Outspoken child at center of Katrina settles into new life

Bush administration's strongest critic starts again with his great-grand mother in Texas

Outspoken child at center of Katrina settles into new life

Ophelia Evans says her 9-year-old great-grandson did the right thing when he chastised federal officials on national television as people died at the New Orleans Convention Center.

"The people didn't have food," said Evans, who with young Charles was among the thousands suffering at the center after Hurricane Katrina.

Evans, who had reared the boy since he was 2 days old, said she wasn't surprised to see him go on TV, because he'd always spoken his mind.

But she was floored by the media frenzy that followed, turning the bright-eyed boy into a celebrity overnight, including a guest appearance at the Emmys and a mention in Vanity Fair magazine.

Charles said he, too, had no idea his comments would create such a stir. He said he felt compelled to talk to NBC reporter Campbell Brown because no one seemed to be grasping the magnitude of the disaster.

"I felt that it was up to me," said the boy, who resettled in Mesquite, Texas, with Evans and other relatives.

In the days that followed his interviews with Brown, there were whirlwind trips to New York and Los Angeles, where Charles met Whoopi Goldberg, the Black Eyed Peas and Tyler James Williams, child star of the show "Everybody Hates Chris." Brown said she received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls from celebrities and others wanting to help Charles and his family.

Now, with the attention dying down, Charles is settling into his new life.

His mother, who has resettled in Houston, saved his picture from Vanity Fair.

An articulate child with a dazzling smile, he said he doesn't miss the violence of New Orleans' Ninth Ward, the crime-ridden neighborhood he grew up in that was hit hardest by Katrina's floodwaters.

He does miss the street parties and neighborhood seafood boils and the happy-go-lucky atmosphere for which the Crescent City is known.

"Like they call New York the town that never sleeps, they call New Orleans the party city," Charles said between bites of pizza at Golden Corral, his favorite restaurant.

Charles said his friends in Mesquite are much nicer than the ones he had in New Orleans, and he loves his fourth-grade teacher at Tosch Elementary School.

His main complaint is that Mesquite has no public transit. Charles said it's particularly rough on Saturdays; in New Orleans, he'd take a bus to the movies or the skating rink.

It also surprises him that he rarely sees anyone walking to the grocery store. "We are the only ones on our street that walk," he said.

Meeting the reporter

Brown, the NBC reporter, said that when she met Charles outside the New Orleans Convention Center, he was taking care of his 77-year-old great-grandmother and several other family members camping on a sidewalk. The boy approached her cameraman, and Brown was impressed by his candor.

"He walked me through some of the most horrible conditions I've ever seen," Brown said in an interview from New York. She said Charles seemed to have an understanding of the disaster "that was well beyond his years."

In one of his interviews with Brown, Charles said federal officials "say what they're going to do, but they're not doing anything for us.

"What do I need? We need clothing, water and food."

The public response was overwhelming, Brown said. "He connected with people in a way you rarely see."

The reporter said she has felt pangs of guilt for having thrust the little boy into the spotlight and worries about what will happen when his novelty fades.

"I think he's a very unusual child," said Brown, who said she hopes and prays that Charles' family is able to give him a better future than he faced in New Orleans.

An aspiring fashion designer, he said he wants to live in New York or Los Angeles because he says he knows that's where the action is.

When he's not playing Calvin Klein, he likes going to the movies and riding his bike like any other kid. One of his favorite television shows is "SpongeBob SquarePants."

Riding out the storm

Charles and his great-grandmother, who was born in a house near the 17th Street Canal, where one of the levees broke, rode out Katrina inside her crumbling house on Piety Street. As the water began rising, Charles went to a shelter with family members, but Evans stayed behind.

She was on her way to higher ground with friends later when she saw a figure swimming in chest-deep water toward her.

"We seen this little boy coming," Evans said with a laugh, "but we didn't know it was Charles."

Worried about her safety, the boy had separated from other family members to join her.

Their journey and transition to Texas weren't smooth. The family was initially in San Antonio with several other relatives but moved to Mesquite after one of Evans' sisters became ill. She later died, and a relative said squabbles over money strained relations among family members.

Evans is a small woman with sparkling brown eyes. A widow, she's cared for 32 children - 10 of her own and 22 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She taught them all how to take care of themselves.

Charles calls her "grandma" even though he knows she is his great-grandmother. She taught him how to ride buses, shop for groceries and cook smothered potatoes. He would sometimes buy her blouses and other things.

"We've always been like this since I had him," Evans said.

She thinks Charles has handled the media attention well.

"He's a normal little child," she said, "nothing special."

It's hard to tell whether Charles is still star-struck, but he's a self-assured boy who knows he's lived through rough times. He likes using big words such as "obnoxious" and "petrified" and told a reporter to describe him as "outspoken."

"I said that 'cause I know I am."

Updated : 2021-04-12 22:05 GMT+08:00