Hundreds of evacuees arrived in the Charlotte region, but not everyone stayed.
At 90, Everlene Smith is the matriarch of her sprawling Louisiana family.
So 10 years ago, as Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans, when she sounded the order to go to Charlotte – where daughter Daisy Barthelemy and her husband, Ron, lived – her family obeyed.
More than 60 members of Smith’s family – four generations – arrived in a city most had never seen.
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Their story was similar to those across the region. Suddenly, boxes of clothes of all sizes, sleeping bags and air mattresses were dropped off at the Barthelemys’ house by members of University Hills Baptist Church. Neighbors brought meals.
“Coming to Charlotte was like a fresh breath of air,” Mae Brock, one of Smith’s 15 children, said this week. “The people made Charlotte for me. They made it remarkably, surprisingly, a wonderful experience for my humongous family. You just didn’t think there was any place on Earth where there were people who wanted to help with such sincerity.
“They were open-handed and open-hearted. It was a collision of cultures, but that didn’t matter to the people of Charlotte, North Carolina.”
For weeks, 30 family members packed into the Barthelemys’ house off Mallard Creek Church Road until they found their own places. After they settled, they clung to family – gathering for gumbo and a Saints football game.
The people made Charlotte for me. They made it remarkably, surprisingly, a wonderful experience for my humongous family.
Mae Brock, evacuee from New Orleans
Smith had her own house, but she missed Louisiana, where she was known as the Angel of St. Bernard Parish, housing the poor in a dozen apartments that were washed away by the storm.
“She was sad,” Brock said. “New Orleans has its own culture, and it’s hard to purge. She wanted to go back.”
Smith and husband Willie had little to go back to. Her house was underwater. Yet when she and others returned to St. Bernard Parish three months later, the pull was too great, and she and Willie stayed.
Most of the others hung on in Charlotte, getting jobs and settling into their new lives. The family’s first member born outside Louisiana arrived. They all tried to become Charlotteans.
But with Smith back home, most felt the same pull. Gradually most of the family moved back to Louisiana and live within 50 miles of their matriarch. Only a few remain in Charlotte.
“It was hard for them to transition,” said Daisy Barthelemy, who moved to Dallas for her job. “As much as Charlotte was a positive experience, they couldn’t adjust. They were unhappy.”
In the 10 years since the storm, three of Smith’s children died. Great-grandchildren were born. And Brock returned to St. Bernard Parish to finish her master’s degree in social work. She lacked a few courses to graduate when Katrina drove her north.
The storm took her home, and years of work, including two book manuscripts – one her autobiography. Now she’s recovering from injuries she suffered when a car hit her and the driver fled. She’s contemplating rewriting her autobiography. It would include the hit-and-run and her family’s time in Charlotte.
“Charlotte is an important chapter to our lives,” she said. “The people there helped us work our way through this tragedy called Hurricane Katrina.”