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A New Home for the Holidays

Katrina evacuee moves into new Arlington apartment just in time for Thanksgiving

It took Diann James only a few minutes to unpack her belongings when she arrived at her new Pentagon City apartment last weekend.

There wasn’t much to arrange: The furniture and television were provided by local retailers and the county paid for most of the clothing that hangs in her closest. A local grocery store had already told James they would be stopping by soon with a stockpile of food. American Express had left her a gift card to buy towels, linens and other amenities.

In the corner of her new bedroom sit two small suitcases, which she has been living out of for the past two months while staying in an Arlington hotel. The rest of her possessions were lost in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when waters from Lake Pontchartrain swept through her mother’s house in New Orleans’ ninth ward.

It has been a harrowing autumn for James, who had to evacuate from New Orleans the day after she moved to there. She has been shuffling between rooms at a Courthouse hotel and has yet to find employment. But last Saturday, just five days before Thanksgiving, James was finally able to move into her own place.

“This is such a blessing,” said the short, affable 48-year-old, who oscillated between bouts of laughing and crying while discussing her new accommodations. “I was watching television yesterday, and there are still [Katrina evacuees] who are homeless. I am just so thankful for all of this.”

JAMES’ RETURN TO the Big Easy was supposed to be a joyous one, after spending the past two years living abroad. Instead, it turned into a short and traumatic homecoming.

With her mother’s health declining, and in need of surgery herself, James left Heidelberg, Germany, where she taught business at an American high school, in July. She underwent an operation in Arlington, where she had briefly lived before moving to Germany, and drove with a friend down to New Orleans on Aug. 27.

“I wanted to recuperate at home with my mother and step-father because I was having trouble getting around and needed some assistance,” she said.

Almost as soon as James arrived in the city, Mayor Nagin delivered the mandatory evacuation order. While her step-father refused to leave, James caught a ride back to Arlington with her friend and helped her mother travel to Memphis to stay with relatives. Assuming she would return to the house within a week, James took only a few personal items and some summer clothes with her.

“I had planned on staying in New Orleans for a long time,” said James, who previously lived in the city for 10 years. “I shipped everything from overseas back to my mother’s home. When you’re in a panic you forget everything.”

For the first few days after the levees broke, James stayed with a friend of a friend in Bethesda. When it quickly became clear that she would not be returning to New Orleans soon, the Arlington branch of the Red Cross provided James with temporary housing in a hotel and a debit card. But the money did not last long, and James struggled to adjust to life in a hotel far away from family and friends.

“The Red Cross was telling everyone we had to find a permanent place to stay and I didn’t know where to go,” James said. “I hadn’t been employed since the summer, I had lost everything and hadn’t received any money from FEMA. How can you just start over?”

ARLINGTON COUNTY crisis workers helped James begin to rebuild her life. She met with counselors on a regular basis and the county government supplied food stamps and a $1,000 gift certificate to Hechts, so James could purchase winter clothing. The county contacted KSI, which owns and manages apartment buildings throughout Arlington, about providing James with temporary housing. The company agreed to take in James free of charge, along with one other Katrina evacuee in Arlington and 10 more across the metropolitan region, for at least six months.

“We were more than happy to help Diann get both of her feet back on the ground,” said Karen A. Kossow, KSI’s assistant vice president of sales and marketing, who arranged for other businesses to provide James with furniture and gift certificates.

Sitting in the living room of the apartment, James said she can finally begin to put her life back together again, now that she has found a more permanent home. James returned briefly to New Orleans in October, but discovered her mother’s home was uninhabitable. Therefore, James believes she will stay in Arlington and has entertained the idea of moving her family up to join her.

James is looking for a job in training development or strategic planning, and has had two interviews this month, though has yet to receive any offers.

“The most important thing is getting situated and knowing where I will be for the next six months,” James said. “Now I can focus on looking for employment.”

Though James’ family is spread out across the south- her mother is still living in Memphis, where James’ son also lives, and her step-father is staying with relatives in Houston- she will not be spending Thanksgiving alone. Margaret Stephens-Reed, who is on the executive board of the Arlington chapter of the NAACP, will host James for the holiday dinner.

“My family is on the West coast, so I have always been invited to other people’s homes for Thanksgiving,” said Stephens-Reed, who met James for the first time last Saturday when she finished moving into her new apartment. “This is a way to give back and make Diann feel part of my family.”

Stephens-Reed thought of making gumbo to add a touch of the Big Easy to the day, but instead is opting for the standard turkey and gravy feast.

“I want it to be a time of fellowship,” said Stephens-Reed, who is a community outreach specialist for Arlington public schools. “Thanksgiving at our house is about conversation, playing games and enjoying each other’s company.

Though James will miss spending Thanksgiving with her relatives in New Orleans, she said she is thrilled to be welcomed by strangers and to begin a new life in Arlington.

“This shows that people still care,” James said. “All my life I’ve tried to give back and make a difference. Now I feel truly blessed.”