The first time Cheryl McCoy ever boarded a plane, she didn't know where the aircraft would touch down. She was with several family members -- four grandchildren, her boyfriend, her daughter Tamakia and Tamakia's boyfriend. Other family members had gone to the Louisiana Superdome; McCoy had hoped they would all land in the same city. The same unknown city.
No such luck. Her other family members are now in Texas; McCoy and her group came to Charlotte. They now live in an apartment complex off W.T. Harris Boulevard that has opened its doors to at least a dozen evacuee families.
Barely a month after they waded through receded water to escape their homes near the French Quarter, with the stench of God-knows-what burning their nostrils, McCoy and her family are now settling in to a city that's a far cry from the gumbo-lovin' mecca that was New Orleans.
They're going to Charlotte grocery stores, exploring the local mall and sending the kids off to a local school. And from this family's eyes emerge observations: Gentle griping about the street names, compliments about their children's school and notes about the cities' differences that shape daily life.
"I think their school is better than it was back home. The books they bring home are thicker," says 26-year-old Tamakia McCoy, who has enrolled her four children at Albemarle Road Elementary School.
Her boyfriend, Shinold Wilson, notices the landscape. "It's something different from being in New Orleans," says Wilson, 34. "We don't have hills."
No agency seems certain how many people from Louisiana and Mississippi fled to the Charlotte area after the Category 4 hurricane flattened entire neighborhoods and killed nearly 1,200 people. Slightly more than 1,000 people spent at least one night at the Charlotte Coliseum, which functioned as an emergency shelter before closing last month. And Charlotte-Mecklenburg police ran background checks on 551 adult evacuees who have searched for housing.
As people settle in, a local Katrina aid coalition hopes to gather a comprehensive, authoritative count of who's here. Project TASK (Transitional Assistance to Survivors of Katrina) wants to make sure everyone who is enrolling in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, searching for local homes or applying for local jobs has the resources they need to integrate into the community.
Its resource center in an AME Zion Church building at 401 East Second St. opened last week, and reports of people sitting in empty apartments with no food began rolling in. Six people staying at an apartment complex in Gastonia walked in and said they had no food, spokesman Michael Andrews says. "We've got a list of places that we're going out to see what they have," he says.
Each family has a different tale to tell, united though those stories may be by escape and thankfulness. Inside the townhouse-style apartment, Tamakia McCoy and her loved ones had no tales of hardship in Charlotte. Instead, they say, they have been greeted with kindness and offers of help from everyone they've encountered.
Cheryl McCoy and her boyfriend, Jesse Hudson Jr., walked into an apartment already furnished. Its kitchen cabinets were already filled with canned goods, courtesy of a local church group. Church members then took them to a grocery store and let the family pick out meat.
A few apartments away, Tamakia McCoy's children have been "in heaven" since getting so many toys. "They think it's just another vacation for them," she says. The family hasn't welcomed all its storm-related experiences, of course. As the storm raged outside Cheryl McCoy's house, ripping siding from their the home and a hole in the roof that exposed the sky, some of the children were scared. Afterward, Tamakia McCoy's 10-year-old fell ill before a plane whisked them away from New Orleans.
Now, the children tell their mother they'd like to stay in Charlotte. It's a feeling they share with Wilson, who hopes to soon find a job supporting the kids in what seems to him a better environment -- even compared to pre-hurricane New Orleans. "Lots of things were going on in New Orleans that's not happening here," he says.
The first few days in Charlotte seemed surreal. Cheryl McCoy sat down and cried upon arrival at the Coliseum. "It just dawned on me: I was at a place where I didn't know anyone," she says.
The people at the Coliseum were kind. The food was good. The sleeping cots, however, were not. "You wake up with your back hurting, really hurting, like you worked a whole day," says Wilson, 34.
They were given bus passes, and they rode around Charlotte to try and get a feel for the town. They met with social service agencies and other organizations who set up shop at the Coliseum. Soon, people were driving the family around to look at apartments. Now, they're living in bigger homes than the ones they left in Louisiana, Tamakia McCoy says.
The group has been in contact with other family members, and one of Wilson's employers, the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen, called to make sure he was OK. But there aren't many more people to call back home. "We were the type of people who stayed to ourselves," Tamakia McCoy says.
Now, they're settling into a daily grind. First, they get the kids off to school. Then, they might run some errands, like they did the other day when they bought a blue Dodge van.
Next, all of them want to get jobs -- all except for Cheryl, whose glaucoma has blinded her in one eye. Tamakia has been a hostess, a waitress, a bartender and a cashier. "If I don't know how to do it, I'm willing to learn," she says.
This isn't what the group expected. When they learned from TV news of Katrina's inexorable approach, they thought they'd ride it out. When Katrina hit and the waters were rising around the city, they still thought they'd ride it out.
But then the smell became overwhelming, and dead bodies were floating by, and relief workers in helicopters were dropping food from above. Before the storm, they could have gone to relatives in Alexandria, LA. But they did not want to leave. "This is the first time I've lived away from my family," Cheryl McCoy explains. "I'd never been away from my family."
In Charlotte, such ties are not a consideration. But the family is approaching it as an adventure. If jobs pan out, if schools work out, and if they continue to get what they need, they hope to make a go of it. "This place is beautiful," Cheryl adds, "the people themselves, just the way they treat us."