Lisa Peacock never expected to live in Kansas.
Like many who fled Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago this weekend, leaving New Orleans one step ahead of the floodwaters, she expected to be back home in a few days.
Only after the full flowering of the disaster at home, and a few days of uncertainty in Arkansas, did Peacock drive her children, her mother and a friend to her brother’s home in Olathe. Family ties led hundreds of evacuees to the Kansas City area. Peacock never left.
“We’re still here,” Peacock said at her home in Overland Park. “We’ve settled here.”
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Peacock’s experience is not uncommon among those who escaped Hurricane Katrina. Though the waters receded, some lost too much to go back and decided to put down roots inland instead.
It is hard to get farther inland than this. About 4,000 displaced people came to Missouri, and a smaller portion made it to Kansas City. Most came the same way Peacock’s family did — seeking shelter with a relative. Instead of a caravan of refugees, the Katrina evacuees trickled into the Kansas City area on their own — in ones, twos and fives.
They were measured in the hundreds by city officials offering housing vouchers and aid workers offering food and clothing.
The Red Cross counted about 500 families that it worked with in the weeks after the hurricane, said Ken Cope, who was the director of emergency services for the Red Cross in Kansas City and is now retired.
“All of them that came here pretty much came here because they had families or some kinds of resources where they could stay,” Cope said. “People who were this far inland at least had someone to connect with.”
For weeks after Katrina, the Gregg/Klice Community Center near 18th Street and the Paseo became a full-service center for displaced people, with nonprofits large and small offering various services. The Kansas City Housing Authority found hundreds of vouchers and housing units for survivors.
Peacock was one of those survivors, but she found herself in limbo. Her home would be uninhabitable for weeks or months. She was able to get by from day to day, but it was difficult.
She had a daughter, 10, a son, 15, plus her elderly mother to think of. They all had lost everything. Peacock, thinking they would be gone from New Orleans for only a few days, had left home with little more than a pair of shorts, some flip-flops and $60 cash. Her mother, Elva, had just paid off a 30-year mortgage on her house in July, and it was ruined.
Her money was underwater in a Louisiana credit union, her career on hold. The children’s Social Security cards were missing, making it difficult to fill out paperwork for food stamps. At those times, social services clerks had mercy and pushed the forms through.
The stress was crippling. Peacock, a social worker by profession, realized that she now needed a social worker herself.
“Everybody was asking me, asking me, ‘What are you going to do?’” Peacock said. “It took me a year of not working just to gather myself.”
The only way to survive was to move forward. Peacock got her daughter, Keisha, enrolled in Regency Place Elementary School. Her son, Justin, struggled to adjust at Olathe East High School, but he succeeded.
Peacock had been planning to attend Tulane University in New Orleans, but she would have to live on a houseboat while she went to school.
That wasn’t going to work, Peacock said. She had kids.
“It was very obvious that there was no going back.”
In time, things worked out. The University of Kansas offered her a full scholarship, and she graduated in 2007 with a master’s degree in social work.
She married Anthony Peacock in 2011 and bought a home in Overland Park. She serves as a social worker in a hospital emergency room in Shawnee.
The pride of the Peacock family hangs in a prominent spot in her living room: a large, hand-drawn map of Guatemala. Peacock has never been to the Central American nation and never thought of going. It’s just the only thing she could save from her grandmother’s home, a picture that she and her brother remembered from childhood.
The whole family has stayed close here. Last month, Peacock saw her son, Justin, married to an Olathe woman in a ceremony brightened by an old-fashioned New Orleans second-line parade, with decorative umbrellas and jazz.
Her daughter, Keisha, attends the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Peacock’s 72-year-old mother, Elva, bought a home nearby and works as a nurse for children with disabilities.
Peacock’s family not only survived but thrived. And while Peacock still does not enjoy the snow here, she appreciates the safety and security she has found.
“I don’t regret it,” she said. “I regret Katrina, but I don’t regret staying here.”
But ultimately New Orleans is still “home,” especially when it comes to the kitchen.
“Most definitely,” Peacock said. “It’s my vacation destination now, whenever I need some good crawfish. I know I can’t cook beans if they don’t come from New Orleans.”