Symbol of a Storm

I watched a program hosted by Brian Williams last night on NBC and I found myself angry and sad all over again.
Taphina Jefferson never thought she would end up on the cover of a magazine, but Hurricane Katrina put her there. This is her story.
By Arian Campo-Flores
Special to Newsweek

Aug. 26, 2006 - It was one snapshot of despair amid the detritus of Hurricane Katrina. The week after the storm struck New Orleans, NEWSWEEK ran a photo on its cover of a woman clutching two kids outside the Superdome. Her expression was ravaged and distressed. Her brow was furrowed and her nostrils flared. In the background, fetid floodwaters sloshed around. Though her image quickly circulated the globe, she remained anonymous—just one more portrait of misery among countless others.

But in June, NEWSWEEK tracked her down in New Orleans. Her name is Taphina Jefferson, 28, single mother of seven children, including the two in the picture: Mariah, 2, and Terrence, 1. Jefferson had returned only days earlier from Houston, where she’d spent nine months as an evacuee. In several interviews over the next two months, she shared the story of her year since Katrina. It’s a tale of heartache and hardship, but also of unbowed determination. Like many poor New Orleanians, she was battling misfortune long before the hurricane. But when the storm roared ashore, it plunged her already unstable life into turmoil. Like the city as a whole, she has struggled mightily to build herself back up—yet at a pace far slower than what she’d hoped for.

Just prior to Katrina, Jefferson says she was poised to start a new chapter in her life. She had recently given birth to Terrence, who was only one month old. She had managed to move out of a women’s shelter, where she’d sought refuge from an abusive relationship. She had found a little one-bedroom home in the Carrolton neighborhood for her and the two little ones (her 13-year-old, Zabian, was in juvenile detention and her four other kids lived with their grandmother in Mississippi). And she had decided to enroll in a six-month certified nursing assistant program to try to develop a more stable career. It was enough to make her finally feel hopeful about her future. “I felt like I was accomplishing something with my life,” Jefferson says. As luck would have it, though, the start date for the program was Monday, Aug. 29. The weekend before, Jefferson says she was so busy preparing for class—gathering supplies, finding a nursery for the kids—that she didn’t notice the news about the impending monster storm. In that way, she was like many poor New Orleanians who seemed unaware of the warnings.

On Sunday, Aug. 28, she realized how serious the storm was. Panicked, she set off with her two kids to a friend’s third-floor apartment in the Seventh Ward. She rode out the storm there, packed in tightly with little to eat or drink. In the aftermath, amid the flooding and growing havoc, she and the kids were eventually rescued by a boat that delivered them to a nearby bridge. From there, a truck took them to the Superdome, where she says she witnessed deaths, beatings and countless other horrors. After three days, “I started to think I was going out of my mind,” says Jefferson. “I couldn’t take it anymore … I needed to get out of there.”

Her chance came on Thursday morning, Sept. 2, when buses began rolling up to the Superdome. Given the crush of people desperate to board them, the wait was interminable. Overheated and dehydrated, little Terrence’s lips began to turn purple. Then, miraculously, a woman in charge plucked Jefferson and her kids out of line and directed her to a bus. As Jefferson rushed toward it, photographer Richard Alan Hannon snapped the shot that ended up on NEWSWEEK’s cover. She recalls the moment vividly. “Please, God, let me get on that bus,” she was thinking. “I was just focused on that bus … My baby just needed to get on.”

Jefferson wound up at the Reliant Center in Houston. She ended up staying three weeks before striking out to create a new life in a foreign city. Armed with a $2,000 FEMA check and additional money from the Red Cross, she bought a car. Then she nabbed the first apartment she laid eyes on. It was in a shady part of town, but at least a FEMA voucher would cover it. Landing a job wasn’t nearly as easy, though. Jefferson says she applied for numerous positions, including some at fast-food restaurants—which she’d worked in before—but had no luck. “They weren’t hiring people from New Orleans,” says Jefferson, in a familiar refrain heard among evacuees. Her job search became even harder when she lost her car to an engine fire that totaled it.

Before long, Jefferson sank into a depression. She had no job, little money and a head full of painful memories. Her friends and family had dispersed around the country. And though she’d finally managed to be reunited with her son Zabian, who’d been released from juvenile detention, she felt she wasn’t providing enough for her kids. When Christmas arrived, she couldn’t afford to buy them presents. “I was just miserable,” she says. She tried to escape by way of the bottle, downing a half-dozen Mad Dogs—sweet alcoholic drinks—a day. But “I wasn’t feeling anything from it,” she says. “I still had this pain.”

After the New Year, Jefferson’s situation improved a bit. She received additional FEMA money to compensate for personal property damage and for her burned-out car. With the cash, she bought a new pickup truck and a trailer that could sleep four. Then she enrolled in a free six-week commercial truck-driving course to try to develop a new job skill. But after completing the class, she says no employer would hire someone without prior experience on the road. By now, Jefferson was giving up on Houston—a place that, in her mind, lacked not only opportunity but warmth. “Houston was nice to us,” she says, “but over a period of months, people get tired of you being there.”

In June, Jefferson decided to return with her kids to New Orleans. She craved the company of her loved ones. And on previous trips to the city, she had witnessed some signs of vitality that gave her a glimmer of hope. When she arrived, she installed herself and the kids at a friend’s place in Mid-City. During the day, she sought refuge from the sweltering weather in her friend’s air-conditioned home; but at night, the family had to resort to the stifling turquoise trailer Jefferson had brought from Houston. Almost immediately, she found work at Burger King. But more than two months later, she has yet to find an apartment she can afford, given the city’s skyrocketing rents.

These days, Jefferson is struggling to regain her footing. The city abounds with a feeling of loss. Her stepmother, whom she loved dearly, is presumed dead. And the Carrollton neighborhood where she used to live seems devoid of its soul. Before, “something was always happening, your friends were around, it was lively,” she says. “Now it’s dead.” Perhaps with time, Jefferson says, some of the old New Orleans magic will return. But until then, she has a hard time feeling like she’s home. “I really don’t know where to be,” she says. “It’s like I have to find myself all over again.”

© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.

Posted by Nuttshell on 08/29 at 02:54 PM in Blogging

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