Katrina survivors relive nightmare with Gustav

HOUSTON Never mind that Johnson and her husband, Michael, are painstakingly cobbling a life together in a modest four-bedroom house in a Houston neighborhood filled with other Katrina survivors.

So it is with growing anxiety, and twinges of pain born from memory and fear, that Johnson, 24, watched as Hurricane Gustav headed toward Louisiana.

Those twinges were echoed around the South as evacuees and survivors of the storm that nearly destroyed New Orleans almost exactly three years ago were rattled by the eerie similarities of Gustav to the path Katrina took before forever changing their lives.

Since Katrina, New Orleans lost about a third of its residents who left and never returned. Many ended up settling in Houston, Atlanta and other points across the South.

Johnson's in-laws still live in New Orleans, as do cousins, aunts, uncles, friends -- now in the path of another massive storm. One cousin is in the hospital. Another aunt had just started to rebuild her home in the Lower 9th Ward.

"It's been three years and New Orleans is not all the way back together. If another hurricane comes, it will just be even longer for New Orleans to get back," Johnson said. "We don't need another storm, putting more people out of their home again and leaving them to start from the beginning. I've been through that."

During Katrina, Johnson left New Orleans with her mother the day before the hurricane hit. Michael, then her fiance, stayed behind with his family.

Two days after the storm ravaged New Orleans, Michael Johnson was still without running water and electricity, as he tried to repair a flooded car. For two days, Tamika had no contact with him -- and was terrified that the worst had happened.

Then, Michael finally managed to start the car, get on the road to Texas, and contact Tamika.

Gustav was spinning toward the Gulf Coast with frightening strength and size, wavering between a Category 3 and 4 with hurricane winds extending out 50 miles and tropical storm force winds as far as 200 miles. It was projected to make landfall as early as Monday.

It appeared on a track to strike New Orleans. But storms are unpredictable and there was a chance Gustav could veer farther west and head toward the Houston area. If that happens, Johnson says she's prepared.

Her important documents and cherished photographs are stowed in a waterproof box. And she would be ready to evacuate.

"I had the mentality in New Orleans that a hurricane would come there because it hadn't come in years," said Johnson. "Now that I've been through it if they say leave, I'll leave. I have a baby now. I don't know where I'd go, but I'm going."

Chiq Simms left New Orleans for Atlanta after Katrina. A family wedding brought her back to New Orleans on Friday morning.

Sitting in a hotel room and watching the TV news, Simms grew sick to her stomach. It was not the way she planned to commemorate the third anniversary of the storm.

"I don't want to see this city get another one," Simms said, with sadness weighing down her voice. "We would've never thought that we could possibly be facing another Katrina in our lifetime. Even if it doesn't come, the frenzy of it all ... It's crazy. My home may never be the same again."

By that evening, she was on a flight headed back to Atlanta.

Even after Katrina, Doug and Mary Rockefeller didn't leave the New Orleans suburb they had called home for a decade. After spending a week in Texas, the couple returned to find their home had escaped catastrophic damage.

It was Hurricane Rita, three weeks later, that drenched St. Charles Parish with about a foot of rain after making landfall in western Louisiana.

"That was it," said 57-year-old Mary Rockefeller. "Doug said let's go up to Chattanooga and look for a house."

They moved in 2006.

On Saturday, from the Chattanooga suburb of Lakesite, Tenn., she waited for family members to arrive from New Orleans and watched intently the TV coverage of the evacuation.

"This is exactly why we moved," said Rockefeller, who is now retired. "So we would have a safe place for the children to come should they have to evacuate."

Even for those who keep coming back to New Orleans under improbable odds, Gustav may be the last straw.

A few days ago, Scott Jackson planned to spend the long holiday weekend in Louisiana working on his backyard deck and maybe building a gazebo.

Now, he's wondering where he and his wife can make a new life.

Jackson headed to Home Depot to return about $4,000 worth of lumber, and was talking with his wife about moving, maybe back to Louisville, or to Houston or Atlanta, where she has family.

"I love this city, but we can't keep going through this," said Jackson, who left New Orleans for Louisville, Ky., after Hurricane Katrina and just returned about a year ago. "After this time, I'm going to really be done with it."

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