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An unprecedented migration

It’s as if Katrina’s strong winds scattered the better part of a million people across the country.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

They are the newest residents of Texas, California, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, among many other states.

They’re arriving, fresh off the bus with little or nothing in their hands. They call the Gulf Coast home, but they have almost nothing to go home to.

It’s as if Katrina’s strong winds scattered the better part of a million people across the country.

Victoria Vaughn and her kids landed in San Diego. Until this trip, none of them had ever been on an airplane. An office worker, Vaughn was studying to be a nurse. She and her family were living paycheck to paycheck in Jefferson Parish. Now they are about to start over in a state where they don’t know a soul. “I hope fine, I hope it will work out,” she says.

So many are carrying with them the same dream: that moving on will work out, especially since moving back may not be an option.

Bayou culture, a different one
Shari Julian is a psychotherapist who has taught both in New Orleans, and now at the University of Texas in Arlington. She’s been working with evacuees at reunion arena in Dallas.

“Not only are the people that are being evacuated not really prepared for the realities of what they’re going to face, but the communities that are receiving them are not prepared for the uniqueness of Louisiana culture,” says Julian.

New Orleans has culture that draws in the tourists, but that same eclectic mix of customs, food, religions, language, and ritual also sets residents of the Bayou state apart.

“There will be things that Louisianans will do that will be misunderstood,” says Julian. “They’re a happy, fun-loving people. And in some of the communities that they’re going to, things are a lot more straight-laced, shall we say.”

This is also a place where families tend to live for generations without moving outside the area. That is until now.

An unplanned social experiment
This exodus of residents from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast amounts to a huge unplanned social experiment, with one important difference from some of the migrations that preceded it: This group didn’t get to make the choice about when to leave or where to go for a better life. They were simply wrenched out of their homes, and many had little, if any, say in where they ended up.

It’s a mistake for cities to take in these families without providing adequate counseling says Julian.

“You’re sending out a traumatized population scattered throughout the United States, people that have been just terribly wounded,” she says.

Victoria Vaughn says she’s not worried because her future is in God’s hands.

Toni Atkins is worried because faith won’t balance San Diego’s budget.

“This is something like the city has never experienced,” she says. Atkins is the acting mayor of San Diego, a city with at least 600 new residents, all of whom will need some kind of help.

“They need a safe space to call home in order to go job-searching, in order to get their kids enrolled in school, in order to find a church to go to, in order to recreate their lives,” says Atkins.

And all this is not inexpensive.

Vaughn says she earns anywhere between $450 to $500. It was tough to live a life on $450, let alone start a new life.

It’s about to get tougher. California is a much more expensive place to live — and Victoria doesn’t have that paycheck coming in yet.

Will they wear out their welcome?
And the longer it takes to turn evacuees into taxpayers, the more likely it is the evacuees will begin to wear out their welcome, wherever they end up.

Former first lady Barbara Bush has already faced criticism for a remark in a radio interview, where she said, “What I’m hearing, which is sorta scary, is that they all want to stay in Texas. Everybody is so overwhelmed by the hospitality,” she said.

But Shari Julian says it does reflect a sentiment that will accompany long-term care for evacuees.

“I think that there are some people that feel that way. I don’t know that they would frame it in the way that Mrs. Bush did. But I think in time, as time goes on, we will see more and more of that,” says Julian.

Concerns about the evacuees could also grow when cities discover that they’re opened their arms not only to hard-working transplants, but also to the Gulf Coast’s troubles. For example, there were  nearly 1,400 registered sex offenders in New Orleans the day Katrina hit. Tonight, almost all of them are living somewhere else.

“You’re going to inherit problems as well as heart-warming stories about families and success stories,” says Atkins. “It’s just part and parcel.”

There is little with which to compare this. In the 1930s, a drought in the Midwest and southern plains sent thousands of starving farmers to California. Blacks started leaving the shattered South in the Civil War reconstruction that began in 1866.

But the United States was a different place then. This huge migration is truly unprecedented.

It will be a challenge to the evacuees as well as to the rest of us as America tries to do the right thing for its own, and live up to that inscription on a statue in New York harbor: "Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me."