Many of us are familiar with the popular television show, Storm Chasers, on Discovery Channel. The show is about the people who hunt down tornadoes to capture dramatic severe weather video and scientific probes. In the New Orleans area, we have found another kind of storm chasers and they are the people who "chase the storms" and followed Hurricane Katrina, ended up here, and have temporarily settled in this area to find work in construction, at least, for now.
Leaning against a tree to protect themselves from the sun, three compadres or friends, stood outside a popular home improvement establishment, waiting for work opportunities. Jaime, Miguel and David (all who asked us to only use their first names) have been in this area a little bit after Katrina devastated the region.
"We arrived a few weeks after the hurricane, when some friends called and told me that they were in New Orleans and that definitely there will be work for a few years in this city," said Jaime. "Our friends were already working — picking up debris. We decided to take a chance and came here not knowing what to expect or how long we would actually stay. We got in my truck, loaded up our tools, personal belongings and took our chance. You can say we chased Katrina to see what she had left us. Believe me, she left us a lot of work."
Luis jumped in telling about his experiences. He said it has not been easy since none of the three have legal status or they are undocumented. Finding a stable place to live has been a challenge because he doesn't have credit established, but finally he moved in with a couple who signed a one year lease on an apartment. Luis said that as long as he can help pay the rent, he has a roof over his head. When it comes to transportation, he said Jaime has been the one to transport him and Miguel from job to job and that is why they have remained close friends.
"It was almost nonstop work for many of us a few years ago. I have lost count of how many houses I've worked on. I've had some good experiences and some bad, but I never gave up. Now work has gotten a bit harder to come by because many people don't have the money — maybe because of the recession," Luis said. "So when we heard a few weeks ago there were storms forming, we watched to see where they could possibly hit. We had agreed that if they caused damage somewhere in the United States, we would again jump into Jaime's truck and move there for more work."
It's obvious to see that they have supported each other in their efforts to survive and that there is a bond amongst them. "We have helped each other in many ways," Luis added. "When one of us has work, we try to bring the other two on so that we all have an income and we can make a living. We also watch out for each other so that nothing bad happens to us."
Are they afraid of running and chasing these storms?
"No," said Jaime. "Compared to what we went through coming to the United States through Mexico, chasing storms is easy. As long as we have friends that pass on the tips to where the most work is or how to get to the locations, we are fine."
The "storm chasers" agreed that it's a matter of determination and staying strong. They all miss their families back in Honduras, but the political situation there now is another factor keeping them here. "Now Honduras is going through a rough situation and I know finding work there if I go back will be very difficult," said Miguel. "We are here now and we have to do what we can to survive."
No official number has been determined of how many Hispanics have settled into the New Orleans area post-Katrina. A report two years ago, however, estimated that the number of day laborers tripled its pre-flooded levels in New Orleans and surrounding areas. At that time, the increase was a direct response to the new constructions jobs that were available to repair some of the 200,000 homes flooded in the Greater New Orleans area alone. A more accurate number of Hispanics will hopefully be accounted for when the 2010 Census takes place.
When Miguel was asked why would he chase another storm, he said: "We all win when we arrive in the affected area ready to work and help rebuild it. We earn our salary to help our families, people get their homes rebuilt and the city, like New Orleans, comes alive again."
Four years after Katrina, New Orleans continues to stay afloat and its people continue to be resilient. If the city can dodge another storm this year, it will continue on the path to recovery and the men "chasing storms" will continue to monitor the weather to see what city may become their next home, at least until another storm hits.
Brenda Melara is a writer for El Tiempo New Orleans.
Photo courtesy of Jambalaya News.
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