arriving in Utah.

A few years ago, Kathy Phipps got sick of her Katrina story. She got tired of constantly replaying the trauma in her head, of reliving the shock of escaping Katrina’s waters, of getting off a plane she thought was going to Texas and finding herself instead in Utah, of the racism she experienced there. She couldn’t reconcile the media version of her Utah experience with what it became in real life. She couldn’t deal with the return to Louisiana, her homelessness, the anxiety, the feeling of being a failure at work and to her three kids. For Kathy, now 49, though the attention paid by most to the storm had all but faded, Katrina’s wake seemed stronger than ever.

Kathy was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia recently, and she now sees a psychiatrist once every three months. She said she’d grappled with some mental health issues before the storm, but the trauma of Katrina and the family’s displacement made those issues much worse. A few years ago, Kathy tried twice to end her own life.

“The separation of everybody, going through what she went through with the water ... all of that played a part in whatever happened [to her],” said Kathy’s 28-year-old son, Jas, who now lives in California.

Kathy described her suicide attempts as her rock bottom. She’s no longer there, but her mental state has necessitated removing herself from her own story in other ways. She and her family no longer live in New Orleans, but are now 40 minutes outside of it in an area of sprawl called Violet that, were it not for its heat and humidity, could be mistaken for a place on the edge of virtually any other city in the United States. She no longer leaves the house except when absolutely necessary. The anxiety is too much.

She’s cut herself off from friends. They call, but every time she makes plans she panics and cancels. She tried working, but her last job gave her so many panic attacks she wound up in the hospital. If she has to run to the store, she does it early in the morning in order to avoid other people. Even passing through New Orleans can cause her to become paranoid, to feel like she’s being watched by other people.

Her one-story brick home is the only place she feels at ease, though things there can put her on edge, or send her into a spiral of depression: looking through photo albums, heavy rainstorms, visitors. Kathy now devotes most of her time to watching television with her little dog, Bitty, on her lap. Mostly she watches the Investigation Discovery channel. Her favorite show is I (Almost) Got Away With It.

“I try not to watch the news too much,” she said. “They be talking about hurricane season.”

Katrina displaced over 1 million people across the Gulf region. Seventy percent of all occupied housing in New Orleans — 134,000 houses and apartments — were destroyed or damaged. The population of New Orleans was cut in half by the storm. FEMA's mandate to provide temporary housing to those affected by disaster had remained clear and relatively unchanged since the agency’s inception, but there seemed to be little in the way of guidance about how to actually carry out that mission: Should people be housed as close as possible to the disaster area? Should families be kept together? Should cultural differences be taken into account in rehousing?

The confusion was further compounded by a lack of leadership: The agency’s director at the time, Michael D. Brown, had virtually no experience in emergency management. Prior to joining the administration of President George W. Bush, he’d been the commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association.

“FEMA was scrambling to get people anywhere they could,” said Gail Stephenson, the director of legal analysis and writing at Southern University Law Center, who has extensively studied FEMA. “If they had a church in Alaska saying they’d take a few people, FEMA would put them on a plane.”

Tens of thousands of people were scattered across the U.S. by FEMA after the storm. A hodgepodge of federal agencies provide other services like mental health care and housing assistance, but not specifically for disaster relief victims. “The federal government relies on the states for that,” Stephenson said.

There have been a few analyses of Katrina’s diaspora, including one by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2008 and one by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2011. There’s no clear federal mandate that suggests FEMA or any other agency has a responsibility to track the diaspora.

Many times people were given one-way plane tickets and housing vouchers, and never contacted by the agency again. Independent research suggests most went nearby — to Baton Rouge and Houston, to Birmingham and Atlanta, and to hundreds of towns and suburbs across Louisiana and the rest of the Gulf.

But many were given one-way bus or plane tickets or shuttled on government vehicles to further-off locales. All 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico received members of Katrina’s diaspora, according to Stephenson. Texas received tens of thousands. Alaska became home to at least one new family. Utah received 583 people from Katrina, according to state records. One of them was Kathy Phipps.

