It wasn't foolhardiness that led Stephen Rall and his cancer-stricken wife to stay in Gulfport, Miss., as Hurricane Katrina tore that city apart five years ago today. Their car had broken down, and they had no way out.
While the wind howled and hammered, the Ralls huddled in an American Red Cross shelter at a school. The next day they tried to go home, climbing over trees thrown into the streets by the storm.
"There was nothing left," said Mr. Rall, 59.
Today, he shares a small home in Carnegie with his wife, Rhonda, who now is free of breast cancer. They lived briefly in Arkansas before returning to Western Pennsylvania, where they had grown up and where their children still live. The Ralls are among the last of more than 450 Katrina evacuees to remain in Allegheny County.
Shortly after the storm, which killed 1,836 people and left cities uninhabitable all over the Gulf Coast, the Federal Emergency Management Agency alerted Pittsburgh leaders to expect "planeloads" of evacuees. Prompted by local psychiatrist Edith Shapira, government officials, charities and religious groups devised an innovative plan to assist survivors.
The University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics later published a report that proposed adopting it as a national model, but it was underused here. FEMA sent its planeloads elsewhere -- sometimes to cities that hadn't prepared. As local organizers shook their heads at the results of federal bureaucracy, Katrina survivors began arriving on their own.
Initially they stayed in dormitories at the Pittsburgh Project, a community development group on the North Side, where the Allegheny County Department of Human Services set up a one-stop shop to provide services they would need. Within six months, most had moved on. Many returned to the Gulf Coast, leaving a small but uncounted number here.
The Ralls had moved to Gulfport in 1990 and loved it. Mr. Rall worked there as a sous chef at a private dining club. But their house was gone, his job was gone. They stared in shock at the wreckage and returned to the shelter.
It had no running water. Survivors drew buckets from a nearby creek to flush the toilets, which backed up anyway. The Red Cross was caught short, and for more than a week the evacuees there received only sandwiches or snack crackers with bottled water. Mr. Rall gave most of his to his wife, hoping it would strengthen her after a recent round of chemotherapy.
"Our first real meal was 11 days after the storm," he said. "The military brought [self-heating] HeaterMeals."
One day, college students from Harrison, Ark., drove up in a bus, and offered to take anyone who wanted to leave with them to Arkansas.
"I couldn't even make up my mind. I had gotten in a state of mind where I couldn't think," Mr. Rall said. "It was my wife who made the decision to go."
They stayed in Arkansas until that December, when he began to suffer a series of health problems that have left him unable to work. The couple moved to Pittsburgh to be near family. A daughter-in-law made a scrapbook to help replace the mementos that were lost with the hurricane. FEMA paid their rent initially, and they still live in subsidized housing.
Friends back in Mississippi have told Mr. Rall that Gulfport remains devastated. But he misses the ocean, the mild winters and the life he loved there.
"We wanted to go back but, financially we can't," he said.
Many others could -- and did.
The Allegheny County Department of Human Services worked with 464 Katrina evacuees. Six months after the storm, nearly half had left this region, according to the report from Pitt's Institute of Politics. Many more have left since then.
"But there are still some families here," said Andi Fischhoff, development director for Family Resources, which helped to coordinate assistance to evacuees after government funding ended in early 2006.
The local survivor community suffered a blow last month when Laurel Turner, 52, lost a 20-year battle against cancer. She looked after her fellow evacuees and cooked comfort food for them at the creole cafe she opened in East Pittsburgh, The Taste of New Orleans.
"She was one of the people who had settled here from New Orleans, and she was involved in organizing the Gulf Coast connection to provide resources and support to all of the other families that had relocated here," Ms. Fischhoff said.
Her death was a far worse blow than Katrina itself to her daughter, Kizzy Hatcher, 33, who has chosen to stay in Forest Hills because she and her husband believe Pittsburgh is the better place to raise their children.
The family had fled New Orleans for Houston before the storm. Then Ms. Turner's brother, Bishop Arthur Bown, senior pastor of Manna from On High Ministries in East Pittsburgh, invited them to come up. They received assistance to find permanent housing from social service agencies that organized to aid evacuees.
Other members of the extended family returned to New Orleans.
"Of course they were homesick. And the weather -- they're not used to the cold," she said.
But she is dedicated to expanding the restaurant, which is temporarily closed. She says that the schools in the Pittsburgh area are better than those in New Orleans.
"I see Pittsburgh as a great opportunity, as far as a city to raise families," she said. "Pittsburgh is one of the best cities that helped after Hurricane Katrina. Everywhere else, people said they weren't getting the help they needed. But in Pittsburgh they welcomed us with open arms and they treated us right. I can vouch for that."
That's a common sentiment among evacuees, Ms. Fischhoff said.
"There was a huge outpouring of support for these families in this region," she said. Evacuees "told us that they were glad they landed here. They heard from other people in other parts of the country who didn't fare as well."
The Pitt report described how Dr. Shapira prodded community leaders to plan ahead for the best way to assist evacuees. That ranged from having bankers available to help them access accounts at flooded institutions to making sure that new arrivals could shower and sleep before they had to start thinking about such problems.
Communication with and within FEMA was terrible, the report said. One planeload of evacuees that was supposed to go to an unprepared Charleston, S.C., landed by mistake in Charleston W.Va., while Pittsburgh leaders awaited relief flights that never arrived.
While one planeload touched down in error in West Virginia, the Mountain State welcomed more than 500 evacuees. Most were given shelter and assistance at Camp Dawson, a National Guard facility near Kingwood.
Sarah Graham now is executive director of the Scott's Run Settlement House, a United Methodist agency near Morgantown that assisted many evacuees. But in September 2005 she was a VISTA volunteer, assigned to coordinate volunteer assistance to the evacuees at Camp Dawson.
"I was a single mom with a little child. It was too difficult for me to go to New Orleans. So to be able to help right in my backyard was just perfect for me," she said.
She enjoyed doing what she could to ease their burdens. In most cases, that meant helping them to return to the Gulf Coast.
"To my knowledge, most of the people went back as soon as it was possible," she said. "There were only a handful that stayed in this community."
Ann Rodgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416.