Evacuees and rescuers look for places to stay, ways to help

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

RICHLAND, Miss. (CNS) -- Just before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, 86-year-old Howard Adams, a lifelong resident of New Orleans, left his home with a handful of insurance papers.

He had seen storms and threats of storms before in Louisiana but never left. This time, he took the warnings more seriously, although he thought he would soon be back in the old neighborhood, four blocks from his parish, St. Raphael's, and 12 blocks from Lake Pontchartrain.

He now knows differently.

He bought some clothes and made friends at the Days Inn motel in Richland where he and his son had been staying for more than a week. He did not want to continue paying the daily charge for his room, but he also did not know where to go and had no idea what he will do in the upcoming months.

Adams talked with Catholic News Service in the motel lobby Sept. 7 while a local television newscast reported on the hurricane's impact, and motel guests, looking almost at home in their temporary residence, shared bits of news they heard about the chances of returning to where they really belonged. A steady stream of people came to the front desk looking for rooms until the manager wrote a "No vacancy" sign in black marker and taped it to the front door.

Adams, who was spending his days hanging out in the motel just off the highway, noted the little blessings, like the coffee available in the motel lobby. But he also spoke wistfully of the city he left behind and the friends and neighbors he has not been able to reach.

The New Orleans resident, who spoke proudly of being in the Army during World War II, said he did not want to think about everything that just happened and what remained unknown in the wake of the hurricane, but he also could not help thinking about it.

"Sometimes it gets the best of me," he said.

Other motel residents shared the same sentiment. Don Showalter, who had been at the motel for at least six days, drove back to his home town of Long Beach Sept. 7 only to find "nothing left but slabs of concrete."

He and his wife hope to be part of the Mississippi town's rebuilding, even though they said they would not be able to do physical work because of their age and health problems. Showalter said he could help with the management end of the effort and his wife chimed in that she could at least type if that was needed.

The sense of pitching in was prevalent not just among residents who wanted to return to their homes, but also among the crews of rescuers and contractors who daily were descending upon the Gulf Coast region vying for the limited number of available hotel rooms or sharing spaces in area shelters.

Angel Torres, a firefighter with Engine Company 48 in the Bronx, in New York City, joined a team of 20 other New York firefighters to help with the relief effort.

"For me it's a personal thing," he told CNS at Jackson International Airport. Torres, who was using his vacation time to help out for 21 days, said he wanted to give back for the support he felt from people across the country after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"It's what we have to do," he said about helping. "I know what it feels like to have loss, and I want to help get the city back."

When Torres arrived in Jackson Sept. 7, he had no idea what he would be doing, but also said it didn't matter because he just wanted to help, even if that meant searching for bodies.

Ways to help in a crisis of such magnitude seemed almost unlimited.

For one motel guest in Richland, it was as simple as cheering up children who lost everything when their home was destroyed.

"I made it Christmas for them," said a man after he placed a few stuffed animals and toy trucks outside the door where one family was staying.

Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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