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Billy Allen

Billy Allen, a landscaper, construction worker and "jack of all trades," likes to go outside the Armory walls and greet the locals and reporters who show up hoping to talk to some of the newly arrived evacuees from New Orleans.

Allen doesn't know anyone at this temporary shelter, but that doesn't seem to bother him. He calls himself the "hootnana" (sounds like "HOOT-in-na-nee") and feeds off of other people's smiles and laughter.

The children inside the Armory love him, he said, "because I'm the 'hootnana!' "

"I showed them a dance they ain't never seen before. They just got a kick out of it."

Allen's broad smile and incessant laughter seem almost out of place at the Armory, where a sense of despair and grief rightfully still lingers.

"I'm the main person that makes people happy," he said. "The more you make people happy, the more you feel good."

He wears a green ribbon around his wrist -- to indicate his good health, he said -- and an ID badge around his neck so he can enter the building.

For all his levity, Allen keeps a copy of the New Testament with him.

The 49-year-old said he thanked God for one thing: "I may have lost everything in New Orleans, but I didn't lose my life."

Though he said his house was flooded out and everything he owned was swept away in putrid waters, "God made it possible for me to leave and start a new life."

While he knows his 27-year-old daughter is safe in Baton Rouge, La., he has lost touch with his sister. "But I know she's safe," he said, insisting "God will make a way for us to meet again."

He had stayed too long in New Orleans because he initially thought Katrina would miss the city.

In the darkest of moments before his Sept. 4 evacuation, as he waded for two days in neck-deep waters and waited near his flooded house for rescuers to arrive, Allen watched as bloated bodies drifted by. "It wasn't nice to see."

When he caught sight of the rescue helicopters after being in the water for so long, "I couldn't wait to get in that helicopter!"

Billy Allen recalls how he was rescued.
(31 seconds; Real Media file)

This man who talks to God nightly found something more to look forward to as he was being lifted from his washed-out home: It would be his first time leaving New Orleans.

There would be other firsts: He would see Washington and feel emboldened to take the Metro and visit the Capitol.

"I don't like to be sad. It don't make no sense to be sad. It don't make so sense to cry."

Allen has been able to use his $2,000 debit card to buy himself a tote bag and a pair of shoes. "Right now, I'll see if I can settle down, get myself together, start a new life and get me a nice companion."

Still, he misses his home.

"It don't have to be in New Orleans, but you see, I was born and raised in New Orleans, and sometimes, you get homesick."

"But if I find a woman, hell with New Orleans!"


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Photos and text by April Chan
Published  Sept. 16, 2005

Banner graphic by April Chan, incorporating photo from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Newsline Web content edited by Chris Harvey; Capital News Service stories edited by Adrianne Flynn and Tony Barbieri.  

Copyright 2005 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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