Clovis News

Katrina victims impressed by Valley's hospitality

Five years ago, Katrina turned life in New Orleans upside down.

More than a few got right-side up in the Valley, turning to relatives and friends to help them regain their footing.

Many marveled at the generosity and compassion they were shown upon arriving here. And many talked of the unimaginable: returning to New Orleans.

And yet, that's where The Bee found a half-dozen of them this past week, Louisianans (and one transplanted Fresnan) who are home again for better or for worse.

Here are their stories.

Longing for Fresno

Calvin and Nicole Thomas grabbed a few clothes and fled their flood-ravaged New Orleans neighborhood for refuge with relatives in Fresno.

The couple returned in April 2006. Now divorced and plagued by job and health woes, they both yearn for what might have been if they had stayed in Fresno.

"I don't even like talking about it," says Nicole, who now uses her maiden name, Nicole Charlot. "My daughter is the only positive."

Nicole, 29, was pregnant with Thai Li Z'Miracle Thomas when she and Calvin arrived in Fresno to stay in an apartment with Calvin's cousins Khadijah and Zakiyyah Abdul-Mateen.

Nurses organized a baby shower on Oct. 27, 2005, in the waiting room of the Women's Health Center at then-University Medical Center.

While they were in Fresno, Calvin, a union carpenter, got a construction job and worked part-time at a raisin factory. Nicole stayed home with Thai Li.

Fresno was "awesome," Calvin says. "I had a great time. It was nice, clean, friendly." Nicole also liked Fresno -- but she was lonely. She missed her family.

So they went home -- to an apartment that was looted, windows broken and doors off their hinges, Calvin says. Dogs had been inside, and the floor was littered with feces, Nicole says.

Calvin, 28, began to show signs of stress. Symptoms of sickle cell anemia, a blood disease, resurfaced after being in check for several years. He no longer can do carpentry work, and is unemployed.

"I wish I hadn't come back," Calvin says.

Nicole went to school to be a medical assistant, but she hasn't found work in the field. Instead, she has a lower-paying home-care job. "I'm about to move in with one of my friends, because I can't afford my rent," she says.

Thai Li is in school, and Nicole says it would be easier to live apart from her family. Someday, she would like to return to Fresno.

Calvin hopes to get a degree in computer drafting design, and then he, too, wants to leave New Orleans, most likely to live again in Fresno. "I would just like a new start away from home, like I did before."

-- Barbara Anderson

Beautiful music

When the house he was renting filled with 16 feet of water, Loren Pickford figured it was time to head back to Fresno.

Pickford, a jazz musician and Fresno native, had lived in New Orleans since 1991.

He never made it to Fresno. He only got as far as Kansas City before his car broke down. So for the next four years, he and his wife stayed there.

At the time, in Fresno, local musicians held a benefit concert in his honor. The money raised helped him get back on his feet.

"We lost all of our personal possessions," Pickford says. "I don't complain because I have so many friends who lost more. I had a friend -- six of her 10 children drowned. You can't complain about stuff when you know so many people who lost their people."

It wasn't until this year that Pickford finally went "home" -- and by that he means New Orleans. But he wouldn't have made it without more help from his Fresno connection.

Pickford, 65, played a series of Fresno concerts in December that earned him enough money to move back to New Orleans, where he says his life is almost back to normal.

"The musicians are doing great," says Pickford, who plays saxophone. "All of the places got music. So we're back working again."

This weekend, for example, he is playing in a Hurricane Katrina anniversary concert at the House of Blues; actor Brad Pitt is supposed to attend.

Since returning to New Orleans, Pickford has played with John Boutte, who did the theme song to "Treme," the post-Katrina HBO drama that recently wrapped its first season. Pickford also played on the show's soundtrack.

"I feel like it's fully back, man," Pickford says. "New Orleans is jumping."

-- Mike Osegueda

Long road to recovery

Ray and Gail Vincent left New Orleans with three changes of clothing and $30.

