NEW ORLEANS — Hurricane Katrina displaced more than a million people along the Gulf Coast and chased nearly half of New Orleans’ residents from the city. Most left because their homes or jobs were gone. Others feared another storm.
Many eventually made their way home. Some never went back.
Three generations of the Higgins-Chester family followed different paths in the storm’s aftermath. John Higgins immediately returned to New Orleans with his wife, Carol. "This is where we belong," he said.
His daughter, Karen, resettled in Virginia with her husband, Ralph, and two teenaged sons. The couple remain in Charlottesville today. But their boys, Daniel and Stephen, have moved back to city they could never shake as home.
"I have something to pay to this city," said Daniel. "It gave me my childhood."
The hurricane scattered thousands of families when it tore through New Orleans. Ten years later, one family is still finding its way home.
Daniel Chester always knew he would return to New Orleans. The food, the people, the relaxed atmosphere — it was all too good to give up by choice.
The then-eighth grader, his big brother, and their parents drove to Charlottesville after they were forced to evacuate their home. Despite living there for five years, Charlottesville would never feel like home for Daniel.
"I never really committed to being there," he said. "I didn’t ever wrap my mind around not going back to New Orleans, because I always knew I would."
Ten years later, Daniel is 23 and a second-year medical student at Louisiana State University Medical School in downtown New Orleans. He made the decision to go to LSU in part because he felt as though he owed the city something.
"I feel indebted to the city to a degree because the city went through a really rough time and I left it, I was not here." He said. "I felt very desperately I needed to come back."
Daniel remembers visiting his grandparents' house, crawfish boils, celebrations and trips to the bayou growing up. Katrina ended all of that.
Once in Virginia, Daniel noticed his dad and brother having a particularly hard time adjusting to the family’s new home. His father was out of work for two months, and his brother, then a senior in high school, struggled with feeling cheated out of his last year of school in his hometown.
“The hardest part for me was really the lack of closure,” Stephen Chester said. “Senior year of high school, it’s supposed to be a fun time celebrating times with your friends, the final hoorah before you all go off to college, so I felt cheated out of that experience and those last, fond memoirs of high school.”
Stephen, now 27, is currently studying abroad in Australia but is set to return to New Orleans for the second half of medical school in the University of Queensland-Ochsner Clinical Program.
Daniel looks forward to reuniting with his brother in New Orleans — and his parents’ eventual return.
"They're coming back," he said. "I'd be annoyed if they didn’t, but there is just no way that would happen. They want to be here with my grandparents. I know they are going to want to be with me and my kids someday."
Memories from afar
Karen Chester won’t argue. She misses her native city. She misses the food, the city’s relaxed personality, the friendly faces and the house she grew up in.
She misses her dad "stopping by for no good reason and having a cup of coffee in the morning."
"I miss, and knew I would always miss, having all of the family and extended family over for holidays," said Karen.
But fond memories don’t put food on the table, and the storm wrecked Ralph Chester’s child psychiatry practice. After the storm, Ralph was out of work for nearly two months. The fear of not being able to provide for his family was overbearing.
"I thought 'This is going to kill me, I’ll leave my kids and spouse penniless, who will take care of my family? Who is going to treat my patients?'" he said.
In the end, the couple sold Karen's childhood home so that they could buy a house in Virginia, rebuild Ralph’s practice and get the boys into school.
"But for Hurricane Katrina, we’d still be in New Orleans, we had no desire to leave." Karen said. "Now Charlottesville is home, but it was never a choice. Leaving New Orleans wasn’t a choice."
Karen, 56, admits that if their sons truly end up settling in New Orleans, the lure of family could draw her back.
"Between my dad and my boys being there, we wouldn’t hesitate to be more aggressive in moving back to New Orleans."
John Higgins left New Orleans for a total of four days — and that was only because of a mandatory order to evacuate his Jefferson Parish home.
After spending four days in Lake Charles, Higgins and his wife, Carol, went back. They were lucky to find no damage to their property.
"There was never a thought of even considering living somewhere else after Katrina, that never entered my mind," he said. "I was retired, so I could have found other places to go, I guess, but I didn’t want to."
Good food, parties, and genuine people keep Higgins, a retired plumber, in the city.
"I’ve lived in New Orleans all of my life within a five-mile radius," said Higgins, 82. "It’s sort of a small community, you see people that you know that you went to grammar school with, high school with, places of business, wherever you travel throughout New Orleans."
Higgins’ parents were both born in New Orleans and it is where he raised his children and enjoyed watching his grandchildren grow up before the storm.
"We didn’t come back to damage, but I did lose my grandchildren, that was a big thing," Higgins said. "They were born and raised here also, and I used to make all of their school functions with them and sports, but consequently they really had nothing to come back to because of the damage that was done in New Orleans."
Higgins is happy to have his grandsons around again. He says he thinks it is just a matter of time before his daughter follows suit.
"Where her two boys settle is where she will settle,” he said, “and both the boys are coming back here."
Carol, originally from Natchez, Mississippi, understands her husband’s love for the city.
"I don’t think even another Katrina could get him out of New Orleans."