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Katrina Moms Set Roots in Santa Monica

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

December 13 -- The stucco façade of the Comfort Inn is a far cry from the filigree architecture of New Orleans, but three women from the deep south who blew into town on the tailwinds of Katrina are happy to call the motel home.

Sharlotte Chism’s room is immaculate, the bedcovers arranged with military precision, and her two boys, Jordan and Destin, wear neatly pressed clothes, even after a long day at school.

Melody Gravel, with wavy long blonde hair and large eyes, lives upstairs with her eight-year-old daughter, Madison, and Melody’s boyfriend’s son, Devin. The only way you’d know she’s stressed is by the reddish circles around her eyes and the nervous way her hands fly when she talks.

Clovina Stein isn’t having an easy time either. Thursday evening, she stood on the balcony outside Melody’s room in tears. The weight of the holidays was just too much for Clovina and her husband, and they’d gotten in a fight at an auto repair shop up the street. Still, she thinks that Katrina may have brought them closer together.

Sharlotte Chism and sons Jordan and Destin (Photos by Ann K. Williams)

The three woman have had to summon the strength to keep a roof over their heads, land a job in a strange city and navigate a dysfunctional government bureaucracy, all the time traumatized by a cataclysm they can’t forget.

“It’s definitely different, it’s like a whole different world,” Sharlotte said. “New Orleans does things one way and California does it completely opposite.

“I am really going to miss Mardi Gras,” she added.

But when asked if they planned on going back, all the evacuees, including the kids, answered with an unhesitating and emphatic “no.”

“There’s nothing to go back to,” Clovina said.


Clovina waded through the waist-deep, foul waters of New Orleans carrying her sister’s baby boy without getting a drop on him, but that was just the beginning.

While they’ve received plenty of kindness from strangers, they have to scramble to keep their heads above water as they face deadline after deadline threatening to cut off their housing allowance.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has promised to keep paying for their rooms after the Red Cross payments they’ve been relying on run out on December 15. FEMA will cover hotel bllls for evacuees through February 7, thanks to a federal temporary restraining order, according to press reports.

But Sharlotte isn’t so sure. She still hasn’t gotten the $2,300 FEMA promised her months ago, and she’s had to re-fax the same paperwork almost every time she’s called the agency.

“I’m doing the same paperwork over and over every time I turn around,” Sharlotte said. Still, Sharlotte was philosophical about the delay. “It’s just the process,” she said.

Sharlotte’s understanding is that FEMA would eventually pay for her hotel room, but she’d have to come up with the money up front, which doesn’t really do her much good since she doesn’t have a job yet.

So she’s looking for both -- an apartment and a job. Her southern good manners may be a bit of a handicap, and she’s learning to be more forward, calling landlords more often than she feels is polite.

Melody’s a little luckier. She’s already gotten her first FEMA housing allowance and found an apartment in Hollywood.

“I really don’t want to live in that area,” Melody said, “but I don’t have a whole lot of a choice, trying to find a place in such a short time.”

Now she’s trying to find a job too, one that leaves her time for her kids.

“It’s hard to get a full-time job and be there, ‘cause the kids need somebody there, at least one of them, mom or dad,” Melody said.

”If you don’t, you wind up with all these little hoodlum kids running around in the street tearing up everything and vandalizing all kinds of people’s stuff.”

The good news is that the School District will let the kids keep going to Franklin Elementary School this year, no matter where they move.

The children had good things to say about their new school. They like their teachers, and the kids are nice to them.

Only the kids here “curse a lot,” Madison observed with arched eyebrows. And they use worse words than “crap,” she added.

Sharlotte’s boys “absolutely love” their new school. “You know they’ve been through so much and when they got here they made friends immediately,” Sharlotte said.

“The people here have been really nice, and trying to help in whatever way and just making us feel welcome and comfortable,” she said.


Of course, it’s not the same as New Orleans. But nothing is, after the deluge.

“You all never seen anything like that out here, you all don’t have hurricanes” Melody said, describing the 400-mile-wide storm. “That is huge, I mean, unbelievably huge.”

Clovina Stein, Devin, Melody Gravel and Madison

As the waters started to rise, Clovina and her sister and aunt made it out of the city in an SUV given to them on the spot by a woman who “didn’t even know my sister’s last name.”

Her brother had managed to get through to their hotel room in New Orleans on a landline and begged them to get out while there was still time.

“He was crying, just a grown man crying, so I knew he was serious,” Clovina said.

They had to wade four blocks in steadily rising water, carrying a six-month-old baby and a two-year-old girl.

“And I’m the klutz in the family,” said Clovina. “I took two steps, my shoes floated away. I didn’t drop the kid, though.”

“Yeah, the kid never touched the water,” said Melody.

Entire communities were obliterated by the storm, according to the women.

“The building I was living in is completely gone,” Clovina said. “It’s not even there, they couldn’t find it. FEMA couldn’t find it.”

“Just to see everything was horrible,” Sharlotte said. “Something you’ve known your whole life, it’s just not there... no signs of nothing there.”

“That’s it, the courthouse is gone, the post office is gone, the condos, they had condos right there on the beach, six stories high, they’re completely gone, the only thing that’s left is the pilings,” Melody added in a rush.

Officials say the water’s safe, but Sharlotte wouldn’t place too much store by that.

Neither would Melody and Clovina. They went back a month after the storm, and “it still stank so bad down in New Orleans you could smell the odor of dead people…lingering in the city.”

And prices are “skyrocketing” as local landlords and business owners take advantage of the situation.

One of her friends is renting a two-bedroom apartment for $2,400 a month that used to go for $600, Sharlotte said, and gas is more expensive on the Gulf Coast than it is here in California, according to Melody and Clovina.


They have no reason to believe it won’t happen again, if what they’ve heard about climate change is true.

“The global warming,” Melody said in response to a question about what caused such a big storm. She paused wide-eyed before answering as though it was such an obvious answer she couldn’t believe anyone would have to ask.

“That was enough for me,” she said. “I’ve seen many hurricanes, but I’ve never seen a hurricane like that. I know they’re just going to keep getting worse.”

So they -- along with their relatives who are scattered throughout the country -- are settling in for the long haul, reminiscent of the diaspora of the 1930s.

And they are entering this holiday season thankful. The children are looking forwards, not back, and eagerly share details of their new lives.

They are excited about playing in the Franklin School concert in January -- Jordan’s taking clarinet, and Devin’s got a trumpet.

Destin proudly showed off his new recorder, and Madison excitedly described that day’s field trip to the aquarium at the pier.

Their moms just want them to have a normal Christmas.

Santa’s list includes a “Fantastic Four” gamecube, skateboards and a punching bag for Sharlotte’s boys.

Melody hopes someone can help her get a roundtrip ticket to Rapid City, South Dakota so Madison can spend the holidays with her father and brothers whom she hasn’t seen since before the hurricane.

“I plan to look for a job and get my house straight,” Melody said. “That’s my plans for the holidays, and try to make (Madison’s) holiday as happy and pleasant as it can be with everything that she’s went through.”

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