They meandered to Clovis, where they were invited to stay with Ray's brother, Adolph Vincent, and his wife, Ollie. The hospitality was overwhelming, Gail says -- people showed up with clothing and money, even before they arrived. "They did everything to ease our situation," she says of Fresno-area people.

Eighty-one days later, they went home to a house that had been 9 feet underwater. There was no clean water or electricity service in their devastated neighborhood, and "after the water went down, the mold just ate everything," Gail says.

It wasn't until the end of 2008 that their home was rebuilt -- one of only a few in their part of the Ninth Ward.

Ray Vincent is working as a salesman, but Gail Vincent, who suffers from hypertension and post-traumatic stress disorder, is on disability leave from her bank job. Her stress, she says, escalates with every newly named hurricane.

She admits it would have been easier to stay in Fresno, but "New Orleans was home."

-- Marc Benjamin

Building a life here

Christopher Vincent, Ollie and Adolph Vincent's son, was preparing for his last semester at Xavier University of Louisiana. He graduated, but it took 18 months at Fresno State, Fresno Pacific and Fresno City College to get the classes he needed.

Floodwaters cost him nearly everything, including his car; he saved some trinkets and photos, "but no clothes, no books, no anything."

Last year, he married his Xavier University sweetheart, Kalona, who is from Palo Alto. Today, he is in Fresno preparing for the LSAT law school exam in October and leasing a barber shop and U-Haul business in Fresno's Chinatown.

He has returned to New Orleans twice and is upset by what he has seen, saying some areas look "like Haiti footage."

-- Marc Benjamin

Culture shock

Travis Landry ended up in Visalia with his two children in tow. They stayed with his brother, Leon Landry, a correctional officer, who says he understood how foreign California felt to his brother, a lifelong New Orleans resident.

"He was out of his element. I told him, 'There's no po' boys here,' " Leon Landry recalls, referring to a submarine sandwich popular in New Orleans.

After an article ran in The Bee about the family's ordeal, several people tracked down Travis Landry and gave him cash to help him out, his brother says. He returned to New Orleans with the money and got his life started again.

-- Lewis Griswold

Solid ground

Latavia Johnson never had been to Fresno, but that's where her boyfriend was from and it was far safer than the Gulf Coast where they both were going to college.

Now she is married to Buchanan High graduate Jimmie Johnson III, they have a 15-month-old son, and next year Jimmie will transfer to an air base in Biloxi, Miss., making a full circle.

Latavia and Jimmie moved to Fresno within a week of Katrina. In 2007, she graduated from Fresno City College with high honors, a 3.8 grade-point average and a dean's medallion.

"My classmates and teachers were very welcoming," she says. "I was coming to a foreign place and it was hard for me. They really helped me cope and welcomed me with open arms."

-- Marc Benjamin

Lasting impressions

Even after his family returned to New Orleans following a 21/2-month stay in Clovis back in 2005, James Hayes stayed behind an extra six months.

He had come here with 14 others, family and friends who needed a place to stay and found refuge at the home of Charles and Allysunn Williams.

James made new friends at Buchanan High School and enjoyed going to school for a change. He was playing organized football for the first time in his life.

"They elected him co-captain," his aunt, Allysunn Williams, recalls. "He really liked it here. He would say things like, 'We never met white people like the ones we met here.' There was a wonderful sense of community for the first time in their life. They were treated like human beings and not poor black folk.

"It's an experience he'll always remember, something we'll all remember."

Today, Hayes is back home with his family. Allysunn and Charles Williams have divorced, but she stays in contact with Hayes and his family, who are related to Charles.

Allysunn recalls only positive memories.

Sure, it was difficult to pay in cash for 15 people to fly from New Orleans to Fresno on a moment's notice. And there was the strain on the household.

"All our food in the house was gone in three days," she says.

But with help through the family's church, Northside Christian, and random donations, Hayes and his family and friends were taken care of.

"Would I open my house to 15 people in need of help if I had to again? I'd do it every single time if I had to," Williams says. "We just wanted to help them rebuild their lives.

"I think our community showed its true heart then. A kid like James won't forget that."

-- Bryant-Jon Anteola