Until Katrina, Kathy and her family had lived in the Lower 9th Ward. Its location, cut off from the rest of the city by a canal, has given locals an identity separate from the rest of New Orleans. Its residents — about 14,000 of them before Katrina — prided themselves on their tight-knit community and on their self-reliance. Kathy worked as a nursing assistant; her life was always focused on family. She’s been with her husband, Michael, for 26 years; her house was often, especially on holidays, filled with extended relatives and friends.

As Katrina approached, Kathy’s mother took Kathy’s children to an apartment building in the center of the city to wait out the storm. After the storm passed, they evacuated to Texas, though Kathy would not learn of their whereabouts for days. Kathy, not wanting to leave her dog behind, stayed at her house in the Lower 9th Ward with her sister, her sister’s husband, and Kathy’s nephew. She did not know where Michael was.

Early on the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, the Industrial Canal’s levee shattered with a loud bang, and water flooded nearly every inch of the Lower 9th Ward. Many of the iconic and heartbreaking images of Katrina — people waving for help from their roofs, houses completely submerged, some attempting to swim to safety — come from the Lower 9th Ward. So did much of the city’s death toll.

After nearly drowning in the floodwaters, Kathy and her family made it to their roof. She never saw her dog again. Two days later, they were brought to higher ground by a rescue boat, and then to the city’s convention center, where several people died waiting for medical assistance, and where food, water, and counseling were scarce. Kathy said the only food she ate for the next five days were the snacks her nephew was able to take from nearby grocery stores.

“They had to do what they had to do to survive because we didn't have nothing,” she said. “But that wasn't eating. That's not no meal.”

After about five days spent sleeping on the convention center’s concrete steps, Kathy and hundreds of others were bused to New Orleans’ main airport, where a mix of commercial and military planes were waiting to take evacuees away. Kathy still had no clue where her children and mother were — she did not have a cell phone, and even if she did, cell phone service was rendered extremely spotty by the storm. But she figured she should go to Texas; that’s where most people seemed to be going. She boarded a plane with her sister and 30 or 40 others that a pilot told her was headed to San Antonio. “When people said, 'Welcome to Utah,' I said, 'Utah? Where’s Utah?' I didn't know it existed on the map.”

She and dozens of others from New Orleans were brought to Camp Williams, a military base about 45 minutes south of Salt Lake City. There, FEMA, the Red Cross, various state agencies, and dozens of reporters had easy access to the Katrina’s victims. Some received medical attention, some were taken out to dinner by various Mormon groups that had set up volunteer stations at the camp, some were given housing vouchers.

Days passed before Kathy finally heard from a cousin in North Carolina that her kids and mother were safe in Texas, sleeping in a stadium turned into a center for evacuees in Arlington. One night, a reporter from CBS overheard Kathy talking to her nephew about trying to find a way to get to her kids. CBS agreed to pay Kathy’s first-class airfare to Texas and back as long as Kathy would allow the network to film her experience along the way. Her husband joined her in Utah a few weeks later.

Kathy was ambivalent about Utah from the start. Utah is 91% white; Utah is about 63% Mormon. Kathy was neither. And there were obvious cultural differences: New Orleans is a culture of chaotic community in which the lines between family and friends, between work and play, between weekday and weekend, are blurred. Utah is by and large culturally and politically conservative, a far cry from the boisterous multiculturalism of New Orleans. But Kathy knew she’d have no home to return to; her old job as a nursing assistant was likely gone by that point. She decided the family needed to stay in Utah, at least for a bit.

Through a state agency, Kathy found a house in the upscale, nearly all-white, suburban, majority-Mormon community of Pleasant Grove, about 40 minutes outside of Salt Lake City. The state of Utah, partially reimbursed by FEMA, paid her rent. And with help from the Mormon community, the house was completely furnished.

