Snowy shelter for storm victims
SNOWMASS VILLAGE – It is impossible to imagine, here in the tranquil resort towns tucked among the Rocky Mountains and topped by a gentle meringue of snow, that nature could be the sinister force that caused Hurricane Katrina.But the hurricane, which sprayed victims to Houston and Memphis and Atlanta, has also landed small communities of storm survivors here, in the exclusive ski resorts along the Continental Divide.Some of them are here by affluence: They lived in well-off parts of New Orleans and its suburbs, places where high land meant Katrina took mercy on their homes, and they were easily able to plunk down the money it takes to settle here.Some of them are here by good fortune, taken in by wealthy natives or, in at least one case, a sprawling ranch for artists.And while it can seem difficult to pity any of the Katrina survivors in these gilded shelters, the storm victims who find themselves in the wealthy Colorado outposts are struggling with their own unique traumas: What will become of their families? Should they return to the New Orleans they so love – and so loathe – and when?And they are dealing with guilt – that they were so lucky when others have merely a trailer to call home, or no home at all.
Obliged to returnYou would be hard-pressed to think of Rashad Butler as lucky. He is 23 years old, the 14th of 15 children, all raised poor. Thirteen of them are left. The other two were shot dead in New Orleans years ago.Their obituaries were tucked into a family Bible that their mother kept on the second floor of her small, government-subsidized duplex in New Orleans East, and so survived the Katrina-spawned flood that left a 6-foot water line on the first floor.Rashad Butler has a modest beard, a small hoop earring in his left ear and a soft, low monotone. He was not like his brothers, he says: “A lot of the time I felt like I was prey. I was perceived as not having those street smarts.”In his teens, he fell in love with sculpting. He was discovered two years ago by Anderson Ranch, an old sheep ranch in Snowmass Village near Aspen that was turned into an artists’ community.He was an assistant there in 2004, and after Katrina the ranch tracked him down again to offer him and his wife Michelle, also an artist, a six-month residency, a way out of their post-Katrina nightmare.His family was living in Auburn, Ala., where he was training at an Outback Steakhouse.”I wanted to decline the offer, just thinking about my mom,” he says. “I didn’t want to leave her.”But Butler’s father-in-law talked him into going. And now, while his mother gets by in Auburn with government help, Butler spends long days crafting lumps of clay into works of art, many of them using a bullet motif.
The snow here makes everything quiet. He misses the noise of New Orleans.He will stay at the ranch through April. Then he hopes to finish his last semester at Xavier University of Louisiana, in New Orleans. He wants to go to grad school, but he is irreversibly drawn back to his home, even with all those bad memories.”Before the hurricane hit,” he says, “I sort of had a love-hate relationship with the city. Now there’s more of an obligation for me to return to the city, to always be part of it in some way.”Staying in the mountainsYou have to drive more than two hours toward Vail and cross several economic classes to get from Rashad Butler to the Samuels family – Keith, an obstetrician-gynecologist, and his wife, Leesa, a nurse and former stay-at-home mother.Their two daughters – Kelsey, 12, and Haley, 9 – are both extremely well-spoken and well-behaved. (Kelsey, asked how she is adjusting to her $14,000-per-year private school in Vail, answers: “Socially, I’m doing well.”)Katrina forced them and their 108-pound golden retriever out of their 5,000-square-foot home in Metairie, just west of New Orleans. They went first to Houston, then to Vail, where Keith Samuels’ parents have had a home since the 1970s.They have since rented their own 1,800-square-foot mountain house, with designs on one day buying or building a home in the Vail Valley, and hope they can sell their Metairie home, which took on relatively minor water damage.
The Samuels are quick to say they love New Orleans. But they will not go back. And for that they struggle with occasional pangs of guilt, not to mention pressure from friends and old neighbors.Leesa Samuels, who has a soft, kind voice and resembles a young Sally Field, says friends have asked why they are not staying behind to help rebuild the ruined city.”It’s hard to explain,” she says. “They’re the type at home that are probably never going anywhere, never going to take that chance and leave New Orleans. And then there’s us, trying to make a good thing out of a bad thing.”For them it is about the kids, she says. They are thriving here, love their new schools and new friends, are soccer stars on their new teams and have taken up snowboarding.”I love New Orleans,” Keith Samuels says. “It’s my home. I grew up there. It’s just – it wasn’t New Orleans anymore.”Art movementNot far from the Samuels’ home is Gallery Rinard. The second one, actually: The original is on Royal Street, in the French Quarter of New Orleans.Their owner is Matt Rinard, a 41-year-old painter and motorcycle enthusiast who was driven from New Orleans by Katrina and landed in the Vail valley because his wife, who worked at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in New Orleans, was offered a job at its enormous resort on Beaver Creek Mountain.
They lucked into a two-room apartment – furnished, with granite countertops – above the garage of a magnificent, $5 million mountain home whose owner was not even advertising the place.Rinard skis several days a week, usually at Vail. Still, he says he is struggling in his new business market: New Orleans is a city completely about art – the jazz, the architecture, never mind the plentiful galleries.”You just don’t have the traffic,” he says. “It’s just too damn cold for people to be walking around. Everyone says wait until the summer – everyone says once I see the summer of Colorado I’ll never leave.””Of course,” he adds wryly, “they’ve also said there’s 300 days of sunshine, and I’ve seen about four.”Hard to keep awayAllison Stewart and her husband own two homes, a five-bedroom house just to the west of Aspen and a condominium near New Orleans’ now-infamous convention center, in a building wracked by looters after Katrina.She spends summers in the Rockies, but has been suspended here since the hurricane. Now she channels her energy, her thoughts of home, into thick, black binders where she almost obsessively stores news clippings about New Orleans.She is eager to talk politics, to detail her frustration with the city’s system of governing its levees, of what she says were good people in charge in Louisiana who were simply overwhelmed by Katrina.
She, too, says she feels guilt about having a second home here, having come through the storm so well. The condo in New Orleans sustained some roof damage from the storm, but the looters took nothing.Stewart says there is no way she could not – eventually – go back to New Orleans, and help rebuild.”I still wake up at night with those anxieties: What can we do to help?” she says. “I have no answers.”It is a feeling familiar to Miranda Lake, another artist staying at the Anderson Ranch in Snowmass Village. Her home is in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans, where stormwater flooded her studio and damaged much of her work – unique combinations of old photos and maps, oil paint and melted beeswax.Lake says she is not at all sure she is ready to return permanently and face “white-knuckling through the hurricane season.” And she is grateful for the hurricane cachet that she says has boosted the value of some of her work.Still, even here among these beautiful mountains, she is haunted by what happened.”It’s my life,” she says. “It kind of doesn’t matter if I stay or leave New Orleans or stay in Colorado. Even if I move to Chicago, I’m still dealing with it.”
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