Takisha Angeletti knows New Orleans is her hometown, but now, Gainesville is home.
Today marks the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina devastating her hometown, and she's not going back.
"It tears me up. I miss home, I do, but I couldn't go back," she said. "I've had the opportunity to, but I believe everything happens for a reason, and I choose not to go. My kids are the reason why I'm here."
The schools are great, she says, and she's comfortable in Gainesville. She recently moved from an apartment to a house near Poplar Springs Road, and she's here to stay.
"I love it here. I would never change it," she said. "My kids miss the holidays and seeing their cousins, but we try to go see them twice a year. Everybody else went back, but I couldn't go."
A day before the hurricane decimated the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, Angeletti and her three children, brother, mother-in-law, former husband and an elderly relative piled into cars to head east. In a trip to Atlanta that usually takes seven hours, the family arrived in Norcross 17 hours later, nearly running out of gas several times.
"We thought if it was a Category 3 (intensity), we'd stay home, or a Category 4, we'd get a hotel," she said. "We didn't plan for a Category 5. We never left because of a hurricane before because they just never hit us."
At 9 a.m. Sunday morning, the family packed a few bags and left. With Interstate 10 blocked, cars evacuated bumper-to-bumper to I-20 through Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.
"We didn't have reservations, we just thought we'd have fun with the kids and do a little vacation," she said. "It was fun at the time to stay in a hotel, but then the levies broke on Tuesday, and that's when reality set in."
The family stayed in hotels in Norcross and Snellville before taking up a home on Forest Avenue, which a woman offered to them free of rent until December. She didn't enroll the kids in school, thinking they would all move back as soon as possible.
"I knew I was going back home, and we drove back in October," she said. "We cried and cried. There were military trucks everywhere, and they wouldn't let you go down your street unless you had an ID. That's when I decided I wasn't coming back."
Angeletti lived in a rental house that wasn't damaged beyond repair, but she left it anyway. Her relatives' houses were destroyed; they only salvaged a few pictures.
She came back to Gainesville and began working at McDonald's on Thompson Bridge Road with her mother-in-law Shirley Bickham. Now she's store manager at the McDonald's in Oakwood, and Bickham is still at Thompson Bridge. She sits in a beautiful two-story home and is proud of her progress.
"As time went on with promotions and hard work, I've been all right," she said. "I think people look down on McDonald's as a job, but I don't have any hardships and I don't have to worry. I can support my children."
Darrius, 14, is at Gainesville High School, with Brittney, 12, at Gainesville Middle School, and Ernest, 9, at Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy.
"We got so much help with clothes and school supplies and furniture. The kids needed nothing, and everyone around here made it so simple to transition," she said. "The emotional part was the hard part."
A helping hand
For months after the devastation, local churches and community organizations came together to help. Many New Orleans natives turned to First Baptist Church on Green Street, which housed almost 50 people for weeks and helped them to relocate to nearby apartments and homes.
"It was a really major community effort," said Andrea Cook, pastoral counselor at First Baptist. "I would get there early every morning, and the sidewalk would be full of supplies. People would bring things through the night, and we were overwhelmed."
The church used the donations to help people get settled and then sent the rest — four loads by tractor-trailer and three more loads by personal airplane — to help families still in New Orleans.
"I've never seen so much toilet paper and toothpaste in my life, and school supplies galore," Cook said with a laugh. "I fell in love with the people here. We held job fairs, health fairs and did what we could."
When a church group traveled back to New Orleans months later to help families prepare their homes for rebuilding, Cook saw the devastation firsthand.
"It was catastrophic, like a Third World country and completely leveled. You couldn't find where you were going, and there were still markings on the homes where people died," she said. "We had to cut up furniture and beds before we could move them because they were so waterlogged. You could see the water level at the ceiling of the homes and then lines where it receded before it was all gone."
Although Cook was amazed at the community support, she still wishes she could have done more.
"I don't think we saved them. Their belongings and health records were just gone," she said. "We made three meals a day for a long time, and doctors and dentists gave their services, but I still don't feel like it was near enough."
Staying in Gainesville
Coretta Clark was one of the evacuees who first came to First Baptist Church. She also decided to stay in Gainesville with her two sons.
"We've stayed here because everyone knows New Orleans has a high crime rate and possibilities are limited there," she said. "I wanted a change for me and my boys, and I wanted them to be able to go to better schools, more diverse schools with different nationalities and opportunities."
Clark and her sons, 11th-grader Robert Santee and eighth-grader Ahmad Santee, only thought they would be leaving for the weekend and packed a few bags to stay with a friend in Gainesville.
"I lost my home and car, and the only things we had were what we packed in a weekend bag," she said. "I had to start from the beginning."
Clark and 13 family members piled into cars to head to Georgia. Everyone has gone back except her. After a few months in Gainesville, she got a job at Kohl's and went back to school.
"I couldn't find my records for six months, but I finally got a master's in cosmetology," she said.
After more than two years at Kohl's, Clark now works at Elite Barber and Beauty in Buford. She dreams of one day owning her own salon.
"My mom is still there, and she hates that I'm here by myself, but I made the choice to put my sons' futures first," she said. "They miss being home and have a lot of cousins in New Orleans, but they like the change. I ask them all the time if they want to move home, but they like it here. I'm more comfortable in Gainesville."
Clark recently found photo negatives of her New Orleans home and neighborhood, and she plans to get them developed for memories.
"I've been saying it all week, ‘Sunday is going to mark five years, I can't believe it,'" she said. "I do look at the fact that I am really blessed. I think anybody who wants anything out of life can make it possible. For me to come to a city where I had nothing and nobody, I think it's possible. You create your own destiny."