Aug. 29, 2006 -- Shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit, ABC News sent seven reporters to follow the lives of evacuated families. Dan Beckmann shadowed the Wilson family from their shelter in Baton Rouge, La., following their journey across the South in search of a place to call home. Beckmann has stayed in touch with the family throughout the year, and here is his reporter's notebook summarizing their experience.
A little more than a year ago, Nigel Wilson and his girlfriend Lattrice Franklin were sitting in their apartment, living their lives and not in any way prepared for the year that would blow them away from all the people, places and things that they had always known. Twelve months later, they're still cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina.
I met Nigel and Lattrice just before they got married in Baton Rouge, in their evacuation shelter, in early September 2005. At the time, Nigel was the hero who got the family out of the storm and post-apocalyptic New Orleans alive.
Living under the roof of a church-operated shelter that weeks earlier had been a gym, Nigel and Lattrice were rebaptised. They were given a free car, and they were handed welcoming sponsors in Little Rock, Ark., who provided them with housing and furniture, and settled Lattrice's son, Malike, in a nice new school. It seemed like they were well on their way.
Now, almost a year later, the car is gone, the church has cut off contact, and the Wilsons don't live in Little Rock anymore. Malike is about to start another school in the fall in Montgomery, Ala., where they live now.
A theme for the Wilson family this past year has been that it took a hurricane as strong as Katrina to get them out of their funk. They were happy to have, not only this opportunity start over but -- in their eyes -- to start over with the help and grace of god. What happened?
Nigel and Lattrice have been running from something the entire time, and wherever they go, they can't seem to totally shake it--it's their past.
When I left the Wilson family in the gracious hands of their Little Rock sponsors in October 2005, there was talk of Nigel getting a job in the hospitality industry as soon as the next week. He was eager to get back to work, to return to some sort of normalcy and to give back to all the people who had helped him. But by Thanksgiving, despite the appointments set up by his sponsors, that job never materialized. Lattrice, who was trained as a nursing assistant, also found it hard to start working again.
In late November when I came back to Little Rock after their sponsors told me they were cutting off their ties because the Wilsons were not holding up their share of the bargain, Nigel and Lattrice told me on camera that while some families may be strong enough to just quickly move on, they were not.
They missed their family, and they woke up every morning wondering where they were, how they looked and what had happened to them. But more than anything, it was still incredibly strange to them to wake up in this foreign town where the people sounded funny and the food had no flavor.
I got the next call from the Wilsons around Christmastime. They were headed on a road trip through Texas in Nigel's mother's car -- the one the church had given them had been stolen. I followed them from Dallas, where they had a nice visit with Nigel's aunt, to a big celebration/reunion in Houston. There were two households going, Nigel's family and Lattrice's. The families lived on opposite sides of town, and they couldn't have been more farther apart culturally. Now both were seeing Nigel and Lattrice as a married couple for the first time. None of them could make the wedding three months earlier.
I could see firsthand how much the Wilsons depended on their families, but more how much their families depended on them. Nigel was a role model to Lattrice's 18 little cousins; they watched his every move. Lattrice was 'chief cousel' for her sister; no matter what craziness came out of her sister Trice's mouth, Lattrice somehow made sense of it.
It was starting to make real sense to me how hard it was for Nigel and Lattrice to be away from these people. I was seeing for myself a part of their former world -- one dislocated, using boxes in place of coffee- and dining-room tables for the first time in my life. But then came the events of Christmas Eve. I saved this e-mail dispatch I sent to ABC News at the time:
12/24/06, 11:23 p.m. The CHRISTMAS EVE HOUSTON Mass of Occurrence
"The man that was here came with 6 or 7 guys, one of which one of thekids here said was carrying a gun.
The man was one of lattrice's (the wife's) former boyfriends from childhoodwho was in the pen -- lattrice hadn't seen him for four years.
He came here to set nigel up. I came in with nigel and the guy cameout of the bedroom with the drunken couldn't-focus-on-anything gaze -- hewanted food -- said he was married to lattrice and wanted her to get himfood ... then he started wanting my food. I told him it was very spicy andthat he may not want it.
They brought him outside where they were trying to provoke nigel intodark part of complex where 6 guys were waiting. Lattrice yelling fornigel to go inside ... lattrice's sister yelling for 11 kids to lockthemselves in bedroom ... 3 were out watching, youngest 10 years old (onewho saw the gun).
Lattrice's sister called the police while yelling between man provokingnigel and lattrice standing in between taking place in courtyard.
Police came and broke up situation -- nigel feels bad he didn't have morepeople to back him up -- lattrice mad he didn't go inside ... kids sayingnigels a good man for not fighting but they're scared ... coming out ofrooms to see if its ok and then running back in/peeking out the windowthen hiding ... the kids keep apologizing to me and telling me nothing ishappening.
Nigel was strong but conflicted ... hes trying to better himself he saysbut he wants to stand strong. Its been about an hour now he's stillwondering if he did the right thing by not fighting back. He feels likegod has tested him ..."
Nigel and Lattrice and her family are so used to this type of drama that they already had an ironclad public relations plan in place before the events were even over. Here they had a member of the national media in their house on Christmas Eve witnessing all this firsthand, and their reaction was to start talking about all the good food that I was going to eat the next day and how this really didn't happen all that often.
They were upset -- who wouldn't be -- but they tried their best to put a good face on it, just as they've done with just about everything that's happened before my eyes.
We all know there was much more -- and this time they knew that I knew. They didn't move back to where their family lived, even though they desperately wanted to, because they could not escape scenes like the one that occurred on Christmas Eve. Yet at the same time, they were so used to their family, their neighborhood connections and their way of life in New Orleans, that being so far away was for them like being fish out of well-spiced water.
This was the last time I saw the Wilson family. About six months later, over the phone, they told me they were moving to Montgomery, Ala. Little Rock, apparently, would not be far enough away from their past.
There is one person I've tried to talk to throughout all this: Brother Felix, the man who married Nigel and Lattrice in the Baton Rouge shelter. He is also Nigel's father's prison chaplain -- that's how Nigel met Brother Felix.
Nigel's father was put in prison before Nigel was born, and Nigel has never touched his father's hands outside the prison gates. A prevailing theme throughout my experience with the Wilson family and their community is that there aren't many men around to act as role models. This was why all the kids watched Nigel's every move over Christmas. He was the only guy around a lot of busy mothers.
Nigel didn't have a strong male role model in his house either, but as Brother Felix didn't have to tell me, Nigel's got a good heart, a strong soul and everyone's waiting to see which way he's going to go.
Is Nigel going to "walk in the light of Jesus," and become that man who single-handedly rescued his family during the storm? OR will he, as his mother said of her son's behavior before the storm, return to the 'life of a jokester', one with a heavy crack problem, a problem that many people who know him suspect he might have already relapsed?
One year after Hurricane Katrina, Nigel tells me on the phone how excited he is to be in Montogomery. He's got serious plans to go to electrician's school, like his brother, and make some real money. Lattrice did go to school for a few months to get a higher nursing degree while working as an nurse's assistant on the side. She tells me she plans to go back to work once Malike starts at his new school.
In August 2006, it's still very much unsettled at the Wilson residence. Throughout this year, they've had 12 different telephone numbers, and on two occasions, I lost hope of ever hearing from them again only to be surprised with a random call asking, "Hey Mr. Dan, how's it going on up in New York -- they treatin' you nice up there?"
No matter what's happened this year, there are two things that have somehow remained constant between Nigel and Lattrice: their strong marriage and their desire to never live in New Orleans again. They're still quite happy this hurricane happened to them and believe it still remains a great opportunity.