NEW ORLEANS—They lost homes, neighbors and cherished communities to Hurricane Katrina. Some are uprooted, far from the only place they ever knew. Others have returned to the cities they love, to pick up the pieces and start over.
They will gather this Thanksgiving Day with family and friends to reflect back and look forward. But when tragedy scars the soul, what is left to be thankful for?
Blessings, it turns out. Big and small ones. A beloved city that is crippled but stands. Strangers who gave of themselves and became heroes, then friends. School, once a drag, now appreciated. A new life whose future had been uncertain.
Many who made it through the storm have a new understanding of what it means to give thanks. Here are some of their words.
"I'm thankful that I had a chance to make my life there."
— Raymond "Pops" Thomas, 91, New Orleans.
Just about everyone who's anyone in the restaurant business in New Orleans knows Raymond "Pops" Thomas. He started as an apprentice cook at the famed Roosevelt Hotel, back when Blacks needed permission from the boss to walk into the French Quarter after dark. As a chef, he spent a decade at Brennan's Restaurant, 12 years at Commander's Palace. He's still a food consultant at Acme Oyster House, where most afternoons he could be found chatting up the cooks, relishing life in the city he's called home since he was a boy. That is, until Katrina.
Since the storm, he's been living with his son outside of Los Angeles. Pops is grateful that his shotgun house back in New Orleans suffered only minor damage. And, of course, he's thankful for the roof over his head, for the care of his son and daughter-in-law. But he keeps thinking about going home.
"I'm thankful that I did live there a long time before all this happened. ... I'm thankful just for being in the city of New Orleans. ... I'm thankful that during the time that I was a young man that I was able to survive all the ... tribulation we had to go through. I'm just thankful for God just giving me life as it is ...
"The storm, it's just sort of one of those things that God gave me. And I was just thankful that I wasn't in the catastrophe that the people in the Ninth Ward was in. I was just above the water level ... the only thing that we got was just the wind and the rain."
"I'm just a New Orleans man. I'm just not a California person, you know? .... They say I'm too independent, but that's the way it is. ... When I'm in New Orleans, I have a place to go. I have two or three peers that I can go talk to. I walk around the corner. But here, you can't walk anywhere here. You have to have a car, and I can't drive. ... I can't get used to the climate. I can't get used to the food. ... There're these — watcha call it? — vegetarians. No salt. No pepper."
"New Orleans is all I know, it's all I know. ... I don't have no intention of going back home until after the first of the year, one way or another. ... But if I live, I'm going back home. I've been treated like a king, please believe me. ... I'm here, and I enjoy what I have to be with them, but I just want to be home."
"The folks stood with us and helped us stand up when we were down, and I'm just grateful for the United States of America and all the people who made our plight a part of their lives."
— Allen Calliham, 44, Waveland, Miss.
A self-described "Air Force brat," Allen Calliham never really had a hometown. Then, in early 2004, he moved to Waveland, Miss., to care for his elderly parents. When his father died and then his mother, in May, he inherited their place — the house that had become home. A few months later, Katrina washed away nearly everything inside.
Calliham saved some family photos, his grandmother's handmade quilts, his mother's paintings, but he figured the house itself was unsalvageable. Then one day a church group from New Hampshire showed up to carry ruined furniture and wallboard away. Their kindness gave him strength. He has $10,000 in insurance and government aid, and needs at least $50,000 to rebuild, but he's going to try.
Last Thanksgiving was a somber affair, coming two months after his father's death. But he, brother Gary and their mom watched the Dallas Cowboys as they always had. This year, Calliham and his brother won't have their folks, or Mom's punch with lime sherbet and ginger ale. But they'll watch their Cowboys, like always.
"The biggest thing I'm thankful for is that my brother and our friends and our fellow Wavelanders survived Katrina, and that we didn't lose as many of our neighbors as we feared we had."
"I'm thankful for my family and the help they've given me — my Aunt Chris, Aunt Adaline, Uncle David, Karen and her mom and dad, and the rest of the family. I'm thankful for my friends who ... sent me care packages — clothing and shoes."
"I'm thankful for the people who came from far away to help us: the Amish from Pennsylvania; Manchester Christian Church from New Hampshire saved my house; REMA (Rainbow Emergency Management Assembly), who came and stayed and fed the town; the Red Cross; the Baptists from Georgia; the Adventists; the National Guard; the great people from Florida. All the people who came and made it possible for us to survive."
"I'm thankful that I got home in time to have a year with my mom and dad before I lost them forever."
"I'm just really thankful that ... we still have a school to go to."
— Christa Ervin, 17, Long Beach, Miss.
Christa Ervin remembers a time when the kids at Long Beach High joked how great it would be if a storm destroyed their school, so they wouldn't have to go to class. Now, post-Katrina, the high school is one of the few local structures still intact; students elsewhere are attending classes in trailers.
On Nov. 5, in a dress she purchased over the summer, the Long Beach senior attended her last homecoming dance — a Hollywood-themed extravaganza organized by a group of Pennsylvania students who raised more than $30,000 to put on the dance, and then traveled to Mississippi with donated gowns, a deejay and door prizes. Senior year is supposed to be about graduating, getting out of school. But Christa's just happy to be back.
"To tell you the truth, we would hope for a hurricane to blow our school away. ... And I'm very thankful that my school is still there. These kids ... that are going in trailers, I know I couldn't imagine doing it. It would be hard ....
"You just don't think about stuff like that, because most hurricanes never do anything. ... I was so ready to start school and see everybody, just to know that everybody's OK.
"I really didn't think another school, or other students, would come down here and help us. I didn't even think to think of anything like that. For somebody to come down and get all that food and all the decorations we had. ... I don't know if we would've had one (a homecoming dance) if they wouldn't have come down here and done it for us. ... I think a lot more people went this year than any other years.
"I had my dress from the summertime. ... It was a black halter top and on the sides it was longer than the front and the back. But it was a shorter dress. It came, like, past my knees a little bit ... and in the middle it kind of went in a 'V' and then it had diamonds in the front going down."
— The Associated Press