Community provides for refugee family

Although the cold winters and sometimes gray skies of the Elm City may play host to complaints from residents and visitors alike, the city has proved a welcome haven for one family who recently relocated here after fleeing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Less than six months ago, the hurricane forced Theresa Morrison and her 17-year-old daughter to leave their home in New Orleans. After the storm, Morrison said, the family was separated and shuffled from state to state before finally settling in West Haven and establishing a career working for Yale University Dining Services.

After staying in a state-sponsored recovery home for a few weeks, Morrison and her daughters, 17-year-old Tameika and 18-year-old Desiray, were finally able to move into an apartment in West Haven along with Morrison’s fiance. While her older daughter, who had already been living in West Haven for several years, remained at West Haven High School, her younger daughter enrolled as a sophomore at the Sound School, a public magnet school in New Haven. And, at the suggestion of a family member, Morrison secured a job with YUDS, where she has been working for the past few months.

Once she arrived in West Haven, Morrison said she was immediately overwhelmed by the number of people offering their help. Upon arrival, she had already been assigned multiple case workers, and was given clothes, vouchers and food stamps. This assistance, though generous, was difficult to accept, Morrison said.

“You’re starting from scratch,” she said. “You’re trying not to feel sorry for yourself, but eventually it’s just frustrating. You’re not used to begging for anything, and now all of a sudden you’ve got to rely on other people for everything.”

Before Katrina, no storm had ever prompted Morrison or her daughter, Tameika, to leave the state. While some people left the city every time a hurricane warning was issued, Morrison said she always stayed home and waited the storm out. But this time, she said, it was different.

“This time, something just said you gotta leave — I’m just glad I did what my heart told me to do,” she said.

Because she was concerned about her daughter but could not immediately leave her job, Morrison said, her sister, nephew and younger daughter left New Orleans, agreeing to communicate again once they were settled. Although she only anticipated being separated for a few days, Morrison did not hear news from her daughter for another three weeks.

When Morrison was finally able to leave New Orleans the Sunday before the storm hit, she climbed into her car and drove to Crestview, Fla. Though this is typically a three-hour trip, Morrison spent 12 hours driving inbound on the outbound lane of a highway lined with miles of traffic and policed by the National Guard.

Morrison’s first week in Florida was spent in a hotel as she struggled to survive on the $30 she had brought with her, and on some money another sister was wiring to her from Tennessee. It was two weeks before the Red Cross was able to offer financial assistance, and when she was handed her first voucher, Morrison broke into tears.

“‘This has got to be a nightmare,’ I’d thought. You have a job, you have a routine, and all of a sudden in the blink of an eye you don’t have it,” Morrison said.

During her stay in Florida, Morrison said she had been in contact with her older daughter Desiray, who was living in West Haven at the time, through text messages, the only form of communication possible, given the disrupted phone lines. Living with Morrison’s mother-in-law, Desiray was pleading with her mother to come to Connecticut, Morrison said. But Morrison refused to leave Florida until she heard from her other daughter.

After a month in Florida, Morrison’s sister in Nashville, Tenn., was able to contact the rest of Morrison’s family. Assured of her family’s safety, Morrison drove up to Connecticut to be reunited with her fiance and two daughters.

Morrison and her daughters are still adjusting to the Elm City. Morrison, who said she misses the little things about New Orleans the most, is still searching for Southern-style fried chicken, and her younger daughter, she said, has voiced discontent about the cold New England weather. Although the Morrisons are used to New Orleans’ warmer weather, Tameika’s assistant principal has praised her progress.

“This is unlike anything she’s experienced,” said Eric Yuhas, the assistant principal at the Sound School. “She really jumped in with both feet when she came in. She’s got a very engaging personality … and she’s really doing well.”

The guidance department at the school, which enrolls fewer than 350 students, checks in on her regularly, monitoring her progress and helping her assimilate, Yuhas said.

Although many of her family members have returned to New Orleans, Morrison said she plans to stay in West Haven. Before leaving Florida, Morrison had returned to New Orleans to assess the damage to her home. She found it in shambles.

“You see it on television, but when you actually see it in person, you think, ‘This cannot be real,'” she said. “Everything was just grey and black — no colors, no nothing. It looked like a ghost town.”

Although she said many of her relatives plan on returning to New Orleans, Morrison said the readjustment will not be easy.

“It’s still going to take a while for people to piece their lives together,” she said. “You can’t do it in a couple of months.”

In the meantime, Morrison and her daughters, who will be applying to college in the next couple of years, have stayed in contact with friends and family via the Internet and plan on visiting their former home during Yale’s spring break. Morrison also said she is looking forward to two family weddings, which are scheduled for June. She said the weddings will reunite many of the relatives and friends who have been separated by hundreds of miles and multiple state lines since Katrina hit in late August.

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