10 Years Later, Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Lane Community Is Still Being a Blessing to Hurricane Katrina Refugees

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Houston is a city of sprawl. With no perceptible center of gravity — no true downtown, no good public-transit system, no real sidewalks in most neighborhoods — the city seems to move perpetually outwards, enveloping prairie and bayou, unfurling strip mall by strip mall, subdivision by subdivision, farther and farther onto land dry enough to be mistaken for desert. At the edge of this sprawl is Angel Lane, a block of 65 single-story bite-sized houses coated in different shades of pastel paint, devised and partially financed by Oprah Winfrey for survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

Just shy of ten years ago, in the days after the storm, Oprah and her television crew descended on New Orleans, broadcasting stories of heroism and heartbreak to her 40-million-plus viewers. In one particularly memorable scene, Oprah’s favorite designer, Nate Berkus, cried as he promised to drive a man’s dog to safety in a limousine. A few months later, Oprah flew to Houston, where tens of thousands of Katrina evacuees were still sleeping in hotels, shelters, and the living rooms and spare bedrooms of relatives and friends, to announce she would spend $10 million of her own money, plus $5 million donated by fans of The Oprah Winfrey Show, to build Angel Lane with the help of Habitat for Humanity. Oprah’s charity was generous, but selective: Angel Lane applicants had to show proof they were working, be able to donate 300 hours of “sweat equity” toward building their own houses, and afford about $400 a month in mortgage payments for their new three- and four-bedroom homes. Twenty years from their move-in dates, Angel Lane residents will own their houses outright.

Angel Lane wasn’t the only celebrity-driven relief effort: Julia Roberts and George Clooney helped bring down food and clothing. Brad Pitt funded the construction of dozens of houses in the Lower Ninth Ward. A Canadian tire-manufacturing billionaire created a community of trailer homes for Katrina evacuees in rural Louisiana and named it after his tire company — “Magnaville.” But Angel Lane was perhaps the most high-profile of the celebrity-driven projects. It didn’t just attract media, it was the media. Oprah not only created a community, but a stream of content. She devoted several episodes of her TV show and articles in O, the Oprah Magazine to documenting the lives of Angel Laners. In each segment, its residents would profess to the cameras how grateful they were to have finally been given the opportunity to own a house.

Even now, with the cameras gone and the block’s playground — built with the help of Matthew McConaughey and the baseball player Roger Clemens — shut down after the equipment began dangerously deteriorating, the most common sentiment you’ll find on Angel Lane is gratitude. “When Katrina came that was a blessing for me,” Lynell McFarland, a 54-year-old nursing assistant and mother of two, told me from the front porch of her house on Angel Lane. “Now I’m a homeowner.” Lynell had almost drowned in Katrina’s waters. But three days after the storm, a small boat from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries showed up at the house where she was staying, just a few blocks from her own in the city’s Eighth Ward. The boat’s captain brought Lynell and a few others to I-10, an elevated freeway that cuts across New Orleans. Eventually, Lynell was taken by police minibus with a few other evacuees from New Orleans to a parking lot of a McDonald’s in Gonzales, a tiny town in a rural section of Louisiana, where she was told to find her way somewhere else.

After a few-day stint with extended family near Lake Charles, Louisiana, she was dropped off in Houston, where her brother was staying. Lynell thought she’d spend a few nights mentally recovering, then figure out how to get her 13-year-old daughter from her sister’s place in Fort Worth. But Lynell had no car and no job. She was emotionally exhausted. Getting her daughter down to Houston ended up taking four months.

A few weeks after arriving in Houston, Lynell visited a car-insurance agent to sort out some paperwork. The agent told her about a program meant to help get Katrina survivors into more permanent housing in Houston. All Lynell had to do, he said, was go down to a church on Saint Agnes Street on a Saturday morning. The process from there was quick but strangely opaque: Within a week Lynell had completed two brief interviews with administrators from Habitat for Humanity and written a required letter about her life before Katrina. Just days after the second interview she was told she’d made it to the final round, though she still wasn’t sure what was being offered or who was offering it. Lynell was just told to show up at Madison High School the next weekend to “meet her sponsor.”

That Sunday, Lynell found herself in the high school’s auditorium surrounded by 100 strangers. Nearly all, like Lynell, were African-American. Nearly all were also from New Orleans and the surrounding suburbs. Lynell and the others tried to guess who the sponsor might be while they waited. Then, at about 5 p.m., the red curtains on the stage parted at their center and out stepped Oprah.

“Look around you at all the people here,” she said to the crowd. “You might have come in as strangers, but you’ll all become neighbors.”

Nearly everyone in the auditorium burst into tears and screams, in classic Oprah-induced pandemonium. But Lynell was so dazed from the last three months of trauma, that at first she couldn’t even recognize the sponsor.

“Who is that?” she asked her future neighbor sitting next to her.

“Girl,” the woman replied. “That’s Oprah.”

Oprah ushered the crowd onto tour buses parked outside. Lynell was still dazed as they drove down through a series of subdivisions and to a road with empty lots. Even as Oprah began taking the kids in the group by their hands and pointing to different lots, saying, “This will be your bedroom. And this will be your sister’s bedroom. And this will be your living room,” Lynell still couldn’t register what was happening.

“It didn’t really hit me until I was driving back to my apartment,” Lynell told me. “Then I started crying, and I realized what had happened.”

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SOURCE: New York Post

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