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Louisiana evacuees find a new home with TDCJ

Wells and Blanchard posing in their correctional officer uniform in front of the Beto Criminal Justice Center
Richard Wells, left, and Steven Blanchard were hired to work as correctional officers for TDCJ after evacuating their homes near New Orleans ahead of Hurricane Katrina.
Photo by David Nunnelee
It was late summer and the living was easy in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, a densely populated area just south of New Orleans, the music Mecca known worldwide as the “Big Easy.” But that all changed on August 29th when the eye of Hurricane Katrina passed directly over the coastal community. By the time it passed, the only home Steven Blanchard and Richard Wells had ever known had been virtually wiped off the map.

But the two longtime friends who now work as correctional officers for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice weren’t there to see their homes and lifestyles destroyed.

“I was going to stay for Katrina but when I woke up the morning before it hit and the news was saying it was a Category 5 storm pushing 175-mile-per-hour winds and a storm surge of anywhere from 20 to 30 feet, I said, ‘No, I’m not staying,’” Wells said.

Wells, who had already packed his car with enough clothes and supplies to last three days, gathered his pregnant wife and five-year-old son, and later met up with Blanchard and eleven other friends and relatives, including four children between the ages of one and six. Together they headed off toward Houston where they had reserved two motel rooms for their anticipated short stay. But after 15 hours of driving in heavy traffic along the evacuation route, their three-car caravan had made it only to the Texas state line. So they stopped to call the motel to say they were running late. But by that time their reserved rooms had already been given away.

“It’s one or two in the morning,” Wells said. “We have infants with us and no place to go.”

Wells said they called the motel reservation center and found that the only rooms the chain had available at the time were in Huntsville. There they were able to reserve two rooms, arriving around three o’clock in the morning, a full 18 hours after they had set out from New Orleans.

As the evacuees started watching the news, it became apparent that their stay away from home was not going to be a short one. Besides the devastation caused by the winds and storm surge of Katrina, chemical spills had made their neighborhoods uninhabitable.

“They predicted by maybe next summer we might be able to get in,” Wells said.

Despite the expense of the rooms and eating out each day, the group of evacuees stayed in the motel for more than two weeks rather than going to one of the two shelters set up in Huntsville.

“All of us together, we had enough money to survive so we figured why go to a shelter and take a bed away from somebody who really needed it,” Wells said. “If I had needed help I would have accepted it, but I didn’t need it, so why take it.”

Instead, the evacuees found a 3-bedroom house to rent in Riverside, where the landlord kindly waived the deposit fee and offered to pay the first month’s utilities bill.

“I love it here,” Wells said. “The people are great. The atmosphere is great. Everybody I’ve talked to since we’ve been here has been helpful. Everybody has been doing anything they can for us.”

Still, with new bills to pay atop those back in Louisiana, Wells said the $5,000 he had in his checking and savings accounts was soon spent. So finding work in Texas, something he had never thought about, suddenly became a necessity.

While at the hotel, Blanchard had read a TDCJ recruitment brochure dropped off by a shelter volunteer telling of employment opportunities and talked to Wells about working as correctional officers. Neither had a background in criminal justice or law enforcement in Louisiana, where Wells worked as a car salesman and Blanchard built houses. But they needed to work and decided to apply. Both were hired and graduated from the training academy in October. They now work at the Ferguson Unit in Midway.

“So far, I love the job,” Wells said.

Even as Hurricane Rita bore down on the Texas coast three weeks after Katrina destroyed their homes, the two new TDCJ correctional officers said they would not be returning to Louisiana to live.

“I’ll probably stay and get a place of my own,” said Blanchard, who is single. “If I go home now, the place is going to be different to me. It’s not ever going to be the same.”

“I’m never going back to New Orleans,” Wells added. “I’m going to stay with TDCJ. I could go back and rebuild but what’s going to happen? Next year another storm could do the same thing and I’m back in the same boat. That’s the biggest thing for me. Here I’m out of harm’s way.”

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