Sandra Feist arrived in Minneapolis with one change of clothes, a stack of law books and plans to stick around only long enough to regroup in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
But over the decade that followed, as New Orleans worked to recover, Feist graduated from law school, started a family and launched her own law firm in the Twin Cities.
Katrina, which wiped out entire neighborhoods and killed nearly 2,000 people, sent hundreds fleeing all the way north to Minnesota. Some came to stay with family members; others, like Brittany Singleton’s family of eight, moved in with strangers compelled to help by dramatic footage of the destruction.
Many of those refugees eventually returned home. Others, like Feist, stuck around and pieced together new lives, part of a sprawling diaspora created by Katrina.
“By the time New Orleans reopened, I was already pretty attached to Minnesota,” Feist said.
Out of some 280,000 Louisiana residents who resettled in 2005, about 2,000 moved to Minnesota, according to the census figures. More than 960 applications for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance by Katrina victims were filed from Minnesota roughly a month after the Labor Day weekend disaster.
It’s hard to estimate how many of those folks have stayed, says state demographer Susan Brower. A 2014 study out of the University of Michigan found that more than half of those who fled the Gulf area following Katrina had returned a year later.
Although Minnesota drew only a small fraction of Katrina refugees, the state and its residents tried to extend a welcome. Minnesota set up a processing center in St. Paul to connect new arrivals with services and provide basic necessities.
The Minnesota State Bar Association spearheaded an effort to offer pro bono legal services out of that center. Jeremy Lane, who led the nonprofit Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid at the time, says local lawyers helped with filling out applications for FEMA assistance, bankruptcy and unemployment benefits, and intervened when insurance companies appeared to stall.
According to the bar association, more than 100 evacuees in Minnesota got free assistance by the end of September 2005 — a response Lane says “still makes me proud to be a Minnesotan when I think back on it 10 years later.”
Campuses such as Minnesota State University, Mankato, offered an expedited enrollment process to would-be students from the Gulf area. Staff at that school took students and other evacuees to a hockey game that September to give them a taste of a favorite Minnesota pastime.
For Feist, a second-year law student working as a paralegal, the memories of fleeing New Orleans for Minnesota are still vivid 10 years later. The Friday before Katrina made landfall, she cheerily wished her co-workers a good weekend and strolled out of the office.
The next morning, she and two friends joined the exodus from New Orleans. They drove to Hot Springs, Ark., to wait out the storm. That Sunday, they watched on the news as Katrina leveled their city. Information trickled in.
“For a few days, I wasn’t sure if everything I owned was gone,” said Feist.
But the levee closest to her rented home held, and her most precious belongings — including her grandmother’s 1940s autograph book — were saved.
The following week, Feist continued on to Minneapolis, where the Green Bay native’s mom and siblings had settled some years earlier. She didn’t plan to stick around, but soon after, she learned of a partnership by Twin Cities law schools to offer transfers to Gulf area students.
On her first day at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, she met her future husband. The couple and their two children now live in New Brighton. And Feist has her own small firm downtown, specializing in immigration law.
‘Time for a change’
The Singleton family, whose story drew national media to Minnesota, lost their home in the floodwaters. Its roof was ripped off, and the waterlogged furniture could be seen from the outside.
“It could have been a dollhouse,” recalled Brittany Singleton, now 26 and living in north Minneapolis with her grandmother.
Singleton, the oldest of six children, moved in with a couple in Montevideo who opened their home to her large family after the storm. The Singletons stayed a few months until a church helped them find subsidized housing in Minneapolis. Then, although she never meant to, Singleton put down roots here.
She said she quickly learned that the Twin Cities area offered many opportunities for employment and quality education, as well as resources for impoverished families. Minnesota was starkly different from the environment she’d called home down South, but she was willing to make the change if her young daughter could take advantage of those amenities.
“It feels good, because a lot of the things I went through, I don’t want my child to,” she said.
Before the storm, Singleton recalled, her family felt little urgency to evacuate. Annual New Orleans hurricane advisories had been an endless string of false alarms, and they had watched neighbors leave town, then return home, wishing they hadn’t left.
So when Katrina arrived, Singleton and her siblings simply headed for higher ground at an aunt’s house. But levees broke near their home and forced the family to wade to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which was housing survivors.
They spent five days there with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Few, if any, childhood photos remain.
Looking back, Singleton describes the experience as a “a wake-up call that it was time for change.” She said she’s matured after starting over in Minnesota. She’s learned to drive and found work. Her grandmother got sober, and they’ve built a new life for themselves.
“This is luxury to us,” she said, pointing to the modest two-story home on Minneapolis’ North Side. “I came a long way.”