“They fixed the house up nicely,” Kathy said. “They did a nice job. I didn’t have to worry about a washer and a dryer. I didn't have to worry about a kitchen table. I didn't have to worry about a living room. I didn't have to worry about a bed to sleep in. They did it all. And CBS filmed that.”

Kathy seemed ecstatic, if a little anxious about being away from home and nostalgic about the family she’d left behind, in the series of CBS reports from 2005. "[I went through] this hurricane and came to heaven," she told CBS News reporter Hattie Kauffman in one report. She told CBS her kids were doing better in a high-performing school there, and her husband had found a job as a welder. Kathy had found two jobs in nursing homes.

“I think she was feeling a sense of alienation,” said Claire D’Ecsery Willmore, Kathy’s neighbor in Utah who helped organize a furniture collection for her when she moved in. “In her neighborhood, people would sit on the front porch and chat with each other. In suburban Utah, you’re in your house and car and it’s just not how people connect. I was as alien to her as she was to me. But we just had this kind of connection. I love her dearly."

Claire and Kathy would visit each other’s houses every week and Kathy increasingly came to rely on Claire for emotional support. “She was incredibly grateful,” she said. “She recognized people were going out of their way to help her. At the same time she was really struggling with depression. I think it was post-traumatic stress. She couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t eat.”

In December 2005, just a few months after the family's arrival in Utah, Kathy’s nephew, who’d also come to Utah after Katrina, overdosed on codeine-infused cough syrup and antidepressants and died. Shortly afterward, police arrived at Kathy’s door and said they wanted to question her 12-year-old son, Michael Jr., about a break-in at a tattoo shop. The only plausible explanation, Kathy said, was racism — Jas, Kathy’s eldest son, had been to the tattoo shop weeks ago, but he did not live in Utah. Michael Jr. couldn’t drive, and the tattoo shop wasn't within walking distance; he didn’t even know where the tattoo shop was.

Michael Sr. was fired from his job shortly after getting it. The family isn’t sure why. Then Kathy and her husband began being pulled over by police regularly. “You don't even know why these police officers are pulling you over,” Kathy said. “It got worser and worser.”

Over the months Kathy and her family lived in Utah, she felt her neighbors became less friendly and accepting, and Kathy felt less comfortable in their presence. Her landlord chastised her for smoking cigarettes. Some began trying to convince her to convert to Mormonism, which Kathy eventually did (though she’s now not practicing).

Kathy’s mental health problems may well have been exacerbated by what was happening in Utah as well. She couldn’t tell if everyone around her had begun to turn on her or if she just began realizing how little she fit in and how much trauma she was repressing.

“I’m trying to find a reason why I'm here,” she recalled. "God, why did you put me here? Is there something you want me to see? Because I can't stay around all these white folks. They got their own pattern of living. I've got my own pattern of living. I'm just wondering, what am I here for? It drove me crazy.”

Kathy became increasingly paranoid, isolated, and depressed. She’d sit on her back porch and chain-smoke, which was against the house rules. Her landlord, David Radmall, said the house’s yard began to look unkempt. Things were falling apart.

“She was a very likable person, a very nice lady,” Radmall said over the phone from Utah. “It’s just that there were some problems... It wasn’t a racial issue at all. It was just the house was in bad shape. We were losing a lot of money.”

One morning in the summer of 2006, about 11 months after Kathy had arrived in Utah, she smoked a few cigarettes, dropped one on the back porch, and left for work. The back of the house caught on fire shortly after. The state condemned the property.

“That fire was a sign,” Kathy said. “When that fire started I knew we had to get out of there.”

It’s unclear whether a story like Kathy Phipps’ could happen again. In an emailed response, FEMA spokesperson Rafael Lemaitre wrote: “It is not FEMA policy to issue survivors one-way tickets out-of-state after a disaster. Today, FEMA policy is to put survivors first, and to do everything we can to get them back home and on their feet as quickly as possible.” Lemaitre said the agency now works to house people closer by, and it partners with private organizations to find housing right after storms. Earlier this year, it was announced that the agency will partner with Airbnb during future disasters.

