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Lost and Found in the Louisiana Diaspora

In Louisiana, some people are saying it was sin that brought this disastrous hurricane down, like the fist of an angry God. Others prefer a secular explanation-- our government was unprepared for such a devastating act of nature… or, perhaps, simply indifferent.

Father Richard Wagner of the order of the Josephite Fathers isn't much interested in laying blame. In his parish in the town of Rayne, two hours by car west of New Orleans, he's trying to give evacuees hope. He says they don't worry so much about the homes or belongings they left behind. They worry about their families, their friends, those who were separated from them in the panic.

"It's amazing that we have thousands and thousands of people in America looking for their families, their children," he says. "Never before have we vacated a major city in America."

One is reminded of the dazed and wandering survivors of the tsunami that hit Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. But those survivors were so far away, and foreign. These lost people are American. Yet for many of us, these survivors are almost as foreign. Most in Father Wagner's church this past Sunday were from the city -- the poorest, blackest part of the city. These are the very people he and members of his order have counseled for decades.

Louisiana is in for a change. Evacuees tell Father Wagner: Why should I go back? I won't go back. In Rayne and Breaux Bridge and other small towns, they've found shelter with Louisianans who've opened their arms and their spare rooms and back porches to strangers from the city. They've thrown open churches, civic centers and stadiums. They've given money and food and clothing. And their efforts have been deeply appreciated.

And something else extraordinary is happening, says Father Wagner.

"In a sense, it's Louisiana discovering itself," he says. "People finding one another, meeting people they've never met before, people they'd never have met, had this not happened."

The quality of this mercy should not be diminished. But offering comfort to evacuees is a temporary act, while this exodus could be permanent for many. That scares rural people who've never had much love for New Orleans and urban culture.

"They say, 'Well, there's going to be more African Americans in this particular town. Are they going to bring their crime with them?'" And Father Wagner says it's been a shock for many African Americans as well. Many only see white people in a city store or a bus or on a city street. Now they are living in white neighborhoods. They'll be sharing the same grocery stores, movie theaters, playgrounds and schools.

No one knows how long it will take to put New Orleans back together again. Many of the evacuees can't wait. They'll have to start new lives, find new jobs. Towns like Rayne could become their new home, or small cities like Lafayette, and metropolises like Houston. What the South is now seeing is a new kind of Dust Bowl diaspora for the homeless poor, forced to drift not by drought, but by flood.

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Christopher Joyce
Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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