Lafayette Postmaster Troy Southerland takes more than 30 relatives and friends into his four-bedroom Duson home following Hurricane Katrina.
Lafayette Postmaster Troy Southerland is working late. The computer system he's been using to assign post office box numbers to the hurricane evacuees staying in the Cajundome has crashed, and all of the mail has to be re-entered into the system.
Southerland doesn't leave the office until after 8 p.m. to make the 30-minute drive across town to his Duson home.
When he finally arrives home, it's 8:45 p.m. He doesn't expect dinner to be ready ' and he's not sure who will be here waiting for him. The living room walls are lined with boxes overflowing with loose clothes and blankets, stacked up all the way to the top of a piano in the corner. The house looks like it's in the process of being unpacked from a recent move.
Troy has lived here with his wife, Debra, and their two sons for the past 12 years. Lately, it's been a revolving door of relatives, in-laws, and friends of relatives. On the morning Katrina made landfall, the Southerlands had 31 people in the house. About a dozen people slept on the two sofas and the floor of the living room, covering every inch of the roughly 430-square-foot room. Troy's 13-year-old son Chad shared his room with nine other kids. "I walked in and the living room was covered wall to wall with people sleeping," Troy recalls.
All of the visitors were in dire need, with their own compelling stories. Troy's sister Brenda Okronglis is a nurse who came in after working at Lakeland Medical Center on Bullard Avenue in New Orleans for five days following the storm. She and her husband, Todd, were with a team of doctors and nurses who holed up on the second floor of the hospital when the waters came up and the power went out. They saved and evacuated most of their patients over the course of the next four days, even after looters had raided all the food and taken over the third floor. Brenda kept a detailed journal of the whole series of events, which remains traumatizing for her.
"She'll wake up in the middle of night crying, having bad dreams," Todd says. "She's doin' better lately, but the first two weeks afterwards she didn't sleep at all."
Brenda and Todd showed up at Southerland's house with another friend, Wayne, and his grandson, Nathan. Wayne's wife worked with Brenda at the hospital, and they were separated during the evacuation. Other non-relatives showed up, including the girlfriend of one of Southerland's nephews, who brought her brother, her mom, and her mom's boyfriend.
"It was very hectic," Brenda says. "All different attitudes and emotions."
With Southerland's nephew, Louis, came Alberto "Peanut" Arias, an energetic 31-year-old with Down Syndrome who is Louis' wife's brother. He's served as an inspiration to the entire family. Peanut had worked for the past six years at a McDonald's in St. Bernard Parish, never missing a day. "Was there in the morning before they started before he was supposed to be there," Troy says. "And stayed until after he was supposed to be gone. Every day for six years."
At Southerland's house, Peanut took out the trash and swept and mopped the kitchen floor every night. Then on some nights, he would don his new cowboy hat and boots, put on headphones and go out on the porch and sing and dance to R&B and country music.
"A lot of times he held the family together with things that he did," Southerland says. "He'd get on that back porch, and he would sing and dance, doing that from 8 o'clock to 11 o'clock at night. Great attitude, just a fantastic kid."
But with a house full of evacuees, it isn't always easy to be cheerful, and tonight is no exception. Troy's sister Leah is nervously relaying the update on their mother's health. She's scheduled to have heart surgery tomorrow, and there's concern over whether a new pacemaker will be able to correct her condition. Troy's wife, Debra, has a headache and is lying down in the back bedroom.
Troy's sister-in-law, Brenda, is a Chalmette native who speaks with the New Orleans East Yat accent, and she has one bit of good news: "Well Troy," she says, "Ya losin' another person. I'm movin' out on ya."
A lot of people have been moving out of Southerland's house lately. Ten family members are now staying in an apartment offered rent-free through the end of the year by a Duson landlord who heard of the family's situation. Seven others left the previous week and are living in unused commercial office space that has shower facilities.
Nearly all of Troy's family lived in St. Bernard Parish, which was decimated by Hurricane Katrina. Most of them came to the house with little baggage, assuming they'd be staying for a couple of days. Through the past week that they have been here, Brenda and her husband, Troy's brother, Danny, have kept their two small suitcases of clothes packed in the trunk of Brenda's car.
"Since we were sharing a room with the kids, we didn't want to take up any more of their space for toys and all," Brenda says. "So we just left our clothes in the trunk of the car, and every night I'd go in and get my clothes out and bring it in, usually just an outfit to iron, some clean clothes."
