Hurricane evacuees eager to return home -- or not

By Fabvienen Taylor
Catholic News Service

NATCHEZ, Miss. (CNS) -- Full of praise for the care they received in the shelter at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Natchez, Ruby Bullock and her husband, Ernice Sullivan, nonetheless cannot wait to go home again.

"We hope they let us stay here until we can go home again," said Bullock. "It's clean, we get three meals a day, there's a washer and dryer and showers are available. We are hoping to go home in the next month, maybe before then if we can."

Home is Algiers, La., which the couple fled Aug. 28, the day before Hurricane Katrina blasted the Gulf Coast and caused the flooding of 80 percent of New Orleans.

Algiers, a suburb of New Orleans that sits on the west bank of the Mississippi River overlooking the French Quarter, experienced some flooding. Some residents were allowed to return beginning Sept. 19, but by Sept. 22 police and city officials told people in the New Orleans area, including the recently returned Katrina victims, to leave because of the potential flooding that could follow Hurricane Rita, headed for landfall Sept. 24.

Since arriving in Natchez, the couple had talked to some other Louisiana evacuees who had been allowed back for a few hours to assess their homes or apartments in Jefferson Parish, a civil entity.

Gilberto Garcia, 64, who fled the hurricane with only the clothes on his back, had been back to look at his apartment in Metairie, another suburb of New Orleans.

"The roof was off the building," said the Cuban native who had lived in Louisiana for 25 years. "It was terrible. I could not go in. Not one single person was there. I plan never to go back to New Orleans. Never."

Garcia, a carpenter and truck driver out of work for the last seven months, told the Mississippi Catholic, the Jackson Diocese's newspaper, that he planned to head north to Wisconsin. A flier on a bulletin board in the Assumption shelter alerted him to a Wisconsin Lutheran faith community seeking 100 evacuees to help resettle. Garcia sees it as an opportunity.

"I don't know anyone there," said Garcia, a former Catholic who is now Pentecostal. "I've never been north before. It's too cold. But I've got faith. God pushed me out of New Orleans to give me my last chance. This is my moment."

An estimated 12,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees fled to Natchez and just across the Mississippi River Bridge to Vidalia, La. In Natchez, eight shelters, all except one in churches, opened to take in the evacuees.

"People started coming to Natchez days before the storm," said Father David O'Connor, pastor of Assumption Catholic Church and St. Mary Basilica.

"I knew we needed to open a shelter because of the number of people coming in and moving in with families," he said.

Father O'Connor belongs to the Adams County-Natchez Ministerial Alliance, which held emergency meetings about meeting the needs of evacuees.

In addition to opening and manning the shelter at Assumption on the day the storm hit, volunteers from the Catholic parishes worked in distributing food, clothing and other supplies at the other shelters.

Natchez Catholic Charities and the local United Way opened a clothes distribution center in the basement of St. Mary Basilica. There volunteers sorted and filled more than 800 boxes with clothes which were sent to a distribution center opened by the churches.

"The city of Natchez had very little damage from the storm," said Father O'Connor. "The churches in this town, I'm sure in every town, have been fantastic."

On the Sunday before the storm he had sign-up sheets for volunteers distributed in both parishes. Chris Foley, who attends Mass at Assumption, signed up.

"Everybody is doing so many things," said Foley, as she placed clothes on the beds in the shelter.

"They are bringing food, dropping off clothes. I've gotten to know the people here personally," she said. "I've adopted them. I know what they need. I know who's short, who's tall, who needs shoes and what size."

Another volunteer, Vivian Webb, 72, said she has bonded with the people in the shelter.

"They are just wonderful," she said. "They help out. There have been no problems."

Webb had worked every day in the shelter since it opened, only taking off a couple days after Father O'Connor insisted.

"We had as many as 32 people here," she said. "Now there are about 14."

Webb, a lifelong member of Assumption Parish, said she had never been through anything like Hurricane Katrina. "I've never had to live in a shelter like this. But I realize it could have been me having to live here," she said.

Bullock, who attends New Home Baptist Church back home, said Hurricane Katrina may have shaken some people's faith for a while, but not hers. "After all of this, I know we only have Jesus Christ to depend on."

Her husband agreed. "See, God directed us to this good place," said Sullivan.

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

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