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Lives interrupted, finding their way

Published August 26, 2006

Families who moved to Pinellas County after fleeing Hurricane Katrina are invited to a celebration of recovery this morning. The event, organized by Project HOPE, is designed to provide a bit of relaxation and fun as well as act as the beginning of a support group for Katrina victims. Project HOPE, short for Helping Our People in Emergencies, was formed in 2004 after Hurricane Charley devastated parts of Southwest Florida. About 2,000 Katrina evacuees still live in Pinellas County. About 8,000 live in the Tampa Bay area, according to Project HOPE. Dozens have committed to attending the event today. Here are some of their stories.

*   *   *

Mahogany Robinson, 28

Robinson, her husband and three children left New Orleans before Katrina struck. They remained in a hotel in Port Arthur, Texas, until the manager came to them and said, "You gotta get out of this hotel. ... You have to go because (Hurricane) Rita is coming here. This hotel is not safe."

That began the family's "tragedy," Robinson said. They first headed toward Houston, but turned back because of crowds. They headed for family in Alabama but ran out of gas in Mississippi. They lived in their van because they had little money.

"Five days we sat in Mississippi waiting for gas," Robinson said.

Finally, her husband siphoned gas from abandoned cars and they managed to make it to Alabama. Although their family there had been hit by Katrina and there was initially no water or electricity, they stayed until November when they were told they could return to New Orleans.

They drove home through devastation but were still unprepared for what they found.

"It smelled like dead people," Robinson said. "It burned your nose for awhile."

The odor permeated everything - car, clothing, the air. Two people in the house next door had died, and no one had come to collect their bodies, which were still lying on the ground. There also were bodies in the waters.

Robinson would not let her children - ages 11, 9 and 6 - outside to play.

The family spent the next few weeks foraging for food and water. At one point they lived on candy for a week. Then Wal-Mart opened. But it would serve only 100 people a day. Finally, a Winn-Dixie reopened, but there was no meat, vegetables or milk. There was stale bread, which, at the time, was a godsend. The cashiers used hand calculators to ring up orders. Those on food stamps had the worst problems because there were no scanners to swipe their cards.

"It was hard," she said. "It was really hard."

Military meals came to the rescue, tasting like gourmet fare. Robinson said she gained 15 pounds on them.

In January, the Federal Emergency Management Agency made the family leave because of health risks. They had vacationed in St. Petersburg and, as it had not been devastated by a storm, they came to the area.

But it's been difficult here, too. People do not understand that paperwork, such as birth certificates and kids' shot records, were lost in the storm. Because so much time had passed, Robinson said, she was no longer looked upon as a Katrina victim.

"I'm still finding my way," Robinson said. And while she likes the area, she's not sure she'll stay. But she does know she does not want to go back to New Orleans.


Rue Boggs, 41

Boggs, the mother of three children, was born in New Orleans and grew up on the coast of Mississippi. She moved to Pensacola after her divorce and earned her living restoring historic homes. All was good for a year, then Hurricane Ivan hit.

"The destruction there was so horrible," Boggs said. She decided to move back home and rented a condominium on Lake Ponchartrain.

Two months later, Katrina hit.

Boggs delayed leaving because weather officials "weren't saying it was coming to New Orleans." When she did leave, she headed to Baton Rouge, dodging trees that fell across the highway.

"It was horrible."

The family spent three days in its car until a church opened a shelter in Baton Rouge. A lot of people were doing that, she said.

Her eldest son, Chase, now 17, volunteered to go back to New Orleans to help out. He returned with tales of sharks, escaped from the aquarium, swimming along Canal Street, bodies floating, alligators foraging and people shooting when they'd try to help.

"It was chaos," Boggs said.

After the shelter closed, Boggs tried to come back to Florida, but her car broke down. She went to Mississippi to be with her mother but found "everything was wiped out."