One night after coming home from work, Troy saw Brenda in his driveway fishing clothes from her trunk.
"And he looks at me he says, 'What are you doing?'" Brenda recalls. "I said, 'I'm just rearranging my closet.'"
The next day, Troy brought both of them out in the driveway and told Brenda to pop her trunk.
"He figured [the closet] was bare," Brenda adds. "So he went and got an LSU poster, and he somehow snuck into my trunk, and he taped it in my car and that was my first decoration in my closet."
Tomorrow, Brenda plans on finally unpacking her trunk at a small new apartment she luckily found through a friend of a friend in Baton Rouge, which will bring the Southerland household down to 12.
A couple of the house guests stayed just one night; others have been here for weeks. Some of them, like Troy's mother, have been in and out of the hospital. It's hard to keep track of everyone, even when you live in the house. Troy, his sister Leah, and son Chase try to reconstruct events and people:
"The first night there was 31 of us ' "
"And then you had that guy Wayne and his grandson ' "
"And Brenda and Danny and Brenda and Todd ' "
"The first night 31 and that went, let's see, that went ' "
"We lost Vita for a few days ' "
"Vita went in the hospital, and my mom went in the hospital ' "
"We had two of 'em go in the hospital ' "
"And then I went in the hospital the next week," Chase says. In the middle of all of the commotion at the Southerland house, Chase was misdiagnosed with leukemia and wound up in Women's and Children's Hospital.
"He went in the children's ward, and he was the only person in there, so they took care of him like he was a king," Troy says, now able to laugh at the episode. "I mean food and nurses all over and everything for that one day."
The household has managed to pull together under the extraordinary circumstances. Showers and carpools were scheduled loosely according to the family hierarchy and what time people got up in the morning to go to jobs and school.
"The showers were kind of scheduled," Troy says. "Luckily I have a 52-gallon hot water tank that recovers quickly."
Soon after the house swelled to more than 30 occupants, the kids that held backyard football games outside during the day found it wasn't easy to run in and take showers afterwards. So they improvised. A group of about six of the boys began taking their showers outside with a hose in their underwear.
"One day we got dirty, so that's why we had to take a shower outside," recalls Brett, Troy's nephew. "And then we just decided to keep on taking showers outside."
Meals are also impromptu.
On this particular night, after changing into shorts, a sleeveless shirt and slippers, Troy starts cooking hamburgers in a skillet on the stove. It doesn't take long before one of his nephews runs up to him. "Who is that for?" he asks.
"Who's that for?" Troy repeats. "Well, probably two of them are for me and the rest of 'em, I don't know. You'll have to fight over 'em."
"Basically that's the way it's been," Troy adds, motioning at the stove. "I just cooked. And they ate," he says, arching his eyebrows.
He's still in disbelief over the amount of food consumed in this house over the past month.
"At one time we had seven gallons of milk in that refrigerator," he says. "Seven gallons of milk and two days later we were going to the store to buy milk."
"Well, we're growing kids," reasons his 14-year-old son Chase. "We need lots of calcium."
At one time, there were 13 growing kids in the house, ranging in age from 7 to 18.
"This is what we cooked in most of the time," Troy says, holding up a hefty old Magnalite roasting pan that dished out hearty meals of meatballs and red beans.
"The first day they called and said they were comin'," he remembers, "I put on three pounds of red beans in a big pot. Then I found out that they were bringing some other people, so I put on another pot with two pounds of red beans in it. So I cooked 5 pounds of red beans the first day that they got here, thinking that would carry us. And that wasn't enough. It just wasn't enough."
The houseguests chip in however they can. Most have registered for food stamps to contribute to grocery purchases.
Other people in the community have reached out to them. One neighbor, Darlene Chiasson, was particularly instrumental in securing donations for the family. She collected bags of clothes and food from her co-workers at the Rehabilitation Hospital of Acadiana and brought over gift certificates from Wal-Mart, Foley's and Target. "And she continues to do things," Troy says. "She doesn't stop."
During the day, the houseguests usually filter out. Troy helped Danny and his brother-in-law Robert, both 30-year veterans of the New Orleans postal service, get jobs with the Lafayette post office. They've been working together at the Cajundome helping to sort mail for fellow evacuees staying in the shelter.
Delivering mail to the evacuees is therapeutic for the Southerland brothers, especially with their home life so uncertain, and it also comforts the displaced residents living in the Cajundome.