But according to Gail Stephenson, there’s been no test of the organization's abilities anywhere near the scale of Katrina in the past 10 years. And if the agency’s history is any indication, she said, FEMA doesn’t learn lessons very well.

“I doubt they would have learned much after Katrina,” she said. “I know that sounds cynical, but when you think about how many chances they’ve had, and they do the same thing over again.”

For Kathy Phipps, the damage has already been done. Her psychological issues were aggravated by her displacement, she said, but they did not go away when she and her family returned to Louisiana.

After moving from Utah to Mississippi for a few months, Kathy’s family transitioned back to New Orleans. But work was hard to come by. Her husband could only find odd jobs at construction sites. She was having trouble holding down a job. And housing prices had skyrocketed since the storm. The family struggled to stay in the city, and Kathy became increasingly anxious and paranoid.

Kathy believed things would be better in New Orleans. In Utah, she felt too nervous to ask neighbors even for a cup of sugar. But soon she realized she couldn’t do that in Louisiana either. “When I got back home from Utah, I thought [my problems] were just because it was a color thing,” she said. “But my mind was so gone I couldn’t be around other people either.”

For years, Kathy and her family bounced around from house to house, she and her husband from job to job. She began to feel like a failure to herself and her kids. That’s when she began thinking about suicide. “The suicidal thoughts got strong, strong," she said. "I was a disappointment to my children, disappointment to myself.”

Feeling out of options in New Orleans, they even tried their hand at living in Texas in 2009. Nothing seemed to stick. Eventually the family ended up homeless, living out of a car, their belongings stuffed in a storage unit. That, she said, was her most recent low point. “Last summer around this time I was in the car,” Kathy said. “Heat, you hear me, heat. No bathroom. I had to beg.”

Kathy began seeing a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia a few months ago. She said the meds she was prescribed help her stay calm. But she still feels stressed almost anywhere she goes, making isolation in her house the most palatable option.

A recent August weekend, just a few weeks before the storm’s 10th anniversary, was like most weekends for the Phipps family. Kathy sat in her big faux-leather recliner, surrounded by dozens of framed pictures of family members, and watched TV. Her Chihuahua, Bitty, sat on her lap.

“When you're sorry, you're sad, they're there,” Kathy said of her dog. “It helps me through my depression stage. I just be crying, crying, crying, and she be licking my tears.”

Her eldest son, Jas, now lives in California. Her younger son, Michael Jr., now 22, lives with Kathy. He spends his time playing video games in his room. Her daughter, Mickal, 18, said she's rather be living in the city, not 40 minutes outside of it. Michael Sr. feels the same way.

“I don’t want to say nothing bad about Utah, because they did have some good people out there,” Michael Sr. said. “It affected Kathy the most. I wish it never happened.”

On Friday, Kathy left her house to take Mickal to a dentist appointment. On Sunday, Kathy left her house to relieve her sister, a nursing assistant, of taking care of an elderly patient while she went to church. That was the only contact she'd had with the outside world those three days.

Sometimes Michael Sr. and Kathy grill in the backyard. Sometimes Kathy cooks baked chicken or pork or makes spaghetti and meatballs. Sometimes extended family comes over. Mostly Kathy sits and watches Investigation Discovery and tries not to think of the last 10 years.

“I'm inside and nobody has to look at my face,” she said. “I don't have to be bothered by nobody because don't nobody know me. I'm better off in here by myself.”

With the anniversary approaching, Kathy recently decided to look at one of the photo albums she keeps in the living room. The thick album contained some snapshots taken during Katrina — houses destroyed, water everywhere. Mostly there are photos of the family in Utah. In one, everyone is smiling in front of their new house. In another, Jas shows off a tattoo of a lion on his bicep — the one he received before police came to Kathy’s house. In another, Kathy’s daughter is posed in front of a snowcapped mountain, giving the camera the middle finger.

“It brought back memories,” Kathy said from her recliner one Sunday. “But when the memories come back, it's not the good ones. Why? It's never the good ones.”