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Survivors try to reconnect

Thousands of people are using hotlines, the Internet and bulletin boards to find their loved ones.

By CARRIE JOHNSON
Published September 5, 2005


BATON ROUGE, La. - Kimberly Evans' frantic search begins each dawn.

First she calls the hospitals. Then the missing persons hotlines. Then she quizzes volunteers at the Baton Rouge shelter where she is staying.

But no one has seen her 10-year-old daughter, Jakera.

"I don't know what to do," said Evans, 28, tears streaming down her cheeks. "She's just a little girl and I know she's missing her mama but I don't know how to get to her. I don't even know if she's alive."

From Houston to Gulfport, Miss., thousands of people like Evans are frantically searching for loved ones missing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Some post messages on Web sites, such as www.nola.com or www.msnbc.com Others leave notes tacked to bulletin boards at shelters. The Red Cross, meanwhile, has established missing persons phone lines and is entering information into a database.

For some, there are tearful reunions. But for most, the search continues.

In Baton Rouge, a mother's search

Evans was separated from Jakera when police evacuated their downtown New Orleans apartment complex by boat Tuesday night.

An aunt plans to take them to Dallas, but Evans won't leave without Jakera.

"I can't stand to watch the news anymore," Evans said. "They say there are 5,000 dead people in New Orleans and I don't want my daughter to be one of them. Please, God, don't let my daughter be one of them."

Hundreds of people are searching for missing loved ones at the River Center shelter.

"There's just so many people and they're spread out everywhere," said Stephanie Welch, 20, a Red Cross volunteer. "I don't think anyone realizes quite how many people we're talking about."

In Houston: "All I want to do is hug her'

Hundreds of messages blanket the wall at the entrance to the living quarters in the Astrodome.

Some are ripped up cardboard boxes with names and phone numbers scribbled in big red letters. Fluorescent pink and green poster boards with simple black pen. Yellow Post-it Notes with purple magic marker litter the wall.

Some messages are clear. Others not so.

Henry Smith Jr., six feet tall, 190 pounds. The exact day and time he was separated from his wife is listed.

Others are meant for those who have a shared language: "Big Eye we are at the bus outside...Lee Lee."

The messages began appearing Thursday, soon after thousands of evacuees from New Orleans poured in.

The haphazard wall of messages was born of necessity. "This place is so huge and there are more people coming all the time," said Jeffrey Jones, 26, a volunteer at the Astrodome. "People just started posting stuff up there because there was nothing else."

Gilda Willis hasn't seen her daughter, Penny, 20, in a week. She has been told the young woman is at the Astrodome, but has yet to find her among the thousands of refugees there.

"I miss her I feel bad because I've found everyone expect her," said Willis, 45, of New Orleans. "All I want to do is hug her."

Jones searches each Internet database but cannot find a listing for Penny Willis.

"This doesn't mean she's not safe," he tells Willis. "It just means she hasn't been registered."

In four hours, Jones searches for hundreds of names; he makes two matches.

"You don't want to tell them no, they're not in here" Jones said. "You don't want to deplete their hope like that."

Amid the desperation are spontaneous reunions.

Just below the archway of the wall holding the hundreds of messages, a tearful Jocelyn Brumfield, 35, hugs her mother, Beatrice. The 60-year-old uses a wheel chair and had been at a shelter in LaPorte for days before arriving at the Astrodome. The family plans to drive to Colleen, Texas, where they plan to start over.

"It's been seven days since I saw her," Brumfield said. "It's just a relief that now we can move on."

In Biloxi, a desperate search ends

Angela Benson got in a truck early Monday and headed 50 miles east to Biloxi, consumed with worry about her former sister-in-law, Yong Suk Miller, a casino worker who had not been heard from since the hurricane.

Benson flagged down a police officer who pointed her to the police department, where Benson met with federal officials and filled out an extensive missing persons report.

"She lives two blocks from the water," Benson said after emerging into the sweltering sun.

She had an address and little hope.

The bleak scene was repeated throughout the day Monday as residents who fled the area returned for loved ones. In Harrison County, officials established three "family assistance centers" including the one here.

About 60 reports had been filed in the past few days, though the count is certain to steadily increase as word spreads.

"Communication is really difficult," said Cotton Howell, regional commander of the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team. He said assistance centers will become more mobile in coming days to reach people unable to travel.

At the Coroner's Office in downtown Gulfport, large bulletin boards were set up Monday for people to leave pictures or notes about the missing. Two dozen people showed up at Riemann Funeral Home, around the corner, where bodies of the dead are being brought.

"They all ask the inevitable questions," said Jason Green, assistant manager of the funeral home. "Where are my relatives? Will they be found? They're very distraught."

Riding along Pass Road in Biloxi, Benson was seeking her own answers.

She pulled her truck into Miller's apartment complex. Debris was scattered about the parking lot and wary apartment dwellers looked down from a second-story balcony. A white station wagon pulled out, then made an abrupt halt.

It was Miller.

"I've been looking for you everywhere. Oh my God, I'm so glad to see you!" Benson said, throwing her arms around Miller, 40.

"I'm okay," Miller sobbed. She rode out the storm in her apartment. "God was watching out for me."

[Last modified September 5, 2005, 20:08:30]


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