Children of the Storm

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Erica Alphonse escaped with her kids to Houston, where fate delivered them into the hands of a guardian angel named Rhonda Tavey. For three years the young evacuees lived with Rhonda while their mother struggled to get back on her feet in Louisiana. Rhonda fed them, clothed them, and grew to love them as her own—and they loved her. Then Erica came to take them home.
Children of the Storm
Photograph by O. Lovett

People in love do crazy things. That was certainly the case when Rhonda Tavey went on the lam across Texas last summer with five children aged eight and under, all of whom technically belonged to a 24-year-old black Katrina evacuee named Erica Alphonse. Rhonda, who is white, was 44, a single mother driving a Chrysler minivan with her 18-year-old daughter, Lauren, riding shotgun. “Mom,” Lauren begged as they ping-ponged from north Houston to Las Colinas to Port Aransas, “you have to tell me what’s going on!” But Rhonda wouldn’t. A stocky woman with melancholy eyes and not a shred of vanity, she was a churchgoing Lutheran and a kids’ volleyball coach, someone with an unchallenged reputation for being an “angel” with “a heart of gold.” Yet here she was, in August 2008, charged with kidnapping, the target of a statewide Amber Alert.

The children—three girls and two boys—sat in the backseat. The girls chattered while watching DVD players on their laps. Their braids were fastened with brightly colored balls that matched their clothes and bobbed when they talked. These were strikingly beautiful children, with burnished skin in shades from café au lait to mahogany, beckoning smiles, dancing eyes, and a knowingness that sometimes caused Rhonda to stop and stare. “My Katrina kids,” she’d proclaim proudly to gawking strangers.

When are we going to get where we’re going?” eight-year-old Rod’Keesa demanded. She’d been five when she began living with Rhonda; she was then a tiny, spindly child who knew how to make breakfast for her little sisters and change her brothers’ diapers but didn’t know her letters. “I need to go to the bathroom,” Alaysa, who was six, called out. Seeing her happily cuddle the baby doll she’d gotten for her birthday, it was hard to recall how shy she’d been when she had first met Rhonda. “When are we going to eat again?” asked Yasmine, or Ya-Ya, who was four and had turned to a coloring book. “I want to stop at McDonald’s.” The twin boys, Erin and Eric, were asleep, safely strapped in their car seats. Like Yasmine, the boys had spent more of their short lives with Rhonda than with the woman who had given them birth. Unhurried, unworried, the children sang along every time Ra-Ra—that’s what they called Rhonda—stopped the car, took out a map, and began their new song: “ Eeeny, meeny, miney, moe, tell me where you want to go!”

Sometimes Rhonda’s cell phone rang, and she would have to pull over and trot a few steps away from the car to answer, or she would step out of a hotel room to take a call when they’d stopped for the night. Naturally, she didn’t want to upset the kids. Sometimes the caller was a relative or a friend begging her to turn herself in; sometimes the call was from the Harris County constable’s office or the district attorney’s office, whose representatives suggested, in firmer tones, that she do the same thing. Instead, Rhonda kept going. She was, she explained, afraid for the safety of her kids. She wouldn’t give them back to Erica, not with what she knew.

Back in Houston, Erica Alphonse was in a panic. It was surreal, she told

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