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Katrina Refugees Settle in East Bay

By Judith Scherr
Friday September 01, 2006

When Jackie Tolbert sang “Amazing Grace” at the corner of Twelfth Street and Broadway in downtown Oakland on Tuesday, the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, tears welled in the eyes of several of the listeners from her hometown—New Orleans. 

The Katrina speak-out in front of the Federal Emergency Management Agency offices was called by The World Can’t Wait to chastise the Bush administration for what they said was a slow and inadequate response to the disaster. The New Orleans refugees who spoke shared both their frustration with disaster relief efforts and hope for a new day in the Bay Area. 

Before the hurricane, Tolbert made her living as a gospel singer and had even traveled in Europe to sing. She considers herself among the more fortunate: she owned a car and a cell phone and had a place out of town to take her children to. 

In the days following Katrina, Tolbert used that car and cell phone to try to get some help. “It took four days to get in touch with FEMA and FEMA would direct you to different organizations,” she said.  

Finally she got $2,000 from FEMA, $300 from the Red Cross and $200 from the Salvation Army—and that was all. Tolbert had lost her rented home and all her possessions except the few things she had taken with her when she left. 

“They are supposed to reimburse you for your losses—it never happened,” she said, adding that each time she followed up with papers she had filed, the various agencies would say they had no record of them and she would have to fill out the same forms again. 

Nobody gave her a plane ticket. “I drove from Louisiana to Oakland, California,” she said. She and her family stay in Oakland now with her brother. People along the way helped out with hotel expenses and Tolbert’s brother wired her money for gas. 

“I’m hurt and disappointed with our government,” she said. “I feel like a homeless person, a drifter, not able to find stability.” On the other hand, she said she found a welcome in Oakland. “Thank you, Bay Area,” she said. 

Tolbert has no plans to return to New Orleans. “There’s nothing to go back to,” she said. “If I go back, I need to fight. It’s too much. I want to put it behind me.” 

Denise Rothschild doesn’t want to go back either.  

She told a harrowing story. Without a car, Rothschild was unable to heed the warnings to evacuate. She and her 12-year-old son went to sleep the night of the hurricane—the other two children, age 14 and 15, were at relatives for the night. Rothschild woke up to find the water was several feet deep. She put her son on her back—he doesn’t swim—and she swam to a nearby three-story building. They climbed up the fire escape to the roof. 

“We slept on the roof for three days with no water and no food,” she said. The helicopters would fly over and seem to ignore them. They were finally evacuated by boat to a bridge where they had to wait on long lines, still with no food or water. Buses finally took them to an army base in Oklahoma. 

“We’d wake up in the morning with guns in our faces,” she said.  

During this time she did not know what had happened to her two other children. She was under such stress that she had to be hospitalized. While in the hospital, a nurse helped her find her other two children and obtain funds for bus tickets to the Bay Area. Rothschild has an aunt in Vallejo where she is staying now. She’s found a job cleaning rooms in a San Francisco hotel and her children are in school. 

“If I went back, there would be nothing there. Thank God for a new beginning,” she said.