In Colorado, people don't kiss cheeks when greeting someone, or nod from the opposite side of the street, or sit on strangers' doorsteps to eat roast beef po-boys so sloppy that the gravy drips from their elbows. In Colorado, people do things like snowboard and rock climb ... things we have no experience with, having no snow or large rocks of our own.
It's been a year since the Hurricane that Redefined Hell, which means it's time for reflective contemplation and those annoying little commemorative bells. Not since the Civil War have so many Americans been displaced, and never before was displacement so sudden, so thorough and so televised.
With little or nothing to our names, roughly a million shell-shocked New Orleanians were unceremoniously flung to the corners of the country, to varying degrees of welcome. To date, fewer than half of us have made it back. According to Colorado's Katrina First Response Team and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, at least 689 families are still here in Colorado Springs.
Most of the community's exemplary efforts ended months ago, but Calvin Lidmark, a team leader with Colorado's Katrina First Response Team, says the work's still not done.
"We're trying to encourage the citizens of Colorado Springs to remain sensitive," he says. "They really embraced this group of people, and we just need to see it through. I'd really like to put out there, not to presume that all of the people are at the same transition in their lives."
Over coffee, fellow evacuee Zarian Phipps and I talk about adjusting to life in our new environs.
"The people here have been extraordinary," he says. "I always say that my faith in my government was totally obliterated, but my faith in humanity grew."
But time is running out on Zarian's FEMA-provided apartment, and his depleted bank account and late mother's Social Security benefits don't stretch very far. Only two semesters away from a political science degree, the 32-year-old Phipps is struggling to replace paperwork necessary to receive financial aid.
He's trying to complete his degree online with the University of New Orleans, although he likes Colorado and wants to go to law school in Boulder. He appreciates the healthy lifestyle that Colorado offers, but he'd appreciate a job even more. Then he might not need financial aid.
"The people seem to be really nice here, but I don't know," sighs Phipps, petting Dominoes, the beagle in his lap. "I'm encountering some problems. I have a good work history. I don't think I'm a ghetto, ignorant person, but for some reason, I haven't found a job. And I've been trying.
"Mostly, I worked call centers in the New Orleans area. I've also managed restaurants, and a kiosk at Harrah's. From what I've heard, they have a lot of call centers here, but it just isn't working out."
While loath to appear ungrateful for all that others have done for him in the past year, Phipps says he wonders if people connect the phrase "New Orleans evacuee" to TV images of looting and mayhem.
"I think there are blanket generalizations about evacuees that are just unfair," he says. "But I know that life isn't fair."
Ryan Ballard, a 28-year old performance artist, has had better luck: He landed a teaching gig in Colorado Springs, then reached out to the local arts community, which embraced him and his decimated theater company, Razzamataz Productions.
To read Zarian, Ryan and Ashley's stories, in their own words, click here. Katrina Stories.
In New Orleans, Razzamataz used puppetry to reach out to troubled children in the public school system. Finding that his work was also therapeutic for him, Ballard decided to revive his company here locally, and was humbled and grateful when others pitched in to help. Chuck Murphy donated studio space; the Bee Vradenburg Foundation and the Pikes Peak Community Foundation helped fund some shows; and the Smokebrush Gallery donated performance space.
"I lost hundreds of pieces of my own artwork. I lost $90,000 in puppets and production equipment. My production studio collapsed, and my house filled up with water. So I've worked my ass off this year," Ballard explains. "I'm better off in a lot of ways than I was a year ago. It forced me to try things career-wise that I hadn't done before.
"I was a fairly successful New Orleans artist. I had regular gigs and a freaking awesome job that was very stable, and so I had all of my bases covered. I was very comfortable. I was making plenty of money. It was nice. It was so easy to live however you wanted in New Orleans.
"After Katrina, I just had to start shooting from the hip. I've been moving real fast and real hard here, though, and the people here have been great. A lot of help showed up. I had to work hard for it, but a lot of opportunities have come around. I think it'll be all right."
In Colorado, people don't obsess with ways to Ziploc their lives. They don't wake up with nightmares about unspeakable things brushing their legs in dark and fetid water, and they don't get pounding headaches and heartaches thinking about a day on a calendar. A day that means we're supposed to be all better now, that we're supposed to have moved on despite the fact that our city still looks like Hiroshima Part Deux.
Ironically, although New Orleans still suffers from an utter lack of mental health care, Colorado used money from a federal grant to provide cost-free counseling and mental health referrals for evacuees with Katrina-related stress.
"Approaching the anniversary, feelings of fear and worry [have emerged], and we're here to help them deal with those issues," says Lidmark. "We want folks to know that they aren't alone, and that we can assist them with those feelings that are coming to the surface.
"The folks who evacuated to Colorado Springs really cover a broad spectrum. Many are actively trying to better their lives. It's difficult."
"I have 10 years of managerial experience, and I can't get a job," he says. "In New Orleans, I always had a job. But I'm still trying. I'm not going to give up."
Ashley Boudreaux is a native New Orleanian who relocated to Colorado Springs in July. She was hit by Hurricane Katrina twice before participating in search-and-rescue efforts for over a week.
To reach Colorado's Katrina First Response Team, call 719/314-0740.
For more information on Ryan Ballard and Razzamataz Productions, call 504/301-8201. Or go to razzamatazproductions.com.
To reach Phipps, visit his Web site at yaheardmezone.com.
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