Packed in a rental car with five friends and crossing the Louisiana border for the first time since fleeing for her life just months earlier, Tiffany Picus’ nerves overpowered her.
It was 9 a.m., and she needed a beer – an urge fulfilled by 40 ounces of Coors Light.
The drink was enough to help the junior sleep upon arriving to what was left of her aunt’s home, where her family had taken up residence. She didn’t wake until asked to pick up her sister from a friend’s house.
What was once a routine drive became a nightmare.
The thousands of pictures, warnings from family and wary newspaper headlines couldn’t prepare Picus for what she saw.
Entire neighborhoods were still completely destroyed; familiar shops and bars were boarded up with no promise of reopening; and National Guard trucks patrolling ID’ed Picus like she was a stranger in her own city.
She had used her Thanksgiving break to return to post-Katrina New Orleans for the first time, and would soon learn that these changes were only the beginning.
Picus, a biochemistry and art double major, was evacuated from her home in Lakeshore, La., about 300 miles northwest of New Orleans, last year shortly before category four hurricane Katrina wiped out entire parts of the city.
In the hopes of continuing a somewhat normal college lifestyle, Picus chose to leave the University of New Orleans and attend CSU while the city was being rebuilt.
“I moved out here all on my own,” she said. “The city was a mess, my family was a mess and there was really nowhere for me to go there. I restarted my life here.”
With nearly 12,000 evacuees in Colorado, and almost 400 in the Fort Collins-Loveland area, according to MileHiNewOrleans.org – a Web site created by a CSU research group studying the impact of relocation on Katrina’s victims – Picus is not alone.
Since her evacuation and move to Colorado, Picus has been back to New Orleans three times: at Thanksgiving break, once over winter break and then again over the summer. Each time she’s returned, the rebuilding progress has been further along.
“It’s gotten a lot better,” Picus said. “After the storm, no one could live in the city. Everyone moved away and just drove in to work. But now people are moving back in, they’re building apartments and moving into upper floors of damaged buildings.”
This progress hasn’t happened without cost.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided more than $4.2 billion dollars in housing assistance, according to its fact sheet, and $1.9 billion for other needs, including medical, mental health and transportation assistance.
After the hurricane’s flooding, many, including Picus’ family, were forced to tear out and rebuild the entire inside of their homes due to water and mold damage. The process, called gutting, has still yet to be done on thousands of houses, despite the deadline set for today.
“When I got home, I didn’t feel like it was my house. It took a little bit of time for me to adjust to it,” Picus said. “For a while, I felt more at home in the trailer.”
Picus’ family was far from alone.
FEMA reported more than 112,000 trailers or mobile homes serving as temporary housing for those whose homes were unlivable, and cruise ships housing 7,000 more households for the first six months after the hurricane.
Despite the rising crime rates and reports of widespread depression from newspapers, Picus has seen a newfound hope and unity in her city, reborn since the storm.
As Picus tenderly touches the fleur-de-lis, a symbol for New Orleans, hanging from her neck, she recalls the time she spent there this summer and the coming together of so many of her friends and family after the devastation.
“The progress I saw really made me proud of home,” she said.
Although Picus will continue her new life in Colorado after graduation, senior Nick Cardinale plans to return to the Big Easy for good one day, hurricane threats or not.
“I can remember hundreds of hurricanes,” said the English major and New Orleans native. “I used to love hurricane season. We’d get off school and have hurricane parties.”
Hurricane parties, Picus said, mainly consist of buying enough food, batteries and alcohol to supply family and friends who are confined indoors due to a hurricane curfew.
“They were a blast. We got to party with all ages,” she said.
The city, Picus said, has not lost this fun-loving attitude. The first places she can remember re-opening were the bars, where people would eventually have to be forced to leave after closing.
This year’s Mardi Gras, Cardinale said, was no exception.
“It was so stressful after the hurricane, and everyone was looking for a way to relax. Mardi Gras was perfect for it,” he said.
And relax they did.
“The whole town basically shut down and everyone partied for a whole week,” he said.
Wearing a Rebuild New Orleans bracelet, Cardinale, a friend of Picus, looks optimistically toward the future of New Orleans.
“The people of the city have really come together,” Cardinale said. “They never gave up. Seeing it has really given me hope for people in general.”
Staff writer Margaret Canty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.