"It calmed a lot of people down," says Troy. "It made them feel that the post office was part of what was going on in their lives. When you can bring them their check or you can bring them their mail, it gives them some normalcy in their lives. That's why the post office has worked so hard to get back in place and start delivering the mail. It makes people feel like somebody is trying to assist them, that things are getting back to normal."
Troy cites Danny and Robert's jobs as examples of the challenges the postal service is facing.
"They both work [airmail] at the [New Orleans] airport," he says. "The airport's getting ready to open. They need to go back to work. But how do you go back to work when there's no place to stay because your house was under water? It's the same thing with a carrier. He's going to go deliver in Metairie, but he lives in St. Bernard and got no place to stay, so how do you put him back to work? There's no place for them to go."
Since Hurricane Katrina and now Rita, the Lafayette Postal Service has been taking on more and more of the mail that normally runs through Lake Charles and New Orleans ' mail containing paychecks and medicine for the poor and elderly. The Cajundome now has its own zip code, and the post office has been trying to ensure that all shelter residents are assigned a box number and tracked on a computer system. Troy estimates about 3,000 pieces of mail right now are slated for the Cajundome. "A lot of that mail is for people that are no longer in the Cajundome," he says. "We don't know where they are. It's getting harder and harder to manage it."
Southerland has been working 12-15 hour days since Katrina and Rita, and he's only had a day and a half off since Labor Day. The mail situation is one of many weighing heavily on the family's minds now.
"My mother's in the hospital getting ready to get a pacemaker put into her," says Danny. "My sister, she spends every night with her up at the hospital. My brother-in-law and myself, we're back and forth. It gets difficult, but at least we're all living."
The Southerlands have an acute sense of family and survival. Troy, the oldest, and his three siblings grew up in a housing project in New Orleans' Irish Channel. Their mother and father separated while they were all still very young, after which the father was rarely seen.
"He didn't do a whole hell of a lot for us as kids," Troy says. "My mom worked two jobs, and often she ate whatever was left from after we ate. It made us closer, and it made me more like a father than a brother. I'd get home from school and make sure everybody did their homework and dishes and fed them."
When asked if anyone in the household ever thought about going to stay at one of the shelters, Troy adamantly states, "There wasn't anybody going to leave here to go to a shelter. That wasn't anything that was even thought about or talked about. We've always been close. We have our tiffs, but we always have been family. I always talk about community. And to me, community is like family. You do things to take care of your community; you do things to take care of your family. And had my son come here with his in-laws, we'd have had 45 people here. Whatever it took to get it done."
The Southerlands lost one family member during Hurricane Katrina. "That was my son's wife's sister," says Troy. "She had a heart attack when the water was coming up. Passed away. Her husband wrapped her in Visqueen, tagged the Visqueen. Put her in his pickup truck, closed and locked the doors before he escaped and told [the police] where to find her when they rescued him, and they knew. They knew who she was and where to find her. Now that makes it tough when you gotta walk away. That was the only person we knew of in the family that passed away. So as bad as it is, it could always be worse."
Despite losing everything, Danny echoes the sentiment. "There's always someone worse off than you," he says. "My brother could've said no, but they opened their arms and invited us all to come stay with them which is great because, uh, sometimes you don't have families like that."
Danny and Brenda anticipate going back to St. Bernard Parish when officials open up their neighborhood to residents who want to see their homes. They've already seen pictures that relatives brought back of the devastation. Brenda says her son-in-law warned her not to go because it would be too upsetting.
"But I told him I had to go just for closure," she says.
"Everybody that we know that went down there, they said you just have to see it," adds Danny. "Pictures aren't enough."
Settling into the kitchen, Troy is relieved to find that the entire newspaper is waiting for him, a sign that at least some things are slowly getting back to normal. Over the past few weeks, finding the entire paper has been a rarity.
"I'd get in and maybe I'd find the sports, maybe I wouldn't," he says. "The front page may be here, may be gone. Some of it I'd find in the trash can."
Everybody in Troy's family has similar pet peeves and sacrifices to make for the family. The house is hot. People snore, cry, and have nightmares. Sometimes they take too long in the bathroom. The guests constantly ask where to find all the basic household items.
But the example set by Troy Southerland keeps the household running. And his sons are navigating these difficult times with the same resolve their father showed as a child. "Sometimes it's just a little confusing around here," says 13-year-old Chad. "It was kind of pandemonium. Everybody else had a demand. So I just had to try and help them. It was great to help them."