Jewish Journal

After the Flood

Gulf Coast evacuees continue adjusting to life in Los Angeles

by Sarah Price Brown

Posted on Aug. 24, 2006 at 8:00 pm

Shelly Collen (photo by Dan Kacvinski)

Shelly Collen (photo by Dan Kacvinski)

Before Shelly Collen lost almost everything, her life had just fallen into place.

Two months earlier, she and her husband had moved from Chicago to Gulfport, Miss., to be closer to their son, who was living in New Orleans. They had rented a charming cottage with hardwood floors, a big backyard and a front porch.

Collen, 55, had found a well-paying job teaching kindergarten. On the weekends, she would sit on the beach, reading and soaking her feet in the water, while baby manta rays nibbled at her toes.

"I finally felt I was at peace in life," she said.

Then, suddenly, last Aug. 29, the devastation came. Hurricane Katrina struck, flooding New Orleans and other cities along the Gulf Coast, forcing hundreds of thousands to evacuate their homes.

Collen made her way to Alabama, then to Tennessee, Illinois and Las Vegas, and finally, three weeks after the storm, she arrived in Los Angeles, where a cousin was living. Collen came alone, without her husband. He went back to Chicago.

"I can't tell you how much this has disrupted my life," Collen said.

Now, at the one-year anniversary of the hurricane, Collen is one of about 4,700 evacuees living in Los Angeles County. While some survivors of the hurricane have had an easier time here than others, many are still trying to make Los Angeles home, struggling to make ends meet in a sprawling city where gas and housing prices soar through the roof.

Collen, for one, has never felt more anxious. "I'm so insecure," she said.

Jewish Vocational Service helped Collen find a job giving science presentations at schools. But earning $12 an hour, she is hardly getting by. She has no health insurance and is deep in debt. Her cousin bought her a car and pays the rent on her one-bedroom home in West Los Angeles. But Collen knows that she cannot -- or will not -- depend on family assistance forever.

Shana Leonard, another evacuee, has also been living in Los Angeles since the hurricane.

Leonard, 34, fled New Orleans, where she had lived for less than five months. She came to Los Angeles with her husband and her daughter, India, who has cerebral palsy and microcephaly, a condition that caused India's brain to stop growing. India, 11, can neither walk nor talk.

Leonard also came with her father, Herman Leonard, 83, a renowned photographer famous for his portraits of jazz musicians such as Billy Holiday and Dexter Gordon.

Like Collen, Shana Leonard had just moved south to be near family. She had left Los Angeles, where she had lived for 12 years, to be closer to her father, who had been living in New Orleans for a decade and a half.

As Katrina approached, Leonard grabbed some family photographs, jewelry and her daughter's medical records. She helped her father store his valuable negatives in a museum vault. After a stop in Houston, the family found its way to Los Angeles, which was, at least, a familiar place.

But Leonard had no home, little money and not much left of India's medical equipment.

"She doesn't talk, but she laughs a lot," Leonard said of her daughter. After the hurricane, "she was silent."

In many ways, the Leonards were lucky. Shana Leonard knew the city and had friends who let them stay in their home for a few weeks, before she found a three-bedroom house to rent in Studio City. Friends and family started a fundraising drive to raise money for India's special needs. Celebrity acquaintances of Herman Leonard, like Quincy Jones and Tony Bennett, offered their help.

So, the family has managed. Art and candid photographs from before mingle with garage-sale finds and donated furniture in their new home. Herman Leonard's negatives arrived in June, and he is beginning to get back to work. India is laughing again.

But the sadness brought on by the hurricane lingers.

"I think about it at least once a day," Shana Leonard said. "I think, 'I shouldn't have left the cats.' Or, 'I should've packed this.'"

She misses the boisterous people of New Orleans, the oak trees, the peacefulness, she said.

In addition to receiving help from family, both Leonard and Collen accepted aid from Jewish agencies, such as Bet Tzedek, which provides legal services, and other organizations, such as American Red Cross. Jewish Family Service (JFS), a nonprofit social services agency, was particularly helpful, they said.

Using money from various sources, including more than $168,000 from The Jewish Federation, JFS helped relocate 160 individuals or families, about 35 of whom, including Leonard and Collen, are Jewish. The agency helped evacuees with rent and furniture, and it hosted a support group, which both Leonard and Collen attended.

JFS bought a back brace for India. And it arranged for a counselor to meet with Collen.

"She saved my life," Collen said of the counselor.

In general, the plight of evacuees has improved with time, said Kristee Benedetto, who led the JFS program.

"Fear, chaos, desperation is really what the sense was last year," Benedetto said. "This year, I get more hope."

There are, for instance, success stories like Adam Koffman, 39. Koffman grew up in Los Angeles and had been living in New Orleans for five years, teaching yoga at his own studio. After the hurricane, he returned to Los Angeles, where relatives offered their support. JFS helped, too, with rent, a counselor and finding a job.

Now, Koffman works as a budget analyst for UCLA.

"It's a blessing," he said of his job.

Koffman lives in a West Hollywood apartment with a private garden and a pond filled with fish and frogs. He does yoga in his backyard. Another blessing, he said.

"Faith in God really carried me through all of this," Koffman said. "You have to have faith that there's a reason for ... certain destructive acts.... If you have faith, then the blessings come."

Still, one year after the storm, few are counting their blessings. "Sadness is very typical," Benedetto said. "It's a loss of the life that you knew."

As for Collen, the loss has shaken her to the core. Her husband remains 1,750 miles away, and she's not sure whether her marriage will last.

"I get afraid all the time," she said. "I have no money to fall back on. I'm 55 years old. I don't have a home.... And I feel very alone."

Still, Collen tries not to think about it. "I'm really trying to live for the moment," she said, "because I do get terrified of the future -- terrified."

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