She began trolling the Internet, looking for offers from people seeking to help Katrina victims. Some, she said, were scary. But one, from Anne Nyer in Tampa, stood out. Nyer wanted to help a single mother with children. Nyer sent her a cell phone and a gas card worth $100, so Boggs brought her family to Tampa. A month later, she moved them to St. Petersburg. She found a job as a project manager but her emotions got in the way.

"I couldn't focus," Boggs said. "I couldn't think."

She was advised to get a less stressful job, so she went to work as the manager for Weekday Gourmet in St. Petersburg even though she had never worked in food service. The job, she said, has been perfect, just like St. Petersburg.

The experience, she said, has changed her and her children.

"They appreciate everything," she said. "They look at the world differently. ... Every day there's something and they laugh. I love that. They're accepting people (as they are). I love that."

Does she plan to go back? No.

"We are home," Boggs said. "I love this city."


Janet Atkinson, 52

Atkinson, a New Orleans native, was living in Metairie when Katrina struck.

She and her husband went to Austin, Texas, when Ivan struck and the experience was so bad, Atkinson said she would never leave her home again.

"I would have stayed," she said. "We always got the tail end of everything."

But her husband woke her the Sunday that Katrina arrived and talked her into going to Baton Rouge.

Two weeks later they returned to find they had been lucky. Metairie had missed the worst of it. And the Atkinsons' house had survived with no water damage although it does need a new roof and fences. A tree landed on one corner and a utility shed blew away. They've been trying to sell the house since December but have had no takers.

Atkinson and her husband had planned to retire to this area in a couple of years, so they decided to move the timetable forward. But rather than move to Florida for a life of leisure, Atkinson is working as a nanny and babysitter and her husband is working in construction.

"I thought I had my life all planned," she said. "Now it's like everything all turned around. You cannot plan your life. You have to take it one day at a time."

Atkinson knows she is lucky compared with a lot of others, but it's still been hard.

"You look at everything so differently," she said. "At one point, I really did think I was going crazy. I had like panic attacks sometimes."

"You get this guilt feeling (that) we didn't have it as bad as other people," Atkinson said. "I feel guilty about complaining about what I didn't have because I had so much more than other people."


Linda Pendleton, 50

Pendleton has always been afraid of storms, so when it became clear that Katrina was not going to turn and hit Florida, she was willing to leave. But the Louisiana teacher also ran a limousine service and had a bride who refused to postpone her wedding, so she stayed.

After the wedding she left with her mother and aunt, taking refuge in a hotel in Brookhaven, Miss., where they own some land. Everything was okay until the Tuesday after the storm, when the electricity went out and stayed out.

"It was pretty surreal," Pendleton said. People would take turns sitting in their cars to listen to the radio to find out what was happening. A few days later, the hotel tossed out the evacuees so regulars, many of them power company employees, could return.

Pendleton and her family went to another hotel and when she found that the state had taken control of the New Orleans school system, she lost her job of 25 years. A speech pathologist, she managed to get another job in Brookhaven and rented an apartment.

"I had on shorts and a T-shirt from the Red Cross," Pendleton said. "She hired me on the spot."

She returned to New Orleans and, like many others, was struck by the smell.

"When you crossed the (county) line, the smell hit you. Then there were no cars, no people," Pendleton said. It was sad and almost dreamlike, she said.

"It was not man-made," Pendleton said. "It was not planned. You're just in awe of what you're seeing."

She found a refrigerator - not hers - on her roof.

"It's amazing how furniture floats," she said.

Pendleton came to Pinellas about a month ago after getting a job with the school system. Her fiance lives here and the school system allowed her to keep her seniority and retirement.

Had it not been for Katrina, however, her fiance would have moved to New Orleans to be with her.

"I'm a homebody," she said.

Pendleton said the storm and its aftermath taught her how strong she is.

"I haven't cried yet. Sometimes that scares me because I've been a teary deary all my life," Pendleton said.



[Last modified August 26, 2006, 06:26:03]

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