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Storm-tossed child

Katrina made 9-year-old Charles Evans an evacuee. The media made him a star.

September 21, 2005|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

BEFORE he stood beaming onstage at the Emmys, before his "Today" interview with Katie Couric, before people were calling him a "superstar," 9-year-old Charles Evans was just a kid from New Orleans' 9th Ward made precocious and wise by his hard-knock life.

Then, on Sept. 2, he appeared on NBC's "Nightly News" standing amid the post-Katrina garbage outside the New Orleans Convention Center, wearing a dirty SpongeBob SquarePants T-shirt, speaking directly to the camera, his face pressed close, a slight lisp evident, his assessment heartbreakingly articulate, delivered with adult poise, even a touch of showmanship.

"We just need some help out here," he said. "It is just so pitiful. Pitiful! And a shame.... We have over 3,000 people out here with no home, no shelter. What are they gonna do? What we gonna do? Take a look at all of this. Now what they gonna do if the hurricane come again?"

In that moment, Hurricane Katrina's littlest media star was born. His child's-eye view distilled the overwhelming nature of the event down to the fate of one soul. He became the innocent on whom viewers could project their grief. Soon Charles' plight was the topic of Internet chatter. Worried strangers bombarded the network with requests for details on Charles' whereabouts.

Naturally, Hollywood recognized this raw talent. He was a traumatized boy, yes, but such a natural on camera! It was a story balanced precariously on the precipice of exploitation, the kind that might thrill the nation for a few weeks, then disappear, leaving its subject to get on with his life with not much more than some disorienting memories.

Before you knew it, Charles was booked to appear at the Emmys. On Sunday night, he stood alongside child actor Tyler James Williams, wearing a new suit and an ear-to-ear grin. After the show, it seemed everybody knew Charles -- Whoopi Goldberg, Halle Berry and the whole cast of "Desperate Housewives." When they went to hug the little boy, Charles surprised them with a kiss.

By Monday, reporters were calling Charles' Los Angeles hotel room. They even bothered the transportation company that shuttled him and his family around town during his 24-hour stay.

His cousins Kevin and Valetta Morrow, who are hosting Charles at their home in Mesquite, Texas, were overwhelmed by all the attention at a time when their family was facing a major crisis. They began asking for compensation for interviews, money they needed to help care for Charles and the dozen or so other relatives they were housing along with their own six kids. There were more than 50 others scattered across the country, Kevin Morrow said, who needed help too. Meanwhile, they were scrambling to find a liaison, someone to help manage the frenzy of media requests.

"Being exposed on the Emmys," Kevin Morrow said, "that just opened up the doors for a whole other entity, a whole other level. [The family] started out as evacuees, and now the stage has turned with all the media attention. A lot of people are telling him he's talented. They want to adopt him. The whole table has turned."

Indeed, Charles himself is struggling to put this adventure in some kind of perspective. He vacillates between lost little boy and clever kid from the projects. On Monday morning, as he awaited his flight back to Texas, he answered a reporter's call by asking for a last name and media affiliation.

"Didn't you see me?" he asked. "I've been on TV all the time."

But when the questions came, he decided to converse in gibberish, insisting he didn't speak English, only Spanish, French and "Indian tribe."

"He's eating it up," Kevin Morrow said. "He never gets full."

Charles didn't know his parents. His 76-year-old great-grandmother, Ophelia Evans, raised him from infancy. Over time, Charles has grown to be her caretaker too, giving Ophelia insulin shots. After the hurricane, he foraged for food for her as well as for his extended family. When his great-aunt, Kevin Morrow's mother, died en route to Texas from the sidewalk they shared outside the New Orleans Convention Center, Charles wrote an obituary for the elderly woman.

"I will always remember her sweet and gentle face," he wrote.

Campbell Brown, co-anchor of NBC's "Weekend Today," discovered Charles on Sept. 2, after Charles had spent all week camped on an unshaded stretch of sidewalk. He was hungry, she said, but his main priority was finding food for Ophelia and the younger kids in his family. Brown choked back tears as she recalled that day.

"He walked me around and described very matter-of-factly the horrible things he had seen," she said in a phone interview. "The people screaming and crying for help ... pointing out people who had died and their bodies had been left there for days. The whole time, he somehow still had this wonderful innocence and openness about him. I don't know how he has maintained that, given what he's been through. It broke my heart."

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