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Hurricane Katrina

For a night, her home is theirs

By NICOLE JOHNSON
Published September 5, 2005



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HOUSTON - Roxanne Grice went to the Impact Houston Church of Christ on Friday to drop off a truckload of water, food and toothbrushes for the people of New Orleans. She left with a family of eight who had wandered into Houston.

By Saturday, Grice had helped them locate lost family members in Dallas and sent them on their way.

Since then, she has kept the doors of her tan three-bedroom home open to people in need of a soothing embrace, a hearty meal, a sound night's rest, even career counseling.

"I've never seen so much terror in people's eyes," said Grice, 46, an adult health care provider. "When you see the reality of people who have lost everything, you understand that you can't just throw money at it; you've got to get out of the helicopters and put your hands in it."

With nearly a quarter million Katrina evacuees already in Texas, and still more pouring in, Gov. Rick Perry on Sunday ordered emergency officials to airlift some people to other states that have offered to help.

The Astrodome is packed with more than 16,000 people, so Houston's charity has spilled out into private homes like Grice's as well as hotels and apartment complexes. Yellow neon signs flicker along Interstate 610 giving toll-free numbers for shelters in Dallas and San Antonio.

The help of Grice, and hundreds like her, is not officially sanctioned. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has cautioned Houstonians against opening their doors to strangers, noting it could be dangerous and hinder the progress of official agencies.

But those warnings have done little to stop strangers from opening their homes.

"We don't have an exact plan, but neither do they," said Adrian Allen, fellowship minister at Impact Houston. "At least we're moving toward some more permanent situations."

The church has a list of dozens offering their homes to evacuees.

There is no real science to what Impact and other organizations like it are doing in Houston. But there is the recognition that the real relief effort for evacuees extends well beyond their first hot shower.

"Where do you go from here? How do you get it together?" asked Rita Kirton, 38, a child care provider from New Orleans who is living in her niece's one-bedroom apartment with 16 family members. "These shoes on my feet are the only pair that I have."

When Grice heard Kirton had work experience caring for children, she figured she could use those same skills with adults. She put the mother of two in touch with a company that allows caregivers to live with their clients.

Grice, who owned a catering company in Ann Arbor, Mich., invites everyone she speaks with to dinner at the home she shares with her son, 13.

Around 9 p.m. Saturday, four carloads of people arrived to 30 pounds of steaming barbecued ribs, 50 hamburgers, a crab pot full of buttered corn and pecan pie at her home just southwest of the city.

In the comfort of Grice's home, Holly Matthews, 20, cried for the first time.

Not knowing the condition of her father, Ronald, or her elderly grandfather with Parkinson's disease finally sank in.

"They're hurting," Grice said. "But I can stand strong for them and that's the point."

By 11 p.m., Grice's dinner table was littered with empty plates and soda cans. The group expressed hopes and insecurities alike.

Danielle Harper, 28, explained how it will be when she sees her mother for the first time since their separation in New Orleans a week ago.

She is sure her mother will embrace her tightly, then slap her on the behind for not evacuating earlier.

Clementine Soniat, 52, called her home phone number, knowing that nobody would answer. She simply wanted to listen to her voice on the answering machine.

"It gives me a place," said Soniat, who was a respiratory therapist at Chalmette Medical Center in New Orleans.

"It's, like, you can forget who you are wearing someone else's shoes."

It was close to 2 a.m. Sunday before the people who took temporary shelter in Grice's home left amid laughter and tearful goodbyes to spend the night elsewhere.

"If I give them anything I want it to be the belief that there is a future for them," Grice said. "And they'll get there."

--Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Nicole Johnson can be reached at 727 771-4303 or njohnso@sptimes.com

[Last modified September 5, 2005, 01:16:12]


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