The day Hurricane Katrina hit, Tamra Kohutek was living in an apartment a mile from the coast in Long Beach, Miss. When her ceiling caved in, she moved with her husband and son into the open-ended breezeway of her apartment complex.
Six days later, the family ran out of clean water. Her husband siphoned gasoline from a boat in the parking lot and funneled it into a black stretch limousine he owned through a company he'd worked for. Kohutek gathered clothes and photos into what she calls the "redneck RV," and the family drove 1,300 miles to Colorado Springs, where her husband's family lives.
Sixteen months later, Kohutek has just started a job at Checks Unlimited's call center on Union Boulevard; she found the position with the help of Lutheran Family Services. Her family recently moved out of their FEMA-paid apartment and into a place they can afford on their own. In spite of the frozen seafood and what she perceives as a general unfriendliness to strangers here, Kohutek says her family will stay on in Colorado Springs.
"I know some people who gave up, who got out on their own," she says. "They have struggled. I went along with the system. We have our own apartment now, and we pay our own rent and utilities."
Kohutek's story, by many standards, is a model. An inch away from self-sufficiency she still meets with a Lutheran Family case manager she's endured the hurricane, and her family has rebuilt on the other side of the country. But for hundreds of Gulf Coast expatriates, that kind of transition hasn't happened. With FEMA dollars and other aid grants quickly slipping away, many evacuees face a "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" attitude, one promulgated even by some service providers in Colorado Springs.
"Individuals had 18 months to prepare for this," says Bob Holmes of Homeward Pikes Peak, referring to FEMA's upcoming rental assistance cutoff in late February. "The individuals who grabbed the ball and ran with it have integrated into the community. I know of people who have bought houses and have become citizens of Colorado Springs.
"The other group if they are not ready now, they will not be ready in 18 months from now. At some point, you have to come to the concept of individual responsibility."
Last week marked the first major aid deadline for evacuee services in Colorado Springs. The Katrina First Response Team, which provided mental health care to several hundred jarred and displaced people, ended its run with a New Orleans-style bash at Horton's Sports Page last Saturday. Evacuees in attendance were given T-shirts with a picture of a crawfish and the words "We are Survivors" on the front.
"Some of [the evacuees] are having more problems than they would have previously in their lives with mental health and substance abuse issues," says Katrina First Response's Heather Tucker, who managed a $250,000 FEMA grant to organize a seven-person therapy team. "They have gotten a lot of services and a lot of support for the past year and a half.
"On the other hand, a lot of them have lost every single thing in their lives. A year and a half is not a long time to recover when they are facing everything they have faced."
Around 300 of the original 763 evacuee families in El Paso County will still receive case management that is, housing, transportation and employment support from Lutheran Family Services and the Salvation Army. Those two groups will phase out services in October. In the meantime, evacuees still in need of counseling can access mental health care through various local programs but few will be free of charge.
Kevins Enclarde, from Port Sulphur, La., has been to four therapy sessions since he relocated after the hurricane. But he won't continue if he has to pay for it. Like nearly a third of the evacuees, he hasn't found employment here.
"When these services end, people will find themselves in a more stressful situation," he says, adding that Lutheran Family Services helped him buy gas to drive to an ultimately unsuccessful job interview. "It is good to have an idea of a place you can get help. You maintain your dignity, to a certain extent."
But Salvation Army's Paula Stock says that sense of worth should come from elsewhere. "Most [evacuees] are used to going to the post office once a month and picking up a check. It is retraining and re-educating and really motivating people to do a little bit of life change if they want to stay here," she says. "It is not a great way to live, resource-hopping."
Yet many, including Enclarde, insist the need won't go away with the FEMA funds.
"I think that long after the winds and waters wind down, people are still bothered by things."
To donate to the Hurricane Katrina Unmet Needs Committee, which provides bus passes, Wal-mart gift cards, gas cards and utility waivers to evacuees:
contact Maryann Stadjuhar at 866-6421;
call 866-6440 to donate using a credit card;
or write a check to Colorado Springs Unmet Needs Committee Fund, Catholic Charities, 228 N. Cascade Ave., Colorado Springs, CO 80903.